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LIFE with the viper

(photo:Balint Halpern)Hungarian meadow viper
(photo:Balint Halpern)

Bálint Halpern shares his experiences of being the manager of the Hungarian meadow viper LIFE projects (LIFE04NAT/HU/000116, LIFE07 NAT/H/000322)

When I was asked to write about my experiences as a LIFE project manager, I started to think about the last few years and what aspects of this might be interesting to others. I concluded that the most important lesson for me, was the need to plan things well in advance, as I was responsible for compiling the LIFE application and then for implementing the project. But you also need to be able to adapt to changing circumstances. When we wrote our application in 2003 we were planning activities until the end of 2007 and beyond. However, in Hungary during the last 5 years the price of fuel has doubled, exchange rates have fluctuated significantly, taxation rules, which affected our project, have changed at least 4 times, the Minister for Environmental Affairs and the directors of partner national parks were replaced at least 8 times. Just like the survival of our target species, the Hungarian meadow viper (Vipera ursinii rakosiensis), sometimes our project’s progress was also dependant on our adaptation skills.

I am biologist by origin and consider myself a self-trained project manager. Indeed, I am still learning about certain subjects of relevance to project management, such as Hungarian and European law, public relations, economics, accounting, etc. When I was compiling the LIFE project I always thought that I would consider myself successful if we could manage to achieve our goals and have our final report approved by the European Commission. That dream came through in September 2008, and this year we were further rewarded by being selected as one of the five “Best of the Best” LIFE-Nature project in the whole of Europe, well exceeding my previous expectations. I have the feeling that the reason for this award was not only because we managed to fulfil our goals, but also because we managed to build an exemplary team effort, including scientists, national park rangers, zoo staff and even volunteers.

When we first started writing about the need for habitat reconstruction and the captive breeding of this endangered species, understandably, there were some pessimistic voices about the possible outcome of our efforts. The methodology for keeping and breeding the species had to be developed within the framework of the project as existing data was rather scarce. The original captive population was ten individuals, collected from four locations, and today we have 560 captive bred Hungarian meadow vipers, after successful breeding every year since the official opening of the Hungarian Meadow Viper Conservation Centre, in 2004. For comparison, at the start of our project, the wild population was estimated at under 500 adult individuals across the 11 known sites. Today we can proudly say that breeding programme can provide vipers for years of reintroduction, which is the key element of our recent LIFE+ project.

(photo:Baracsy Akos)The author, Bálint Halpern
(photo:Baracsy Akos)

During the final, quite busy months of our LIFE-project we had to start thinking about the after-LIFE phase of the project. We realised that the reintroduction effort, planned for the upcoming years, needed more complex thinking. We have some important issues to resolve, like the continuation of grassland reconstruction in order to enlarge recent habitats, and informing the public about our efforts. These elements were included in a LIFE+ application, which I managed to submit just in time. I remember those long days and nights spent with compiling the application, parallel with finishing a running LIFE-project, when all that motivated me was the knowledge that only a LIFE+ project could guarantee the continuation of our efforts. The great thing in LIFE projects is that their duration gives a kind of stability that inspires confidence in what can be achieved.

January this year we started our LIFE+ project and we had the first task of preparing a reporting and accounting system in order to manage the activities of eight partners. This was included in bilateral partnership agreements, which were signed by everyone within the first months. A smooth start! In March, with the arrival of spring things really picked up and it felt like being on a fast train. I knew we planned some actions, but so many things seem to happen at the same time... I have already submitted the so called inception report, where I had to summarise the first 7 months: land purchase, survey in Hungary and Austria, design of project materials and merchandised products, monitoring in Hungary and Austria, thematic week in Budapest Zoo, opening of exhibition of the species in Budapest and Schönbrunn Zoo Vienna, improving Viper Centre with Exhibition function, visits to viper habitats in Romania and Ukraine, and presenting project on conferences. We are still in the organising phase of two major events for this year: Hungarian Meadow Viper Day and the Opening Workshop of the project. Hungarian Meadow Viper Day is planned for the 11 October, as a parallel event in all Hungarian Zoos and information centres of partner national parks, targeting the general public. The Opening Workshop will take place in Budapest Zoo on the 16 October, creating a chance for project partners, scientists and stakeholders to meet, learn about the project and discuss the conservation of the species.

A key benefit of being involved in a LIFE-project is that it provides an opportunity to build an international network of related projects. Our target species occurs in several European countries and similar projects are running in Romania and France. We keep regular contact with them, and by jointly organising workshops we have the chance for regular meetings within this pan-European network, also involving participants from Croatia, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Macedonia, Serbia and the Ukraine. Thanks to our timetable, I already know that I will have a chance to invite them to our LIFE+ project’s closing workshop at the end of 2013. By that time I really hope I will be able to show some nice results regarding reintroduction. Of course, the next dream is to have an approved final report somewhere in 2014. So far, and yet so close...

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