The Wild of Greece
From the pristine sand beaches lapped by the Ionian Sea and the rocky coasts of the Cyclades islands to the rugged Pindus massif and the virgin forests of Dadia, Greece is haven to a number of animal species that attest to the incredible diversity if this relatively small land.
The loggerhead turtles that have chosen the beaches of Zakynthos as their nesting ground, the Milos viper scuttling among the Aegean phrygana, the brown bear of the Pindus and the raptors taking shelter in the Dadia woods are just among the dozens of species, some endangered, that highlight Greece’s impressive biodiversity. To get to know the land, seek out where the wild things are.
Despite its limited surface area, Greece is endowed with a particularly rich and diversified natural environment as a result of a rare geomorphology, with many striking natural contrasts and areas of great ecological value. The country’s abundant natural gifts – countless indented coasts, imposing rocky massifs, caves, gorges, lakes, rivers, biotopes of spectacular beauty and unique natural habitats – coupled with the mild climate, place it among the ideal destinations for ecotourism and alternative forms of tourism.
When traveling in Greece, as a nature-loving tourist I was offered the opportunity to wander in aesthetic forests as well as explore national parks, not merely in the mountainous regions of the mainland, but also on certain islands and in the proximity of rivers and lakes where I enjoyed the wonderful natural monuments, gorges, caves and waterfalls. It’s also possible to watch and admire rare bird species nesting or seeking refuge in coastal ecosystems and wetlands – rocky coasts, sandy beaches, sand dunes, river deltas, lakes, marshes, coastal plains – and study the highly diverse floral life of the Greek countryside.
The presence of species like the Mediterranean monk seal, which has a high place on the ecological pyramid, also attest to the high quality of the environment. For travelers who prefer the sea to the mainland, a truly unique experience is a visit to the marine parks supported near the islands of Alonissos and Zakynthos, which provide shelter to two protected species, the Mediterranean monk seal (Monachus monachus) and the Mediterranean green loggerhead turtle (Caretta caretta) respectively.
Greece’s wildlife includes rare salamanders and chameleons, as well as bears, wolves, wildcats, goats, deer, and even horses – like the Skyros pony and the Andravida horses; some have roots in antiquity, others are linked to specific periods in Greece’s history, but all are a part of this amazing land.
Sea creatures that I enjoyed watching while cruising the seas
Dolphins are a common sight when sailing the Greek waters, but when approaching the coast, especially around the Northern Sporades group and the islands of the northern Aegean or Dodecanese, you may be lucky enough to spot a seal sunning itself on a rocky outcrop or diving for fish in the sparkling blue waters. You can bet how beautiful this can be if you are a nature tourist.
A large-bodied species of seal that can grow to three meters head to tail and 300 kilos in weight, the Mediterranean monk seal or Monachus monachus ranks among the world’s endangered species largely because the seal’s long reproductive cycle – 10 months pregnancy and two months feeding – hampers fast repopulation. Indeed, Greece is especially important as a habitat for these seals as between one-third and one-half of the world’s population lives in Greek waters.
To protect them, the sea area around Alonissos, including several islets, have been declared a national marine park which, of course, has attracted a host of other wildlife, including dolphins and migratory birds. Fishing is banned within the marine park. Monachus monachus is native to the Aegean – there are mentions of the seal in mythology and the texts of Homer and Aristotle as well as coins, dating from the sixth century B.C. featuring seal heads.
Another sea creature associated with Greece is the loggerhead turtle, one of the planet’s oldest species. These turtles, known to the Greeks since antiquity, have a preference for the Mediterranean and especially the Ionian coast where each year thousands of female turtles come ashore to lay their eggs at their favored nesting place at Laganas Bay on the island of Zakynthos but also along the northern coast of Crete, especially around Hania and Rethymno.
Incredibly, the turtles nest right on the beach, happily coexisting with bathers although great care is taken at designated areas not to disturb them by limiting noise, banning speedboats, and lights at night. Environmental and conservation groups run volunteer programs during the breeding season – a wonderful way to combine a holiday with a unique experience.
The Wildlife on Mountains and Gorges
Greece’s mountains are home to a number of mammals, from otters and fallow deer to brown bears and wildcats – many of which have been native to the country since antiquity while others were more recently introduced. The best known is the brown bear, or Ursus arctos, which lives in the mountains of northern Greece although it’s linked in mythology to the daughter of Arcadian king with whom Zeus lay.
Greece’s brown bear population is especially important as the species has virtually disappeared from northern and central Europe. Though they tend to remain within a specific region, bears can travel considerable distance, especially in search of food. Non-profit groups in parks with recorded bear populations have information about them as well as two other species – the Eurasian lynx and the wolf, or Canis lupus – that share their habitats. The lynx, also known in Greece since antiquity, is found mainly in the northern Pindus range, although it was once found in Rodopi and northeastern Greece.
The south, and more precisely the island of Crete, is home to the Cretan wildcat or Felis silvestris, the only feline species indigenous to Greece. Once believed to be extinct, it was sighted about ten years ago and since then has been tracked by researchers. Crete is also known for its chamois, the Capra aegagrus cretica) or agrimi as it’s known locally. Brought from Asia some six thousand years ago, the agrimi became the symbol of Crete and is now found mainly in the Samaria National Park. The agrimi is not related to another chamois species, the Capra aegagrus dorcas which is found on the uninhabited islet of Gioura off the coast of Alonissos in the Northern Sporades group. A characteristic of the Gioura chamois are the twisted horns of the male. Glossa, an area on the tip of Skopelos, another island in the Northern Sporades, is also known for its sheep – one of six breeds native to Greece.
It’s not just the mainland that’s home to Greek wildlife: several other islands also have populations of species, many with a presence in Greece since antiquity. One is the fallow deer, whose presence was recorded on the mainland as late as the mid-nineteenth century although it’s more closely associated with Rhodes where a dwindling population is still found.
Greece’s wildlife includes several native species of horses, from the small-bodied Skyros pony which lives in a semi-wild state on the island to the wild horses of Petalas – about 500 horses who roam wild over an area of roughly 300 square kilometers bounded by the towns of Amphilohia, Inahos, and Stratos in western Greece.
Another species that can be spotted grazing on the marshes around Lake Kerkini and Lake Vistonida is the water buffalo which is believed to be descended from the wild buffalo of India. Until seventy or eighty years ago, these buffalo could be seen throughout Greece as they were used for farming but their replacement by machinery has caused their population to dwindle.
Where the birds are Nesting or Resting
Greece’s woods and wetlands are home to roughly hundreds of species of birds, both migratory and resident. Birdwatchers have even spotted the slender-billed curlew, an extremely rare breed of migratory bird, in Greece. This bird, which nests in west-central Siberia, flies over the Black Sea to northern Africa to winter but for more than a decade now the only sightings have been in Greece, around the Evros delta. Another magnificent, and rare, bird seen in Greece is the black stork, , which likes to nest atop trees in wooded areas near water.
One of the biggest bird habitats is the Dadia Forest on the eastern slopes of the Rodopi range where significant populations of raptors nest and live, among them black vultures, imperial and golden eagles, griffon vultures, honey buzzards, and lanner falcons. The black vulture colony is the largest in south-eastern Europe. What’s remarkable about Dadia is how conservation has been linked to the preservation of traditional human activity as small settlements are sprinkled throughout the protected area.
Prime birdwatching areas in Greece are also found at the Prespa lakes, the Aheloos and Evros deltas, and the Messolonghi wetlands as well as smaller wetlands throughout the mainland and islands. Greece’s long coastline also offers several resting places for migratory birds. In winter, the Pylos lagoon in the south-western Peloponnese is home to large populations of the great white egret, and cormorants which fish in flocks of as many as 1,000 birds.
One bird species particularly linked to Greece is the Dalmatian pelican, a magnificent creature with a wing span that reaches over three meters. The Dalmatian pelican is found principally at the Prespa lakes and the wetlands of the Amvrakikos gulf where it nests and around Lake Kerkini where large colonies of this endangered species spend the winter. Over one-third of Europe’s population and roughly ten per cent of the globe’s population of the Dalmatian pelican is found in Greece.
Another bird found in the Aegean is Eleonora’s falcon, which is partial to the rocky islets and rugged coasts. Roughly half the global population of Eleonora’s falcon is found in Greece. A small population of the little egret, also nests in Greece, especially around the Amvrakikos gulf. This heron is easy to spot thanks to its snow-white plumage. Large colonies of the great white pelican also nest around the Amvrakikos and Lake Kerkini.
The great spotted cuckoo is also found in Greece, much to birdwatchers’ delight. Though rare, it can be seen near Lake Volvi in northern Greece, the Evros delta, and on some Aegean islands. The bearded vulture, prefers the rugged terrain above mountain forests or sheer bluffs and is thus quite partial to the coasts of Crete where it likes to hunt alone or in pairs.
The rarest bird species observed in Greece is the silver pelican, which have been recorded at the Prespa lakes and around the Amvrakikos Gulf.
If you are a nature lover and would love to see some rare sea creatures , the next time that you visit Greece, then a must visit includes Zakynthos National Marine Park and National Marine Park of Alonissos. I’m definitely sure that you love the sceneries in these parks.