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Iron Curtain kept out alien birds

By Gilly Lloyd

Monk Parakeet © Jonker/Innemee

From the BBC’s Earth News website comes a report on how the Iron Curtain left its mark on the wildlife of Continental Europe.  Referring to an article which appeared in the journal Biological Conservation, Earth News editor, Matt Walker, says that during the 46 years in which Europe was divided; far fewer alien bird species were taken into the Eastern bloc countries.

While people in Western Europe were importing exotic birds such as parrots and weavers, restrictions on the movement of both people and trade between West and East resulted in Eastern Europeans introducing only a few game birds - such as partridges, pheasants, ducks and geese, for the purpose of hunting.

Professor Salit Kark of The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, who conducted the research with colleagues at the university, says:  “We obviously do not want to go back to the Iron Curtain days. However, there are some important policy lessons.  Invasive species remain a significant threat to biodiversity.  The Iron Curtain somewhat protected the more isolated Eastern bloc from invaders.

On the other hand, the co-operation today across borders opens more ways to invasion. But it also allows us to address this problem together.”

Dr Kark’s team initially helped compile an inventory of alien invasive species in Europe, relying on reports, published papers and historical records compiled by birders to add species to the database. When they analyzed it, they were surprised to find that human activity has a bigger impact on bird introductions than either climate or latitude - an impact that was exaggerated by the erection of the Iron Curtain.

During the Cold War - between 1945 and 1991 - the number of non-European bird species introduced into Western Europe rose steadily from 36 to 46.  These cage birds were brought in as pets, to supply zoos and as part of a general policy of “faunal improvement.”  In Eastern Europe, the number dropped from 11 species introduced before the Cold War, to just five during this period.

According to researchers, most introduced bird species across the Continent have remained within the initial country into which they were imported, which means that there is still time for policy makers across Europe to take action to prevent them spreading further.  14 of the 121 species have, however, already spread into neighbouring countries.

“Many of them, such as the Rose-ringed Parakeet from India, and the Monk Parakeet from South America, are spreading fast,” says Dr Kark.  She makes the point that as trade and the movement of people increases across Europe, and many former Eastern European countries are integrated into the EU, it becomes more urgent to establish policies to prevent a new flow of exotic species into regions that were once isolated.

She says that the realization that large political and trading blocs can have such an impact can be used in a positive way.  “The fact that EU countries are co-ordinated means they can act together, make policy decisions and address them together.”

The same principles apply to any region where trade has expanded dramatically, such as China and India and developing countries, she adds. “These countries may not yet have developed the policies to deal with alien species, but they have an opportunity to learn those lessons before more alien species are introduced.  However, the timing is urgent and countries need to start enacting policies soon.”


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