Volunteer summer in the Mountains of the Balkans





Long term volunteering

Written by GAIA Kosovo from Kosovo

February 2019

If you are from the Balkans you would not be able to imagine the landscape and natural heritage of the region without coming to think of Velebit, Sharr, Pirin or Frushka gora mountains. All of them are special places which provide home for rare animal and plant species. Proclaimed as protected areas this summer they welcomed more than 60 volunteers within the Mountains spirit – Strategic EVS for Nature Conservation project. The volunteers participated in 5 short-term group volunteering activities with duration of between 2 weeks and 2 months in Serbia, Bulgaria, Kosovo and Croatia from June to September, trying to contribute to organisations’ and local communities efforts to preserve biodiversity, to raise awareness and establish cooperation with the responsible institutions.

The Mountain spirit project is coordinated by Velebit Association Kuterevo, Croatia. VUK together with partners GAIA Kosovo, Vlahi Nature School Bulgaria, Bird Protection and Study Society of Serbia and Bear Sanctuary Prishtina organized the volunteering activities. Each one engaged the volunteers differently, however all of them centered on learning experience about nature conservation, protected areas and endangered species with a special focus on bears.

The first volunteering activity was hosted by Vlahi Nature School in Pirin mountain. 10 volunteers from 9 countries helped to restore the fence of the School destroyed by a village fire in 2017, but in the same time learned about biology, ecology and conservation programs of large carnivores and vultures; challenges facing the management of Pirin National Park (investment projects, forest fires, etc.) and the common threat of river destruction in the Balkans by small hydro-power plants. They participated in an action of stocking the Vlahi river with small Balkan trout fish and got to learn about local cultures and traditions by visiting nearby historical towns and local wine producers.

Bird Protection and Study Society of Serbia hosted in the beginning of July for the first time a group of EVS volunteers. Besides involving international volunteers in direct nature conservation activities of preserving habitats for the Imperial Eagle (Aquila heliaca), the volunteer group supported the work of the BPSSS for establishing community engagement in the village of Mala Remeta and involving local people in some of the activities. The volunteers’ main work was clearing the shrubs, thus contributed to conserving the natural pastures of Frushka gora, which due to loss of traditional farming practices are threatened of disappearing. They also organised and participated in a clean-up action of the local river, which was welcomed by the community and provoked some questions regarding our own responsibility.

The volunteers in Sharr National Park dedicated a month from July 21st until August 19th to exploring the slopes of Brezovica ski resort, collecting information from local people and establishing the first steps for future volunteer nature conservation activities. The volunteers concentrated on the valley of Durlov potok, a very special stream which is threatened by diverse investment projects – expansion of the ski resort, hydro power plant (about hydrology of Sharr, about hydro power plnats in the Balkans). The volunteers also presented European volunteering, their countries and what they have learned about Sharr during BREfest, a small annual nature gathering organised by GAIA in Sharr mountain.

From 20th of July till 16th of September 12 volunteers lived and worked in Kuterevo Bear Refuge, in Velebit mountain. This was the longest short-term volunteering activity within Mountain Spirit, which gave the volunteers the opportunity to get seriously involved with the local community of Kuterevo. The volunteers worked on various tasks, from making a summary of the last 40 years of Velebit Association Kuterevo and creating brochure to helping out the locals with seasonal work (cutting grass, picking plums, etc.). Accommodated close to the forest, the volunteers created also a spiritual area for relaxation and reflection. During their EVS, they learnt a lot about wilderness and its animals and plants, had time to creatively use their skills in the Bear Refuge and get into the topic of nature conservation. Velebit mountain is proclaimed a Nature Park, but also UNESCO Man and Biosphere Reserve, so the volunteers were learning about differences of nature protection and its terminology. In Velebit there are also 2 National Parks so the volunteers got in contact with the management of one of them, NP Northern Velebit, with whom they discussed about the challenges they face and future actions.

The last group volunteering activity was held in Bear Sanctuary Prishtina, a refuge for bears that were kept in small cages for the entertainment of restaurant guests for many yeras. 13 volunteers coming from Croatia, Poland, Slovenia, Spain, Turkey, Malta, The Netherlands, England, France and local volunteers from Kosovo  helped the bear keepers with their daily tasks (preparing the food for bears, feeding bears), monitored bears at the sanctuary, collected wild fruits for bears, arranged workshops and discussions about animal welfare and designed educational materials. Through practical work, but also as a result of the theoretical part of the program volunteers had the opportunity to learn about some practical examples of what they either as individuals or as part of groups can do to improve the life of animals in need. More about the volunteering in the Bear Sanctuary Prishtina, read here.

In November the Mountain spirit project continues with a Partnership Building Activity which will be held in Peja, Kosovo. It is suitable for activists and representatives of organisations that want to develop volunteer activities for nature conservation and capacity building in this direction. The call for participants, you can find here.

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