The Hungarian meadow viper (Vipera ursinii rakosiensis) is Europe's most endangered venomous snake. It has been protected since 1974 in Hungary, where it is the country’s most endangered vertebrate. Studies have indicated that there are now less than 500 individuals in Hungary, in two small and isolated populations: one in the Hanság (North-western region) and the other in the Kiskunság (plains between the Danube and Tisza rivers). Both areas have protection designations, but the species continues to experience declining population trends. Some success at reintroducing the species has been achieved through work carried out at the Hungarian Meadow Viper Conservation Centre.
The CONVIPURSRAK LIFE project aimed to increase the population of Hungarian meadow viper through a series of direct actions, including increasing habitat size through grassland reconstruction and the release of vipers into natural habitats. Accompanying these actions, the project planned an extensive public awareness programme aimed at reducing concerns about the risks of reintroducing venomous snakes. To this end, zoos were used as partners to boost public support for the project.
The CONVIPURSRAK LIFE project succeeded in increasing the population size of the critically endangered Hungarian meadow viper. The beneficiaries significantly increased the area of continuous viper habitat by almost 400 ha, including the purchase of more than 80 ha of land that is now under the control of National Park administrations in Hanság and Kiskunság. This land is suitable for the long-term sustainable management of extensive grassland that is favourable for the viper species. Grassland reconstruction activities included the removal of invasive plant species (e.g. common milkweed and tree of heaven) and a reduction in the area covered by tree plantations, with grass being reseeded in cleared areas. In total, habitat reconstruction increased the area of continuous potential viper habitat to over 1 600 ha in Hanság. In Kiskunság National Park (KNP), important land was purchased within a core viper population area (upper Peszéradacs meadows), which is extensively grazed by livestock. These areas are protected areas at national level and are included in the Natura 2000 network. Management plans have been drawn up, for example, with regulations prohibiting machinery and the use of fertilisers, and obliging tenant farmers to use extensive grazing methods. The technology used by the farmers on this land is not only compatible with the conservation of wildlife, but can also be profitable for the farmers through the sale of ‘bio-quality products’.
The project moved forward the captive breeding programme for Hungarian meadow viper, which was launched by the previous viper LIFE project (LIFE04 NAT/HU/000116). Innovative aspects introduced to the programme by the new LIFE project included the design and production of artificial burrows. In total, 242 vipers were successfully reintroduced into their natural habitats at three sites (two in Kiskunság and one in Hanság). Valuable information about the behaviour of the reintroduced vipers was obtained through radio-tag monitoring, using a methodology using innovative radiotelemetry tags developed by the project team. The project also made improvements to measuring, sampling and specific genetic marker techniques for vipers. Altogether, 43 released individuals were identified among 204 vipers detected. Despite fewer vipers being released than the 400 foreseen, the results from the monitoring proved the viability of the released vipers.
Infrastructure building during the project included the renovation of the Hungarian Meadow Viper Conservation and Exhibition Centre, which first built in 2004 and is operated by MME BirdLife Hungary and the KNP. With the construction of new education facilities, it was opened to the public for the first time. A prey breeding centre was also established in Budapest Zoo. These actions formed part of one of the project’s most important goals: to raise public awareness about the endangered viper. The beneficiaries informed thousands of people in Hungary and in Austria about the project and the species, for example, through ongoing viper exhibitions in Budapest Zoo and Schönbrunn Zoo in Vienna. A 25-minute documentary film (“Aristocrat of Snakes”) was produced, along with a 52-minute nature movie (“Vipera Life”) and a series of short films, to increase understanding about the species among a general audience. The project produced numerous dissemination products and organised hundreds of events, including the project website and social media feeds, several publications, information boards and a mobile exhibition. Successful national and international cooperation between the project and NGOs, public bodies and scientific institutes helped create positive attitudes toward the project and its objective of conserving the Hungarian meadow viper. This was confirmed through attitude surveys that assessed the effectiveness of the publicity campaign. The extensive management that is favoured by Hungarian meadow viper is also the key to the conservation for many other protected species and habitats. The viper occurs in grasslands formed by a mosaic of drying marsh-meadows and sandy pastures, where the relatively diverse features of terrain and grass cover provide high prey-abundance and several different microclimatic options. Therefore, through the reconstruction of such grasslands, the viper can be regarded as an umbrella species for the conservation of local wildlife.
Further information on the project can be found in the project's layman report and After-LIFE Conservation Plan (see "Read more" section).
In 2018, an ex-post visit was carried out by the external monitoring team, 5 years after the end of the project. This found that viper habitat restoration and maintenance was still ongoing in Kiskunság and Hanság National Parks. MME, in cooperation with key partners, continue to reintroduce vipers every year, after a reintroduction protocol developed during the project. Dissemination activities continue through the project website and social media, and at the Hungarian Meadow Viper Conservation and Exhibition Centre, viper exhibitions and events in Budapest and Vienna Zoos, and national and international networking. In 2018, a minimum of 5 000 ha is managed in accordance with assumed habitat requirements of the viper at Bugac, Hungary. In Hanság, a long-term Management Plan of Natura 2000 sites was prepared with required management practices, including definition of priority sites for viper conservation. The plan was approved in 2014 by the Minister and is valid for 10 years. Over 250 individuals have been released in the after-LIFE period, contributing to an overall increase in the number of meadow vipers. All grasslands with known viper populations or sub-populations are in Natural Parks and are managed by extensive grazing or mosaic mowing. This has a positive impact on biodiversity (with many other species continuing to benefit), and its impact on landscape diversity generates many regulating and cultural services for human well-being. Several interviewed respondents confirmed the project's significant impact on the acceptance of the snake species. Habitat management in Kiskunság National Park is performed by local farmers, who lease the land and receive subsidies from agri-environmental schemes. This National Park can use funding from the national biodiversity scheme and KEHOP (The Environment and Energy Efficiency Operative Programme), although support for personnel for long-term management in Hanság National Park is considered insufficient. MME uses project-based funds from different donors, often in cooperation with the two National Parks. Meanwhile, the Hungarian Ministry of Agriculture partly finances the operation costs of the Hungarian Meadow Viper Conservation and Exhibition Centre.