Deep in the Forest, Bambi Remains the Cold War's Last Prisoner
Deer Still Shun Iron Curtain Border, 20 Years After the Guards and Barbed Wire Vanished
Bellowing Red Deer Stag (cervus elaphus) during the annual red deer rut, Woburn Deer Park, Bedfordshire photo: Elliot Hook
The Wall Street Journal By Cecilie Rohwedder Updated Nov. 4, 2009
GRAFENAU, Germany -- It has been 20 years since the Berlin Wall fell. But deep in the forest here, a red deer called Ahornia still refuses to cross the old Iron Curtain.
Ahornia inhabits the thickly wooded mountains along what once was the fortified border between West Germany and Czechoslovakia. At the height of the Cold War, a high electric fence, barbed wire and machine-gun-carrying guards cut off Eastern Europe from the Western world. The barriers severed the herds of deer on the two sides as well.
The fence is long gone, and the no-man's land where it stood now is part of Europe's biggest nature preserve. The once-deadly border area is alive with songbirds nesting in crumbling watchtowers, foxes hiding in weedy fortifications and animals not seen here for years, such as elk and lynx.
But one species is boycotting the reunified animal kingdom: red deer. Herds of them roam both sides of the old NATO-Warsaw Pact border here but mysteriously turn around when they approach it. This although the deer alive today have no memory of the ominous fence.
Ahornia, a doe with a grayish-brown winter coat and a light patch around her tail, was born 18 years after the fence came down. Wildlife biologists who track her and other deer via electronic collars know that she has never ventured beyond the strip where the fence once stood.
That is now just a narrow footpath in the woods, today marking the border between Germany and the Czech Republic. On a misty October afternoon, the sound of a distant woodpecker was all that disturbed the mountaintop silence. A small white sign in German said "State Border." Ahornia grazes on the Western side but stops when she nears the border, her world ending where the Free World once did.
"The wall in the head is still there," says Tom Synnatzschke, a German producer of nature films who has worked in area.
In the seven years since wildlife biologists began tracking the deer, only two, a German stag named Florian and a Czech stag incongruously called Izabel, have crossed the border to stay. Lately, some young males have begun to explore the pastures on the other side, but they always come back. Females don't set foot in the once-forbidden area.
"In the past, the deer didn't go to the Czech side because of the fence," says Marco Heurich, a wildlife biologist who runs the animal tracking project in the Bavarian Forest National Park in Germany. "Now the fence is gone but they still stop at the border."
One reason, he says, is that deer have traditional trails, passed on through the generations, with a collective memory that their grounds end at the erstwhile barrier. Females, who stay with their mothers longer than males and spend more time absorbing their mothers' movements, stick even more closely to the traditional turf.
The homebody instincts of the deer keep them from taking full advantage of one of the biggest ecological projects in European history.
Well before communism collapsed, German nature lovers noticed thriving wildlife along a different Cold War border -- that between East and West Germany -- where no roads, factories or farming had disturbed the calm for decades. So on a snowy December morning in 1989, a month after the Berlin Wall fell, environmentalists from East and West met in a Bavarian border town hoping to turn the region into a conservation area. Today, much of it is a protected zone called the Green Belt.
"This border stood for the struggle for freedom and the conflict between blocs," German President Horst Koehler said recently as he walked an old patrol road. "Now this border, which meant death, pain and separation, celebrates nature and creation."
|European Red Deer Locking Antlers - Elliot Hook|
Conservationists are working on a Green Belt that would link national parks and nature preserves all along the Cold War fault line, from the Barents Sea in the Arctic to the Black Sea by Bulgaria. In Ahornia's woods, the Bavarian Forest and the adjacent Sumava National Park in the Czech Republic have formed Europe's first cross-border wilderness area.
A few years ago, scientists began to suspect that the old Iron Curtain border was still a powerful force for the red deer. In 2002, Mr. Heurich in Bavaria started fitting yellow collars on deer on his side of the German-Czech border, in part to study how migration patterns had changed with the fence gone. The collars have small GPS receivers and radio units that send messages about the wearer's location.
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The transmissions go to Horst Burghart, a data manager at Germany's National Park administration, in a pale green building in the Bavarian town of Grafenau. A former German air force officer, Mr. Burghart spent the last years of the Cold War eavesdropping on Czech pilots' communications. Now he studies electronic messages from deer and creates maps displaying their routes. "We have them on an electronic leash," he says.
On a recent morning in his office, full of animal photos, GPS collars and muddy hiking boots, Mr. Burghart was tracking deer that appeared on a computer map as collections of blinking dots. A group of red dots, all in the same area, showed Ahornia's stubborn tendency to stay in the West.
In 2005, scientists on the Czech side also started putting collars on deer. In the medieval town of Kasperske Hory, an hour's drive from Grafenau through dark forest and desolate villages, zoologist Pavel Sustr observed the same phenomenon: For deer, the Cold War division was still firmly in place.
Only one, a stag named Vincek, crossed into Germany, once a year, but he regularly returned to the Czech side.
Yet there are signs that cross-border traffic may pick up. "Our data showed that the animals behaved very traditionally," says Mr. Sustr. "The former border was in the minds of the animals. But some of the young animals are searching for new territory. They are more and more deleting the border behavior that was there before."
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After tracking 300 deer, researchers said the animals are intent on maintaining the old boundaries.
One of the scientists involved told the BBC the deer are not ideological, "they are just very conservative in their habits."
During the Cold War, electric fences made the Czech-German boundary impossible to pass.
Czechoslovakia, where the Communists took power in 1948, had three parallel electrified fences, patrolled by heavily armed guards.
Nearly 500 people were killed when they attempted to escape.
The researchers followed the movement of the 300 Czech and German deer via GPS-equipped collars, which sent data to computers.
Biologist Pavel Sustr, who led the seven-year project, said that even though the area is now forest and open land with no barrier, the deer still stick to their Czech or Bavarian sides.
"It was fascinating to realise for the first time that anything like that is possible," Mr Sustr said. "But the border still plays a role for them and separates the two populations."
He said that was remarkable because the average life expectancy for deer is 15 years and none living now would have encountered the barrier.
|A Group of Red Deer Hinds with Fawns - BS Thurner Hof|
Scientists believe that fawns tend to follow mothers for the first year of their lives and develop a pattern in their movements, so the same area remains the habitat for each new generation.