For Red Deer, Iron Curtain Habits Die Hard

May 1, 2014
Originally published on May 1, 2014 7:32 pm

Two decades after a Cold War-era fence came down, red deer in the Czech Republic remain reluctant to cross into Germany — a fact suggesting that some deer are capable of teaching certain behaviors. Pavel Sustr headed the research team on the red deer, and he explains more.

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During the Cold War, an electrified barbed-wire fence separated what was then Communist Czechoslovakia from what was then West Germany. It kept the Czechs from crossing over into Bavaria. Well, nowadays it's the Czech Republic and the electric fence is no longer there, no longer keeping people out of what is now a united Germany. But two decades after that stretch of the Iron Curtain came down, there is still a population of inhabitants in the Czech Republic's Sumava National Park that still can't seem to cross the border. It's the red deer. A Czech team of researchers released their findings last year and Pavel Sustr, who headed the research team, joins us now.

First, tell us about the population of red deer that your team studied.

PAVEL SUSTR: Population of red deer in Sumava region, we have about 1,000 of animals in the region. And sometimes migrating from place to place and sometimes staying all the longer time in the same place.

SIEGEL: But I gather what you found is one place they won't migrate is across the border where there used to be an electric fence.

SUSTR: Yes, they are somehow respecting the former line of iron fence which was there 20 years ago. And it's quite strange pattern because more logic barrier would be, of course, the border which is closed by mountain range. But it's strange that the iron fence is divided of the two populations, because the iron fence is approximately two to eight kilometers inside Czech side.

SIEGEL: So the actual where the Iron Curtain isn't the exact border, you're saying, between the Czech Republic and Germany. It's actually a couple of kilometers within.

SUSTR: Yes. Yes, mm-hmm.

SIEGEL: Now, on the other side of the border, I gather there's also a Bavarian park and there are red deer there. Do those deer cross over into the Czech Republic?

SUSTR: Yes. This is I think the most interesting point, that the red deer from Germany is crossing the natural barrier, the mountain range, and going up to the fence. And the Czech deer is more or less stopping on the line of the former iron fence.

SIEGEL: I gather the deer only live typically about 15 years. So it's not that these animals typically remember that there is a fence there. Is it?

SUSTR: No. No. No, they can't remember. Generally the deer behavior is very conservative. They are very traditional in behavior. And from generation to generation, these traditions are transmitted by the way that the young animals are spending first year of their lives with the mother. And the mother is teaching young animals the ways and the places to visit. So this is the way how the knowledge of the former iron fences transmits new generation of animals.

SIEGEL: How long do you think it will be before the deer start crossing over the old Iron Curtain line freely, from the Czech Republic into Germany?

SUSTR: I think that it may be another 30, 50 years.

SIEGEL: Thirty or 50 years, that could be a dozen generations removed from where we are now. And it's already several generations removed from when the Iron Curtain stood.

SUSTR: Yeah, it's interesting. But I feel the changes are not going so quickly.

SIEGEL: Well, Pavel Sustr, thank you very much for talking with us about the red deer in the Sumava National Park in the Czech Republic.

SUSTR: You are welcome. Bye.

SIEGEL: Pavel Sustr, of Global Change Research Center, led the crew that studied the deer in the Sumava National Park in the Czech Republic, where they found that those deer still stay shy of the old Iron Curtain even though the electrified fence has been gone for 20 years.



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