5. pro 2011.

Ivan Sarić preserved Souslik for us


Ivan Sarić – celebrated us once, will he celebrate us again?
Exactly hundred years ago European aviation pioneer Ivan Sarić flew over the Austro-Hungarian city of Subotica with his personally built aeroplane. He was not only first one to fly over these skies, but also the first airman in the region of Yugoslavia.

Ivan Sarić was also our first Conservationist – although didn’t knew about it. Because, when the area for the Subotica airport which bears his name was designated, unconsciously a piece of Loess Steppe was preserved – a piece that survives today in the middle of agricultural rampage that turned the area into agricultural desert. Namely, Subotica was once surrounded with 12 distinctive “puszta’s” that were each peculiar steppe areas of the Great Pannonian plain. These areas are until today indeed bare and empty (that is what “puszta” means when literally translated), but originally they were what is known in Geobotany forested steppe pastures on loess (eg. Salvio-Festucetum rupicolae). Today here remains less than 0,1 % of them – more precisely all is plowed!

If we were at least "near" EU this would be a protected site

With its 50 hectares the Subotica airport is the last known phragment of that element in this landscape and here’s where the last representatives of the steppe life withdrew: the sousliks (Citellus citellus), European Lycosa tarantulas (Lycosa singoriensis), nosed grasshoppers (Acrida hungarica) and representatives of native butterflies (Lycaenidae, Pieridae) together with some elemens of threatened flora. All that is not yet well studied, but it is certain that butterflies as well as other organisms are strictly tied to their foodplants and other flora that characterizes their habitat. No plants, no habitat, therefore no animals.

Sousliks - will we see them? (Photo: Katarina Paunović)
The European ground squirell, or Souslik, which is known in local folk songs by traditional lines such as „girls let’s go to the field to spill out the sousliks...“ is probably the most typical animal of the Pannonian plain. The song refers to the traditional way of it's catching, by pouring water to it's hole, something which none of the rodents like, but – to our shame – souslik is almost extinct from Vojvodina’s Bačka region!

In Serbia souslik is protected by law, and also as priority species in Europe it is not to be disturbed on it’s remaining habitats. In spite of this they throw rodent poison on the grass of Subotica airport, because of the alleged damage they do by digging their holes. Although the real pests are voles (Microtus arvalis) mining about the ground like cheese, while the souslik makes only one hole and even that mostly on the edges of runway. While the airport will never get rid of voles that will always come from the surrounding arable land, the poisoning will permanently destroy the population of sousliks and only them!

Soulsik hole and "vandalism" of voles for which the sousliks are accused

Other huge problems are also on horizon, and it looks like it’s going to be tough for the inhabitants of the airport runway that were here long before man and planes – the management of Aero Club necessitates modernization flattening of the runway, which is almost positively connected with permanent extermination of sousliks!

Shall they protect the natural heritage
that is delegated to them?

With that modernization the airport would become more convenient for cross-border traffic of small planes, and it is insisted on it although only "ten to fifteen flights will happen on yearly basis" and in spite of the much expected joining to EU that will certainly marginalize this function. "The city will have huge profits" they argument, without specifying in essence what these would be.

Realm of Blues and other rare butterflies

There is though a chance for the sousliks, and it is if their importance for the EU joining will be stressed – which is the requirement towards joining countries to protect parts and a percentage of their natural heritage. From this conservation requirement the airport would have much more benefit, e.g. an advertisement that the airport was modernized and in the same time preserved sousliks would be much more efficient on EU level – the souslik could even be a mascot of the Aero Club. That would make possible much higher finances, because the airport could compete for projects on multiple levels. All this is achievable by simple agreements and small compromises. The nearest airport of the same type is airport Szeged, accross the border in Hungary, which already implemented it – sousliks are present also and because of them the airport gained Natura 2000 status, which is additional source of financing, because of subsidies in case of desired community level nature protection.

Lycosa tarantula – near extinction in Vojvodina
Besides that sousliks are strictly protected by law in Serbia. If the management of the airport persists on their destruction, consequences (for the airport) may not only be economic – report to the Ecology Inspection and not small penalty – but also a huge counter-advertisement, because of the public dissatisfaction.

If the compromise will not be achieved, the only remaining chance for the poor little sousliks will be eviction, which is not easy, and could not be carried out without close cooperation with the Institute for Nature Protection.

We have called this institution and for the time being await their further recommendations.

Simply a shame that Sousliks too are not shown to these kids

The other bad news is that the grass-covered runway may have been already damaged by this year’s "plowman’s contest" which still needs to be checked at the spot. All in all the circle around the last sousliks of Subotica (and Bačka) is fast tightening down!

For further reading:
  • Souslik in the IUCN Red list.
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