Pandemic in the Tatra Mountains. Black scenario did not come true

– The tourist season was not the worst, so the black scenarios did not come true. We came out at zero. We probably won’t put aside money for investments, but considering the fact that the park was practically inactive for two months, it’s not a tragedy, says Szymon Ziobrowski, director of the Tatra National Park. In an interview with Interia, he also talks about, among other things, the biggest pains and challenges of the park, the controversial horse transport to Morskie Oko, and a solution that may help the animals.

The backstage of the Tatra National Park can be followed every Sunday at 15:25 in the second season of the documentary series “Patrol Tatry” produced by FOKUS TV.

Dariusz Jaron, Interia: Was the decision to allow TV cameras into the park an easy or difficult one for you?

Szymon Ziobrowski, Director of TPN: – Easy, definitely. It has always bothered me that there are so many programs and series being made about different industries, and no one has yet noticed the potential of the Tatra Mountains and how responsible and important our work here is from the perspective of future generations. It was with all the more openness and joy that I approached the idea of creating “Tatra Patrol” and cooperating with Fokus TV.

Were you surprised by such a positive reception of the program?

– No, because it’s a very graceful subject, and the Tatras themselves are extraordinary. We have beautiful shots in the film, our people talk about their work in a really engaging way. Sometimes the program amuses me, often touches me, sometimes delights me, and yet I have been associated with the park for many years. No wonder that it evokes similar reactions in people who are just getting to know the Tatra National Park.

What season was it like for the park? Did the pandemic hit you hard?

– March, April and a chunk of May were difficult due to the fact that we didn’t have admission revenue, which largely funds conservation efforts. It was also quite a challenge in terms of the education we were doing. Overnight, our educators lost their audiences: students, visitors to the Nature Education Center, and the groups they trained face-to-face. Quite quickly, we came to the conclusion that we need to move our activities to the web. We are even more active in the virtual world today, which is good for our contact with a wide audience. We cannot concentrate on schools for obvious reasons, but we operate on a larger scale, which I perceive as a big positive out of the whole negative situation. On this occasion some of our people have gained completely new skills.

– Fortunately, the tourist season was not the worst, so the black scenarios did not come true. We came out at zero. We probably won’t set aside money for investment, but considering the fact that the park was practically closed for two months, it’s not a tragedy.

You mean the pandemic didn’t significantly affect summer attendance?

– No. We are talking about tens of thousands of people less compared to the same period last year. By the way, it does not make sense to compare month to month, you need to look more broadly at the whole year. It happens, for example, that in February the weather is beautiful, there are many tourists, and so it was this winter, so they came more than a year earlier. In July and August there were fewer visitors than the year before, and in September more. Only at the end of the year will it all balance out.

Tourists complained, money didn’t flow into the park’s coffers, but the animals welcomed the lockdown?

– They entered the space vacated by humans. But there is no need to exaggerate, it lasted a relatively short time. The animals quickly had to retreat; it was not a situation that permanently affected the behavior of the fauna.

For the past decade, maybe two, tourist traffic in the Tatras has been steadily increasing. How does this increase in visitors affect the condition of the park?

– We manage tourist traffic well in the context of the natural values we guard. To illustrate this statement I can say that the number of chamois remains at a similar level (with small fluctuations, which are rather due to human error when counting them, because we don’t record falls of these animals in the field), marmots are doing well, large predators including bears. We are often set as a model institution for managing the relationship between nature and man. Despite increasing tourist traffic, the park and its inhabitants are doing well.

What is the reason for that?

– It involves one simple rule. Hikers are allowed to move in the Tatra Mountains only on designated trails. This allows animals to adapt to the space set aside for them. Humans and animals coexist in the TPN and do not interact negatively as much.

With this scale of entrances to the park, is getting off the trails a big problem?

– Abandoning is a problem, fortunately the scale of this phenomenon is not too large.

Is littering a bigger problem?

– I would say the biggest. Littering and fecalisation, i.e. satisfying physiological needs outside places intended for this. It varies, an urgent need can catch a person at any time, but there is a problem with that. It is also often said that tourists trample the trails. In my opinion, this is not a problem of tourists, but ours. We must provide such infrastructure, prepare trails before the season, so that people can comfortably overcome them, regardless of the volume of traffic.

With this trampling I immediately associated crocuses in Chocholowska Valley.

– Yes, but I would not demonize the subject. Of course some tourists climb on crocuses, taking photos from the closest possible distance. In fact it is hard to surprise them. I’m not saying that you should do it, but it’s not a problem which would endanger the existence of Crocuses in the Tatra Mountains. Crocuses are dependent on sheep. If they continue to be in the Tatra Mountains, the flowers will survive. On the other hand, other negative phenomena, such as littering, are associated with mass traffic during the crocus blooming period.

Let’s take another controversial topic – horse transportation to Morskie Oko Lake. The issue usually hits the media when an animal dies or faints. What is the bigger picture and TPN’s perspective on the fascians?

– The topic is very complex. Over the past few years we have done a lot to improve the welfare of horses. We instituted strict rules and regulations for haulers, a limit on the number of people on the wagon, mandatory testing for animals, and strict rules on rest. We managed to produce a prototype of an electrically assisted carriage. This is a completely autonomous cart, independent of the hauler’s will.

How does it help the animal?

– If the force on the horses is too great, i.e. when they have to pull too much weight, the electric assistance is activated, relieving the animal. We have high hopes for this invention. We do not want to liquidate this type of transport to the Morskie Oko Lake.

– For several reasons. First, it is a place of work for many people. Secondly, it is an element of folklore. The draft horse, as a phenomenon, disappears from the landscape of our country. And yet it is necessary to mow fields, collect hay. There are over three hundred horses. All this creates an ecosystem connected with the use of land.

I don’t know if this will convince animal rights activists.

– These organizations dangle a few pictures of horses. Often ones that have tripped and fallen rather than died, because in the last ten years we have had only two deaths in the park and these, as stated by veterinarians, unrelated to their work. These photos are exploited, shown repeatedly on social media, creating the impression that something disturbing is happening on the Morskie Oko road every day. And people don’t have time to verify all the information from the web.

You mentioned horse research. What are the results?

– Good ones. Every year a small percentage of animals are retired. No one is hiding the fact that these horses work in the park, but is that a bad thing? I often respond to allegations against us with the question: “Is a properly prepared and trained horse working beyond its means?” The issue is not one-dimensional as organizations want to portray it. Experts who work with us believe horses are not doing badly at all.

When can electrically assisted carts hit the park? I understand that this will be a requirement – whoever drives tourists to Morskie Oko must have such a cart?

– It is difficult for me to answer this question today. We only have a prototype of this car, it’s been tested for a short time. Once we know the final costs of mass production, we’ll make a decision.

We talked about a compromise between mass tourism and environmental protection. Are there any pressures on TPN to relax these restrictions?

– There is no such pressure.

I am asking because I can see how Zakopane has been developed in the recent years with the idea of making money on tourist traffic.

This investment pressure in the park also exists, but in an acceptable dimension. I’m thinking of, for example, rebuilding the chairlift at Goryczkowa. It seems to me that we have reached a compromise.

Other threats?

– Of the more serious ones? The already mentioned trash and sewage. Perhaps tourist traffic will become a serious problem in the future if it continues to grow at this rate. Our salaries are also a big challenge. Our workers earn very little, and they protect a good that is priceless to Poland. And this is a problem. What should be done so that people in national parks, not only in TPN, earn decent money in our country.

Is the Ministry of Environment responsible for this?

– It is more complex. Our salaries are written into the Budget Act. Everyone, including the Ministry of the Environment, would like park employees to earn more, but there is only so much money and at the moment there are not many possibilities to change it. We need to cause the budgets of national parks to be supplied with a larger stream of money. Perhaps business needs to be mobilized more? Maybe this is a starting point for discussion? It’s not really about who’s behind it either, the Ministry of Environment oversees us, but they also have a specific pool to allocate. I am looking at it more broadly – is this how it should look like? Should industries that care for the public good earn so little in comparison to those that – looking from the perspective of the next few decades – do not produce anything important?

Do you hope that the “Tatra Patrol” program will draw attention to your work?

– I hope so. Our people do a very responsible job, often dangerous, and – as the series shows – they do it with dedication, passion, they treat it as a service. This should be appreciated.

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