Once again about myth and reality of conservation

Two weeks ago I was very happy at last having found a location with a small population of common adders (Vipera berus) on Haberstein mountain in Fichtelgebirge (Bavaria). That day I made these images of an adult male:

Male Common Adder (Vipera berus), Fichtel Mountains, Bavaria, Germany

Male Common Adder (Vipera berus), Fichtel Mountains, Bavaria, Germany

Male Common Adder (Vipera berus), Fichtel Mountains, Bavaria, Germany

Male Common Adder (Vipera berus), Fichtel Mountains, Bavaria, Germany

Male Common Adder (Vipera berus), Fichtel Mountains, Bavaria, Germany

Male Common Adder (Vipera berus), Fichtel Mountains, Bavaria, Germany

Information board about Haberstein nature protection area.

Information about Haberstein nature protection area. (Click on picture to enlarge.)

This is a very well known location to Bavarian herpetologists and even to public – which is informed about the presence of this species by a large board set at the entry of a path leading to the top of the mountain. Unfortunately, herpetologists increasingly have that in my opinion absolutely senseless and counterproductive practice – to keep secret the exact information about places with populations of amphibians and reptiles. This attitude is selfish and naive. It can’t prevent an experienced herper from finding the place but only makes this task for him harder and more expensive. Encountering an animal at any moment you visit the place is never guaranteed even if it is absolutely certain that it lives there. Therefore, unless you know it in advance from other sources, if you don’t see any animals you are searching for, you can’t be sure that you are searching in the right place. Although I knew that adders live on Haberstein, I needed as many as seven excursions in autumn and spring of 2011 to 2013, to determine the more or less exact location. The area I had to search trough was not very large: Haberstein is a small mountain where adders live on the slope with south-western exposure. Nevertheless, every time the search was exhausting and time consuming. It would have been much easier and even I could save a lot of money if the exact locations where the adders hibernate and breed were documented and even marked with signs. Instead the exact coordinates of spottings of adders in Germany that are registered in publicly accessible databases aren’t disclosed because the maintainers of those sites believe that the snakes were threatened through capturing and removal from nature. I have never seen any undisputed evidence that a population of a European amphibian or reptile species got extinct or was critically threatened due to pressure by herpers, but no one would seriously doubt today that economic and recreational activities of people have catastrophic impact on habitats and populations everywhere. In the face of this other reality, the rules that the tiny protection areas such as Haberstein place for individuals look silly: “Stay on assigned ways!”, “Do not gather plants!”, “Do not leave wastes!”… On just one day a single tractor may do more harm to the ecosystem than in a year a hundred of people if they would “leave the assigned ways”, or “gather plants”. Current legislation and mechanisms of its enforcement are more effective against individuals than against businesses, organisations of the state itself. While an individual has to respect the rules and laws prohibiting harm for flora and fauna, it is made easy for companies and governmental bodies to overcome the restrictions. Someone who captures a single animal risks to be prosecuted while a company may be allowed to wipe the whole population if it pays a compensation – of course, to the state, not to the species whose habitat was destroyed.

Last Thursday, I returned to this place hoping to find more adders. Instead I saw a hunter building a new hide – only some 15 or 20 meters from an already existing. He had cut spruce trees and left an area of devastation just at the place where the adders should be basking and searching for mating partners.

Common adder location in Fichtel Mountains, Bavaria after a hunter has cut trees to use the wood for construction of his tower hide.

Common adder location in Fichtel Mountains, Bavaria after a hunter has cut trees to use the wood for construction of his tower hide.

It is commonly known that clearings are favourable for adder populations if they persist for a long period of time. In that sense, what this man had done may be good for adders at long perspective. However, I am afraid that the immediate effect on the population that already lives there is negative and much more significant than the long-term advantage.

The Common Adder (Vipera berus) has “special protection” status according to Federal Law on Nature Protection (Bundesnaturschutzgesetz), and is listed as “highly endangered” in Germany (Category 2 in German Red List), and in Bavaria – even as threatened with extinction. The reality of how the populations of this snake and its habitats are being treated is too often completely opposite to this proclaimed status.

My experience during the excursions to Haberstein has raised the question again: Isn’t it better for survival of amphibians and reptiles if herpetologists and herpers would make the exact locations of populations that they have discovered known to public. In my opinion making the places that are critical for ecology of a protected species – such as basking, laying eggs, mating, wintering – clearly recognisable can prevent their occasional destruction in course of economic and recreational activities of humans.

Two years ago I found this dead little common adder on a road - apparently killed by a bicycle.

Two years ago I found this dead little common adder on a road – apparently killed by a bicycle.

About Arthur Tiutenko
Nature Photographer and Illustrator

5 Responses to Once again about myth and reality of conservation

  1. borja says:

    Two words :
    Great Post.
    I see myself when you speak about keeping the localities in secret,maybe its a counterproducte attitude and would be more important to stay focused on more threatening problems like the habitat loss. . .so sad about the devastated habitat . . .:/
    best regards

  2. Well, we should differentiate between cases when herp populations are threatened through activities of pet traders, hunters, etc., and through economy and recreation business. The first is more common in tropics and some other areas where people have economic problems and may attempt to earn income with trade of animal goods. The second issue is more important in industrial countries. I am convinced that many populations of amphibians and reptiles could be saved if there were explicit warnings such as: “Caution! Adders wintering! Don’t walk on this ground!”

  3. edd1eg says:

    Interesting blog, not sure if i agree with keeping herp locations secret, here is the UK it is very hard for us to find herp locations, even amongst reputable herpetologists. In my opinion i think it will be hit and miss if known locations where made aware to the public, i for one would check out the locations as i assume many others will, possibly disturbing and damaging the organisms and their habitats, however, as you highlight, it may also alert those who create accidental disturbances such as dog walkers, cyclists etc. Guess the only way to find out if it does more harm then good is to implement this idea with a few locations.
    In the bigger picture us humans have caused irreparable damage to the global biome and conservation efforts are hit and miss with there success rates.

    Thanks for the great post

    • Thanks for your reply.
      We currently have another such situation with adders near the city where I live. A quite large and successful population of them has developed in an urbanised area – near a harbour on the Rhein-Danube channel. I myself have learned about it just last week from a newspaper, never thought adders would live in such places in this country. Now this place is considered to harbour the most numerous population of V. berus in the north of Bavaria. All herpetologists, herpers, and nature lovers are happy, but not those people who live in neighbourhood. The article in the newspaper was actually about a conflict arising there: “Citizens don’t won’t venomous snakes near their houses!” Seven adders have been recently found dead – killed by people. Usual bullshit is being spread: What if a child would be bitten?!! Please! This is nature where everyone and everything has equal “rights” – to eat or to be eaten, and humans can’t be an exception. Adders have lived there for years, and no person was bitten. And even if someone would, so what? Even if it would be a child… It is surprising how many people in the “educated” western world still believe that humans are chosen, are privileged.
      As with bears, wolves and other “dangerous” animals who aren’t allowed to live in Germany, now it is with the little and harmless adder: In the 21. century people in Europe still are guided by prejudice, myths, egoism… Their will and commitment to nature protection cease when it is going about personal comfort or wealth.
      I believe that if the place would officially be given a protection status, if its range would be delimited, signs would be posted…, there are better chances for this unique adder population to survive. If the area would be clearly recognisable, it will have two effects: First, it would remind people that they have to be cautious because of venomous snakes; second, it would stress the importance of this place for the public, thus keeping away the people who live nearby and want to get rid of snakes.

      • edd1eg says:

        In this circumstance i couldn’t agree more. All very valid points. It’s horrible how the media give reptiles a bad reputation. In the UK it’s usually reports of “dangerous adders attacking dogs” when in reality the dog; curious in nature is in the adders natural habitat and it is simply defending itself.

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