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FEATURE STORY August 13, 2018

Every Life Matters: Resettling European Ground Squirrels in Bulgaria

Almost 100 endangered ground squirrels were relocated, owing to the World Bank’s environmental safeguards during the implementation of the Municipal Infrastructure Development Project in Bulgaria.

People in Panagyurishte - a town of 16,564 inhabitants in Central Bulgaria - have been waiting for a reliable water supply into their homes for years. As construction of the Luda Yana dam began in the fall of 2016, it looked like they would finally get their wish.

The dam, one of three being completed under the World Bank-supported Municipal Infrastructure Development Project, promises to provide a reliable source of water to the residents of the town – a key priority spelled out by the government's Strategy for Water Supply and Sewerage Management and Development plan.

As it turns out, the residents of Panagyurishte were not the only ones whose lives were about to change as a result of this construction.

In the spring of 2018, an unexpected twist in project implementation occurred when it was discovered that the project site was also home to a number of European ground squirrels – an animal listed as "Vulnerable" by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in its Red List of Threatened Species.

The European ground squirrel (known also as a European souslik) is a colonial animal that is known to dig extensive tunnel systems. These cute animals are found in southern Ukraine, Austria, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Greece, Romania, Bulgaria, Macedonia, and north - as far as Poland – where it was reintroduced in 2005 after going extinct.

Following the World Bank’s environmental safeguards, the Bulgarian Ministry of Regional Development and Public Works - the implementing agency for the project - undertook a mission to prove that every life matters. A special team of scientists from the Bulgarian academy of science was hired to figure out how to simultaneously provide Panagyurishte with water without harming the endangered European ground squirrels.

“Involuntary relocation” soon became the answer and from May through July, the scientists worked on a unique resettlement plan.

The first task was to identify a new location. The ground squirrel requires a fairly specific habitat, so an existing site where another colony of European ground squirrels already resided was identified, some 12 kilometers away from their original home. Then, the scientists started drilling new homes - more than 90 burrows were created and filled in with seeds, grass, and carrots.

The new homes were thoughtfully planned to accommodate the habits of the animals. The scientists built two types of homes – "condos" – several halls next to each other to accommodate several sousliks, and single family homes – a single burrow for one animal.

Finally, the relocation process started. Special traps were set in front of the tunnels at the project site. Once trapped, the squirrels were transferred to their new homes. To avoid stress and help these creatures ‘move in,’ the entrances of the new burrows were covered by special nets, prompting the new residents to dig away from the nets and create a new system of tunnels.

But not everything went smoothly. Temperatures dropped and heavy rains flooded the new homes. One morning the scientists found 5 animals almost frozen in their new homes. Emergency care included transportation for the animals to alaboratory in Sofia, where they were provided care – warmth and food for two weeks. While one young souslik did not make it, the remaining 4 recovered quickly and were transported back to their new homes.

According to Sirma Zidarova, a PhD zoologist and the head of the team of scientists, the relocation of the European souslik was a great success. “We managed to transfer 96 animals, 68 of which were young. They were all marked and later observations proved that the European ground squirrels adapted nicely,” Sirma explained.

Now she is busy telling the story of the adventures of the European ground squirrels to people of Panagyurishte, while the construction workers move ahead with their regular schedule.