Macedonia’s Mysterious Interior Opens for Business: Interview with Mihail Malahov, General Manager of Jasen Nature Reserve
Editor’s note: Kept largely off-limits for decades by the former Yugoslav government, central Macedonia’s mountain wilds are still the subject of all sorts of legends and rumors. However, with the creation of the snaking Lake Kozjak running alongside it, the Jasen Nature Reserve – home of some of Macedonia’s few remaining lynx – is set to become a major draw for eco-tourism in coming years. In the following interview, Balkanalysis.com Director Chris Deliso gets the story on current developments from the park’s general manager, Mr Mihail Malahov.
Chris Deliso: Jasen is a nature reserve covering an area of over 300km2, in the mountains of central Macedonia. This is a fairly large and difficult area to manage. Would you like to share your secret for the park’s successful functioning here?
Mihail Malahov: In the period 1958-1960, the territory where today’s Public Enterprise for Managing and Protection of the Multipurpose Area Jasen exists was declared to be set aside as a reserve by the government. The aim of this declaration was the protection of the biological, floral, fauna, hydrologic and geologic natural rarities.
Jasen spreads across 32,000 hectares or 320 km2. The height difference between the lowest (330m above sea level) and highest (2470 meters above sea level) point is above 2100 meters; through it runs the beautiful River Treska, which powers the biggest artificial hydropower accumulation in Macedonia, Lake Kozjak, with 550 million m3 of water and the most spectacular accumulation [point], Matka, which runs into the Matka Canyon. This canyon is by law declared as a monument of nature. Among them is Sveta Petka, a construction which is expected next year to start to be full with water.
The employees in Jasen are people who for generations have been working here, transmitting their love for this area from generation to generation. They are the ones who with jealously guard this area and its natural resources for the future generations, paying attention to the dangers that accompany a new modern era [for the environment].
Without them, without their love for this space, it would simply not be possible to run Jasen. I have the chance and the opportunity to learn from them about how this process of sustainable management should continue, but of course with previous evaluation of the natural values of experts; this means the establishment of special protection zones and, in the end, management that will provide protection of nature and sustainability of management.
CD: Besides the basic function of your company, preserving the nature as it is and protection of flora and fauna, Jasen is also a high-status hunting ground. How did you manage to build the image of Jasen as a rich and authentic place for sport hunting?
MM: Very simple! We are trying to implement a policy of more services in hunting tourism, but in terms of a minimum of shooting. This means that a hunter in Jasen can come only through hunting tour operators, with whom we have signed agreements which set out our policies for hunting.
In general, the hunter is always accompanied by a hunting guide as a part of our so-called ‘hunting packages;’ precisely defined herein is what can be hunted, when hunting can occur, i.e., in what seasons for which species, and what accommodation the hunter may require.
In many cases, this is previously determined, so that the itinerary during his stay in Jasen may quite possibly include a visit to [other] cultural, historical or tourist attractions in Macedonia. Welcoming the hunter at the airport, providing documents for staying in Jasen, the preparation of documents for input and output of hunting weapons and ammunition, transportation to and through the hunting area, preparation of hunting trophies and certificates for it- all these are, it is not even not necessary to say, carried out by us, these [duties] are our obligation. The percentage of success in hunting in Jasen is 100%.
CD: What kinds of animals can be found in Jasen?
MM: Jasen is famous for Balkan wild goat, wild boar, deer and mouflon, though lately wolf, rabbit and fox are becoming very attractive as well. Since last year in our hunting ground, known as Fazanerija 10, we offer hunting of endemic and migratory birds. Jasen is also known for the beautiful wild pheasant.
However, bears, the Balkan lynx and eagle vultures are strictly protected species from shooting. The terrain where our customers hunt is full of exquisite natural beauty, so very often they reach for their camera rather than for their hunting weapons!
We ourselves, the employees in Jasen, in cooperation with NGOs, are installing a multitude of so-called camera traps, which is giving us insight and new information about the routine behaviour of the animals, their diversity and frequency of movement on certain routes.
CD: While you have primarily been oriented towards VIP hunting, lately there has developed an understanding that Jasen is open for ‘ordinary’ citizens too. People in Macedonia have long had the impression that Jasen hides a big secret- underground cities, secret caves, military tunnels… What is actually the truth behind all this?
MM: It is both the truth, and a lie! For half a century, Jasen has been a mystery. Isn’t it a good enough reason to come to it, and to explore, to discover? I guarantee you great discoveries.
Speleologists from the Slovak Republic were in Jasen and discovered the deepest canyon in Macedonia, with more than 500 meters depth in terms of permanent ice and they have not yet come to the end! And divers from Italy, Belgium and the Netherlands have plummeted deep into Vrelo in Lake Matka- probably the deepest underwater cave in the Balkans and Europe, more than 200 meters deep, and also they did not come to the bottom of it yet.
Also, in many pits were found skeletons of animals and not only that. Researchers from Slovenia and Poland found large groups of ground squirrels that the world thought had disappeared. Also, do you know that in Jasen live butterflies that simply exist nowhere else in the world? This mystique has probably caused attention also to a French film production, and we are currently negotiating terms for shooting a feature film in the Jasen reserve.
But yes, we organize day tours for ordinary citizens on some of the paths with different levels of difficulty. That depends on the capabilities of the group and, as a reward for successful completion of the hikes, we arrange lunch, a delicious organic meal with homemade wine produced exclusively from our natural ingredients.
For those who want adrenaline-generating experience, we provide a course in paragliding, courses for survival techniques in nature, rock-climbing in the company of experienced climbers and mountain guides, rafting on calm waters and so on. The safety of our visitors is very important to us and therefore each group has a medic present and our experienced guide with them as well.
CD: The main problem for tourism in Macedonia in general, is the lack of a specific vision regarding in which direction to develop tourism. What is your vision for the development of tourism in Jasen?
MM: We know what we have, and that’s what we offer. And it’s not a little! According to the valorization of natural resources, which is ongoing, Jasen is one of the last truly wild and untouched areas in Europe. We know all this, and we have a plan to use it. We intend to build facilities to accommodate guests only where it is allowed according to the degree on protection zone or plan management.
If we do not act like this, tomorrow we will find ourselves in a position of having nothing to show, we will find ourselves in a position of having nothing to offer.
The buffer zone around Jasen, which abounds in mostly unpopulated mountain, has villages and houses within them, with lovely architecture. In agreement with the owners of the houses, those who exchanged their rural life for city life, we decided together to start renovating some houses or parts of the houses.
In these houses, we have plans to accommodate our future guests. And in this area they are many. For example, only in the village of Borova Breznica, one of the many picturesque mountain villages above Lake Kozjak, with over 70 houses and a local road to it, we can provide 100 beds and competent hosts (with little previous education). They would care for each of their guests, and provide a truly rustic bed and breakfast accommodation.
We, the employees from Jasen, according to the guest’s wishes, will provide rides through mountain paths, visit parks offering adrenaline-packed experiences, hunting of wild game in the form of “hunting safaris,” horse riding, resting on rafts on the lake or going down into the deep, ice-cold caverns with a caving guide. And many other things too!
CD: The new road that is being built right now between Makedonski Brod and Skopje comes as a big relief for the people from the Porece region, who can now travel much more easily and quickly to the Macedonian capital. But how it will affect the ecology balance in Jasen?
MM: Not at all! The new road passes right through the zone where the risk of significant destruction of rare species and general disruption of biodiversity is minimal. Certainly this is being taken care of during the time of designing the way through outlets provided under way for feeding and free movement of game and other wildlife, a protected area and a fence along the entire length of the road.
We must not forget that on the other hand, if there is neither communications nor travel directions, the opportunity to reach these beauties is very minimal. Following the regulations in the protection plan through the management area is functioning already in the world. I see no reason why it won’t here as well.
CD: A part of the reserve is also taken up by Lake Kozjak. Does your plan for tourism development in Jasen include the lake too? What activities can be enjoyed on the lake (except for fishing of course), without ruining the ecological balance of the lake and the surrounding area?
MM: Definitely one of the top priorities for tourism development is precisely Lake Kozjak, and not only that but Matka and the new St. Petka as well.
By August this year, in cooperation with the Agency for Youth and Sport, we have planned to promote a new public-lane swimming [area], with a distance of 10 km, on Lake Kozjak. As promoters of the swimming course, hopefully, will be included all the participants of the famous Ohrid swimming marathon, because ours is planned to be held two days later. We hope for the financial assistance of the prime minister of the Republic of Macedonia, and we hope he will accept our offer to be the general patron of the Skopje Swimming Marathon.
A tourism development model I see for us is the so-called ‘Scandinavian model.’ However, the northern countries of our continent have developed a specific form of tourist accommodation for guests on the water- platforms holding up houses, restaurants and accommodation.
The construction is cheap, wastewater relatively easy to manage with collection tanks which will sail along with platforms and, from time to time, through a mini mobile water treatment plant on board, will be cleaned.
We will have a minimal cost, the danger of forest fires is minimal, and we have to admit that the attractiveness of water stays for longer periods is also great.
As part of these tourist areas on the water will also be swimming pools and also we’ll have the opportunity to form real beaches. Water sports certainly will be very easy to practice and Skopje citizens will have their sea!
CD: How do you see Jasen in the future?
MM: We have a plan to do a real interaction between local government and Jasen as a state enterprise. I believe that the fusion of rural and eco-tourism as the winning combination in the case of Jasen.
I sincerely hope the government support is there for rapid implementation of the project, because the development of tourism is in the interest of all.
Note: This interview was co-published in the magazine of the American-Macedonian Chamber of Commerce, Emerging Macedonia.
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