Saxon Switzerland: A journey through space and time

The SC77 group was on the move again!

This time to the Sächsische Schweiz (Saxon Switzerland) National Park located in the Elbe Mountains, about an hour away from  Dresden. While it wasn’t our first visit to a nature reserve, Saxon Switzerland was going to be our first National Park, one of Germany’s 16, and the only one in Saxony. We were all naturally very excited. This deal was sweetened with news that there was going to be hiking and breathtaking views involved.

So on Friday the 13th, the group (and their packed lunches) boarded the bus and made our way up the meandering Elbe River. We could see the landscape change as we approached the park – urban jungles and sparse agriculture pastures slowly transitioning into more forested areas punctuated by hills. And as we neared the park gates, we were greeted by several towering sandstone structures; a landscape unfamiliar to the most of us.

At Bad Schandau, the foothill town, we were welcomed by a one-storey mural of the Lynx (Lynx lynx) – no doubt the most charismatic species of the national park. Images of this felid species also adorned the walls of the national park center (that we later visited) and many park promotional brochures. It made me reflect on the many identities of large cats.

Not unlike the Malayan tiger (Panthera tigris jacksoni), an endemic of my home country, the Lynx represents wilderness in the eyes of the public – a flagship species that people could rally around. More importantly though, the Lynx has a role to play in the nature. Occupying the highest echelon of the food chain, they regulate prey population numbers – a keystone species in ensuring activities like grazing is under control.

Upon arrival at the national park centre, we were taken on a journey back in time. The interactive exhibits explained that the mountains we see today was actually the sea floor and that the sandstone was a result of 100 million years of compaction. It is the crumbling of such structures that have made the landscape so iconic. We are indeed lucky to be living in the space and time where its beauty can be fully appreciated. The center also featured various plant and animal species that could be found in the park.

As interesting as the national park center was, it was not what we were there for. Our restless souls were uplifted when we were allowed to enter the park, chaperoned by our very able guide Johanna. With over 400km of trails in the entire park, we were spoiled for choice. In this regard, I felt Johanna did an amazing job choosing a trail that we could all summit but at the same time keeping track of time (an admirable trait of the Germans).

In the short time we had with her, she explained that the porous nature of sandstone provided for diverse ecosystems. Dry, desert like conditions at the peak and wet, humid conditions at the base. And in this ecosystem diversity sprouted ample biodiversity. Though we did not manage to spot any large vertebrates, there were many macro-life living on the sides of the sandstone, which included various beetle, moss, liverwort and fungi species.

The ascent to the peak was undeniably easy on the eyes. However as we reached the midpoint, most of us noticed dying Spruce trees in the vicinity. Johanna stopped to explain to us that these were trees infested by European spruce bark beetles (Ips typographus). In the past, park management would chop down such trees to stop the infestation. However, Saxon Switzerland today has decided to adopt a laissez-faire management approach to core zones within the park. This is because studies have shown that native Beech trees will eventually replace the planted Spruce trees, reverting the park into its past state.

I found this counter-intuitive to existing conservation practices (i.e. encourage a pest within core zones). But it just goes to show that for positive conservation outcomes to be achieved, one must have an open mind for creative solutions and most importantly trust of the science behind them.

We finally reached the peak at about 3.00pm. A good 20 minutes later, rainclouds signaled that it was time for us to return to Dresden. We duly obliged.

As we journeyed through the prehistory of Germany in Nationalpark Sächsische Schweiz, I’m heartened to know that the park is on its own voyage to a more natural state; thanks to the conservation and minimal management models of the park managers. May the force be with them.

by Mr. Yew Aun Quek, Malaysia

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at the summit

Singing Strain for the Saxon Switzerland

Wir tanzen labada labada labada (2x) – Durch den ganzen Wald. Hey!

This is a flintstone song according to Mr. Armin Zenker, the jolly forest ranger who served as guide to the CIPSEM EM-42 participants during the hiking tour at the Saxon-Bohemian Switzerland National Park, on 7 May 2019. The participants may forget the name of Armin but not the action song that had everyone clinched to each other’s arms as they dance and sing in circle.

The journey started with the participants taking off from CIPSEM at 8:00 in the morning via a chartered bus with the outside weather recorded at 4 degrees. After an hour, the group reached the National Park Information Center in Bad Schandau and made a stopover for a short briefing and lecture about the preservation and conservation activities being undertaken in the national park by the Saxonian Foundation for Nature and Environment. The center was bustling, with kids having fun playing with interactive facilities showcasing the flora and fauna around the park. This is a proof that the foundation, an independent agency tasked for the park‘s nature conservation and environmental protection, is serious in its environmental education by targeting the school children and youths as heirs of the future. (We will avoid spoilers as much as possible in this blog for the future Environmental Management Course participants to experience on their own, but one must not miss the lynx at the exhibit.)

Owing to its international geographical boundaries, the foundation itself has an interesting structure. With the park lying in both sides of the border between Saxony, Germany and the Czech Republic, the conservation and protection strategies are also shared by both the governments through the foundation. Saxon Switzerland is also known as Bohemian Switzerland or Saxon-Bohemian Switzerland. That is why both countries are represented in the operation of the Saxonian Foundation for Nature and Environment.

Fast forward to the hike, the group entered the park through the crossing point at Sebnitz. At the beginning of the journey, everything was fine walking along the familiar rough road that seemed leading up to the gorges. Until Armin gestured the group to segway in a rustic pathway that criss-crosses the naturally-fallen pine and beech trees caused by strong winds in the past weeks. That was where the struggles began. But the adventure just hyped up because of the not-so-difficult obstacles. In the middle of the journey, the group stopped for lunch. Armin offered a delicious loaf of bread and butter. Ingenious as he is, Armin instructed everyone to unveil twenty pieces of young beech leaves that the participants gathered early on in the journey because it will be used to make a healthy sandwich. Alas! The young beech leaves are edible! Not only that, the young tip of the pine tree leaves are edible, and delicious too.

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After lunch and after making sure that everyone recovered from a slight exhaustion, the group then moved up. Armin showed to the group the popular yet unusual hike destinations such as the „Cathedral“. (This is one of the perks with CIPSEM organizing the hike with a special guide.) And then the never ending poses and picture taking. Up in the gorges, one will not miss being reminded of the familiar scenery from the Lion King movie showing the Pride Rock. The feeling was also the same: pride of conquering the journey and the amazing view.

At the end of the hike, everyone was so thankful for the opportunity of sharing the moment together that they gave their last ounce of energy for another action song in spite the tiresome walk. And so everyone sang and danced again to the tune of:

Für die Erde singen wir, Steine, Pflanzen, Mensch und Tier (2x) – Tiki taka tikata tikata tikata!

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by Mr. Jun Piong (Philippines) and Mr. Marcio Alvarenga (Brazil), EM-42

Nature calls EM-41 !!! Arrival on Isle of Vilm

Within the module of Conservation and Restoration Ecology, the flagship excursion of CIPSEM EM-41 to the International Academy for Nature Conservation (INA) at the Insel Vilm started on May 13, 2018. The moment CIPSEM fellows stepped onto the island, the joyous faces were apparent and the excitement was at its zenith.

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Ms. Kathrin Bockmühl, Scientific Officer at the INA, welcomed the fellows, provided an overview of INA’s work in nature protection at the national and international level since 1990, and briefed on sessions planned on biodiversity conservation and governance for the cohort. It started with an introductory talk by Ms. Gisela Stolpe and Dr. Horst Korn on biodiversity conservation and ecosystems services, and the UN-Convention on Biodiversity (CBD). With an objective of giving hands-on experience of CBD conferences, a simulation exercise on decision-making was conducted. The fellows represented CBD State Parties including regional unions, small island countries and NGOs, and deliberated on drafting decisions regarding the use of biofuel. Also, a session on Access and Benefit Sharing (ABS), with an Ethiopian case study provided important insights into the importance of sharing the benefits arising from the utilization of genetic resources. The exercise provided interesting impressions on importance and challenges of global treaties concerning biodiversity conservation.

The afternoon of the second day started with the theme of marine nature conservation and a role-playing game called Fish Banks Ltd. was simulated. The aim was to realize the challenges of managing resources sustainably in a common pool resource setting. Dr. Chrtistian Pusch talked about the importance and challenges in fisheries and marine national parks management in today’s global scenario with case studies on German exclusive economic zones.

As expected, we could not leave the island without a guided walking tour on local biodiversity including the famous last remnants of beech forest in Germany, untouched for about 500 years. With a cloudy sky and pleasant temperature (with mosquitoe clouds as well unfortunately), we walked through the circular trail learning about the beech forest and ecology of several associated species. Thanks to our excellent facilitators Ms. Kathrin Bockmühl, Dr. Katharina Stein and Dr. André Lindner.

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The fellows also visited the UNESCO Biosphere Reserve Southeast-Rügen to learn about the ongoing conservation programs in the biosphere reserve. Later, we arrived at Jasmund National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site inhabited by beech forest. All the fellows were delighted with the beautiful views of Baltic Sea and had the pleasure to see the largest chalk cliffs in Germany called the Königsstuhl or King’s chair.

Words are missing to describe the extraordinary week we had. Special thanks to Ms. Kathrin Bockmühl who opened the doors of this beautiful place for the CIPSEM EM-41 fellows. The excursion at the Insel Vilm was a unique experience, which we will remember for its extraordinary landscapes, beech forest and the knowledge acquired to manage ecosystems and biodiversity. The experience will be engraved forever in the memory of all the fellows.

by Mariela Yapu Alcazar (Bolivia) and Dhruv Verma (India)

Excursion to the National Park of Saxon Switzerland (Bad Schandau) and the Museum of Natural History of Görlitz

by Ms. Alexandra Pedro (Brazil) and Mr. Emmanuel Suka (Cameroon)

On arrival at Bad Schandau, participants of the 41st International Post Graduate Course on Environmental Management were warmly received by the authority of the National Park Center run by the Saxonian Foundation for Nature and the Environment. The Center’s history, organization and up to date work was presented, highlighting interalia, concept of the foundation, information and exhibition in the center, nature conservation fund, visitors and education center, establishment of the academy in 1994, the volunteer, environmental education and academy programmes, and outreach to the local community, networking and partnership with over 240 members including neighboring nations like Poland and Czech Republic. Thereafter, participants were given a guided tour of the center, projection of a documentary and video of the National Park, and then a visit of the center’s garden where participants had their lunch.

After lunch, participants were guided into the National Park by Mr. Zenker. The forest walk in the park was very engaging and interesting thanks to the enthusiastic and knowledgeable guide. Mr. Zenker gave a vivid account of the park’s history, local culture and management of the park. He equally showed interesting sites in the park like the core-zone and its importance, an artificial cave, a historic European brown bear trap, sharp stone gorge with more than 30 species of ferns, identification of further forest and plant species in the park, conduction of a practical activity of building a human sand stone, hiking to the top of the Elbe sand stone mountain, teaching of traditional German conservation songs and dancing by the participants. Finally, to beat farewell to the participants he sang a German folklore song using a musical instrument “mouth organ”.

After breathing the forest air, hiking in the National Park of Saxon Switzerland, in the following day CIPSEM fellows visited the Senckenberg Museum of Natural History of Görlitz.

The meeting started with an introduction of the museum and the Senckenberg Society, by Prof. Dr. Willi Xylander. The museum has three research departments: Soil zoology, Zoology and Botany, where around 60 scientists work. We had the opportunity to talk to part of this team of experts about the museum collection and their current research.

In the Zoology department, the first meeting was in the Mammalogy sector. The mammal collection have been built up since 1980 and nowadays it is incremented by the research demands (e.g the Mongolia project) In the Geology sector we could see the ancient and the modern collection, containing from volcanic rocks to precious fossil plants. The Insects sector preserves a collection of around 18,500 species, from which we could observe some beautiful butterflies from all over the world and the diverse ants and beetles. We also learned about their current research on ant populations and taxonomy. Finally in the botany department, we appreciated a collection of species (some dated from 19th century) carefully maintained and their research about the land use effects on vegetation.

After lunch, we visited the library and afterwards the museum exhibition, through the enthusiastic guidance of Prof. Xylander. Starting with the geology exhibition of Upper Lusatia, with different colorful types of soil on the ground according to the cities in the region, we learned not only about the local geology, but also its biodiversity and history. Animals and plants from the tropical forests and the African savannas could be appreciated in another exhibition. We also could interact with a full size bear and painted walls for funny photos. To complete the visit, in the vivarium some fellows could direct interact with animals, feeding the fishes and having some species in hands.

The participants wish to thank all facilitators for their support and warm reception.

On the road and into nature … “in situ” and “in vitro”

The SC71-course hit the road and visited the National Park “Saxon Switzerland” as well as the Museum of Natural History in the city of Görlitz.

In the surroundings of the National Park and its visitor center the group experienced the stunning sandstone rock formations and the associated unique ecosystem on the one hand, but also learned about the environmental education work by the Saxony State Foundation for Nature and the Environment on the other.

Further east and pretty close to the border to Poland in the city of Görlitz, the director of the Museum of Natural History, Prof. Xylander, opened the doors not only to the public exhibition of the museum, but also provided insights “behind the scenes” into the research and conservation work. Course participant Mr. Sonam Tashi (Bhutan) describes his experience as follows: “The experience of the enormous collection of flora and fauna and diverse work carried out by the museum is commendable. It’s incredible actually. From tiny invertebrates to big vertebrates, the collection and all the texidermy work were highlights which shall remain as a ‘wow!’ factor for some of us. To see such work in search for scientific truth is not only a contributing factor in learning life sciences in general, but also works as an approach towards a sustainable earth; which we as citizen of earth needs more than ever. Coming from so called developing country, I am completely marveled and inspired to boost my work for biodiversity, perhaps to emulate the determination of this institution. Although, the tour in the museum  and various departments was brief, however the knowledge and exposure were gigantic.”

(photos by Tamara Karp, Sonam Tashi & André Lindner)

The Magic of forms – National Park “Sächsische Schweiz”

by Natalia Jiménez (Colombia)

On 15th may 2017, the participants of the 40th UNEP/UNESCO/BMUB International Postgraduate Training Programme immersed themselves in a natural landscape of forest, history and magical forms of sandstone and basalt. Between caves with secret passages, rocky ridges and centennial trees, the participants learned how over millions of years this amazing landscape was sculpted by wind and water.

Judging from this picture, being inside the forest makes EM40 participants happy. (Photo: André Lindner)

The participants also visited the National Park Information Center in Bad Schandau where they experienced how with creativity, images, sounds, colors and shapes, it is possible to make the visitors discover and explore this unique landscape in a fun and exciting way.

Dancing and singing was the amazing way to teach the participants how quartz grains are kept together shaping the sandstone with a fantastic art that only nature can do.

It was inspiring to experience how exploring nature with different options (climbing, guided walks, excursions, workshops, educational programs, etc) is ideal for creating awareness in people. This is by combining knowledge and emotions, the way that people feel themselves as a fundamental part of nature and responsible for taking care of it.

 

“…The experience was breathtaking, and being there made us one with nature…”

Joyce Kiruri (Kenya)

 

“…Great hike and dark caves! Learning about sandstones in a fun way is the best approach for environmental education.  Learning by playing! Five stars to our amazing guide!…”

Andrea Vera (Perú)

 

“…It was great experience; landscape, professor, what we learned and how we learned. All was inspiring…” Ramshid Rashidpour (Iran)

Visit at the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research (iDiv) and Hainich National Park

For the last excursion of the EM38 course, the group headed once more to Leipzig. This time a visit at the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research (iDiv) was scheduled. The iDiv research centre is a joint institution between the Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg, the Friedrich Schiller University Jena and Leipzig University. The research center was established in 2012 and conducts top-level research in biodiversity sciences with special focus on environmental change, sustainable development and bioresource management.

On the second day the group headed to Thuringia to visit the Hainich National Park. The park is part of the transnational UNESCO World Heritage Site ‘Primeval Beech Forests of the Carpathians and the Ancient Beech Forests of Germany’ and includes the largest unexploited area of broadleaf forest (50 km²) in Germany.

(Photos: A. Lindner, T. Karp)