Forests on the Devil’s Island – Asinara National Park

Sardinia is the second-largest island in the Mediterranean Sea (after Sicily and before Cyprus). It is also famous for its variety of ecosystems, which include mountains, forests, plains, largely uninhabited territories, streams, rocky coasts, and long sandy beaches. I had a chance to visit this micro-continent last year during the EFI Annual Meeting, which was held in Alghero located in the northwestern part of Sardinia. In this post, I would like to share my experience of visiting Sardinia and Asinara island, which is called the Devil’s Island. Would you like to know why? Click to continue…

The Endless Island

Sardinia is politically a region of Italy that enjoys some degree of domestic autonomy. Sardinian or Sard is an indigenous language spoken on the island and together with the other minority languages (SassareseCorsican GallureseAlgherese Catalan, and Ligurian Tabarchino) are recognized by the regional law and enjoy “equal dignity” with Italian.

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Sardinia is also famous as one of the most longevity zones in the world. Did you know that in Sardinia there is a village called Seulo, that is the place with a centenarians world record? The so-called “Blue Zones” are regions of the world where Dan Buettner, after his research around the world, claims people live much longer than average. The term first appeared in the November 2005 National Geographic magazine cover story “The Secrets of a Long Life” by Buettner, where Sardinia was placed second after Okinawa (Japan), overtaking Loma Linda in California.

“A land made from fire and stones by a pact between the Creator and the Devil”

This is how Gavino Ledda, author of Padre padrone, a novel portraying the struggle for survival of the rural poor in Sardinia, describes the tortuous terrain of his native region. Many years later it seems the pact is still being sealed for this region as Sardinia has been depleted by forest fires more than any other area in the Mediterranean basin.

The Wildfire Paradox

Sardinia is a wildfire hotspot. More than 2500 fire events on average happen in Sardinia each year. Like in other regions of southern Europe, the majority of fires directly originate from human activities. As pointed by Raffaella Lovreglio during the EFI Annual Meeting, the mean yearly burnt area is approximately 14 500 hectares. More than 86% of the fires occur from June to September with a peak in July. For instance, fires bigger than 100 ha accounted for roughly 51% of the total area burned in Sardinia between 2000 and 2016. According to some researchers (e.g., Bajocco et al. 2015), the activities with respect to forest fires are too much concentrated on control and suppression of fires, while prevention still remains a marginal activity.

Corpo Forestale vehicle with fire suppression system on the Asinara island
Corpo Forestale vehicle with fire suppression system. Photo credit: Rafal Chudy

This is problematic as it leads to the phenomenon called “the Wildfire Paradox”. This paradox says that the increase of fire suppression efforts derives into a change in fire regimes that burn in higher intensity. In other words, rapid suppression of wildfire may contribute to the creation of homogenous and dense fuel loads.

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Thus, many practitioners and researchers in Sardinia focus currently their efforts on fire smart management that is mostly related to wood fuel treatments such as thinning and prescribed burning, which are effective ways in reducing ladder fuels, crown density, and surface fuels, respectively.

The Nuraghe on the Asinara island

What about stones? The nuraghe is the main type of ancient megalithic (large stone) edifice that may be found in Sardinia. They were built between the middle of the Bronze Age (18th-15th centuries BCE) and the Late Bronze Age, and have become the symbol of the Endless Island and its distinctive culture, the Nuragic civilization. Some photos of nuraghes are found below.

Nuraghe on the Asinara Island Nuraghe on the Asinara Island

Nuraghe on the Asinara Island Nuraghe on the Asinara Island

There is no consensus on the function of the nuraghes: they could have been rulers’ residences, military strongholds, meeting halls, religious temples, ordinary dwellings or a combination of any of these things. Some of the nuraghes are, however, located in strategic places – such as hills – from which important passages could be easily controlled. Author of the photos: Rafal Chudy

Devil’s Island – Asinara

The Asinara island, the second by size (after Sant’Antioco) of the minor islands of Sardinia, has the area of 51.22 km2 and 110 km of coastline. The man, present since the Neolithic age, settled permanently only at the beginning of the 17th century, with a community of shepherds and fisherman. Since the 19th century, the entire island was used as a prison. Because of that, Asinara is known as “Isola del Diavolo” (“Devil’s Island”), since it was used as one of the most important Italian high-security prisons during the terrorist period of the 1970s and during the struggle against organized crime, until the establishment of a National Park in 1997.

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For instance, the most “famous” prisoner on the island was an Italian gangster and chief of the Cosa Nostra (Sicilian Mafia) – Salvatore Totò Riina, who was known for a ruthless murder campaign that reached a peak in the early 1990s with the assassinations of Antimafia Commission prosecutors, resulting in widespread public outcry and a major crackdown by the authorities.

The National Park “Isola dell’Asinara”

In 1997 the whole island was declared National Park while the Marine Protected Area was established in 2002. The sea zone of the island is included also in the “Pelagos Sanctuary for Mediterranean marine mammals”. The Asinara island has been also designated as Special Protection Area (EU Directive “Birds”) and Site of Community Importance (EU Directive “Habitat”) in the frame of NATURA 2000.

Bird ringing station it the Asinara National Park
At the Asinara National Park, there is a bird ringing station where researchers study continuously for the last 22 years spring migration of birds between Africa and Europe. Photo credit: Rafal Chudy

Flora and vegetation

Although there are several actions and recovering programmes going on, the flora and vegetation of Asinara National Park have been dramatically degraded as a consequence of the intensive human use during the last centuries. Fire, overgrazing, intensive and extensive farming activities, carried out during the 112 years of the presence of the penal colony determined the spread of secondary plant communities.

Last holm oak stand

According to Stefania Pisanu et al. (2014), the thermo- to meso-Mediterranean holm oak acidophilous forests occupy the uppermost part of Asinara and they survive just in one stand, Elighe Mannu, and present a low species diversity and stratification as a consequence of the severe pressure from livestock and feral herbivores. I had a chance to visit this stand and you can see it in the photo below.

Last stand of Quercus ilex in the Asinara National Park
Last stand of Quercus ilex in the Asinara National Park. Photo credit: Rafal Chudy

Italian coppice woodland and its paradox

During the field trip, Sergio Campus from the Sassari University described socio-economic and cultural implications of coppice management in Sardinia. It was mentioned that various factors, including the use of fossil fuels, have contributed to the reduction of interest for coppice production in Italy – mainly firewood.

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Researchers found that coppice abandonment coupled with a more general loss of silvicultural activity is leading towards a progressive increase of over-mature structures with a utilization rate which is very far below the real productive potential of forests. It seems that under this paradox lies a controversy concerning the public perception of coppice management, which is related to lack of distinguishment among society between “regulated coppicing” and “deforestation”. Because of that, Italian foresters are concerned that the value of centuries of experiences and traditional management practices may be lost.

Fauna on Asinara

Today more than 80 different species of amphibians, mammals, and reptiles can be observed on the Asinara island. I had a chance to observe, for instance, mouflons, horses, and the Asinara donkey whose most of the population is wholly or partly albinistic. It is estimated that there are approximately 120 individuals on the island.

Mouflon on the Asinara island
The wild sheep of Corsica – mouflon. Photo credit: Rafal Chudy
Asinara donkey
The endemic local Albino Donkey in the Asinara National Park. Photo credit: Rafal Chudy

Also, I have heard a story about how wild boars migrate among neighbouring to Asinara islands by…swimming through the sea. In the first moment, I  thought it is a joke, but later I found a movie on Youtube, which shows that wild boars are indeed good swimmers:

This may give governments something to think about, especially in the context of a present fight against African Swine Fever (ASF) by building fences like the one on the German-Danish border: Denmark set to build wild boar fence on the German border

It seems wild boars have already found their ways how to overcome such barriers 🙂

Pisanu S. et al. 2014. Vegetation and plant landscape of Asinara National Park (Italy). PLANT SOCIOLOGY 51 (1) – June 2014
Main photo credit: Rafal Chudy

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