Stretching from the Arctic to the Black Sea, the Iron Curtain separated communist East from capitalist West for nearly 45 years.

Off-limits to people – with the exception of machine-gun-toting border guards – this Cold War no-man’s land of barbed-wire fences, mines and watchtowers became a refuge for incredible numbers of wildlife.

With a timeout from agriculture and development lasting more than four decades, habitats including tundra, boreal forests, grasslands and marshes flourished along the old dividing line, providing an “ecological corridor” for wolves, bears, lynx, eagles and other wildlife.

The former Iron Curtain became a haven for threatened species of mammals, birds, insects and plants.
Image: REUTERS/Vasily Fedosenko

On Germany’s 1,400km strip alone, there are more than 600 threatened animal and plant species, a survey by German conservation groups found.

A green success story

It is thanks to the quick reactions of German conservationists on both sides of the Iron Curtain that, almost three decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Europe still has this ribbon of wilderness.

Image: European Green Belt Initiative

When the Wall came down in November 1989, conservationists from East and West Germany rushed to preserve the unspoilt land in the border zone, fearing it would be swallowed up by roads, housing and farms.

Their efforts resulted in the Green Belt Germany project, which eventually led to the creation, in 2003, of a nature reserve tracking the former Iron Curtain from the Barents Sea, along the Baltic coast, through Central Europe and the Balkans to the Black Sea.

The European Green Belt connects 40 national parks across 24 countries. Much of the area remains relatively undisturbed by humans (though the European Green Belt Initiative encourages sustainable tourism, including the Iron Curtain Trail cycle path.)

“Unwittingly, the Iron Curtain encouraged the conservation and development of valuable habitats and thus served as a retreat for many endangered species,” the European Green Belt website says.

‘From death zone to lifeline’

German ornithologist and conservationist Kai Frobel, whose Green Belt Germany project provided the model for the European Green Belt, explained in a 2017 NBC News interview that nature had effectively been given a holiday from human activity for almost half a century.

“The Green Belt was one of the very few places in Germany where you have unused land, no agriculture, no streets," he said. "And this was a chance for nature. Nature had a pause of 40 to 50 years to live in this area.

“And so this green belt turned from a death zone into a lifeline.”

Frobel and his colleagues have also been talking with South Korean officials about how to protect biodiversity in the Korean Demilitarized Zone, which has become a sanctuary for some of the most endangered animals in Asia.

“This is the only region in the world that can be compared with Germany before 1989,” he said in a 2017 interview with Deutsche Welle.