Ecologists call for rare animals to be protected as secluded Korean border zone opens up

North and South Korean soldiers exchanged cigarettes and chatted as they inspected 22 newly dismantled guard posts along the world’s most heavily armed border in mid-December, in friendly scenes that would have been unthinkable a year ago. 

But amid the celebration of this year’s political progress on the Korean peninsula, ecologists have warned that many endangered animals, who have found a home in the no-man’s land of the “demilitarised zone” [DMZ] separating North and South, could be at risk as it slowly opens up. 

Surrounded by barbed wire, the 155-mile long, 2.5-mile-wide border area has become an accidental ecological oasis after being left undisturbed by humans since the Korean War of the 1950s ended with an uneasy armistice and the division of the peninsula. 

Although heavily mined, it has offered sanctuary to more than 5,000 identified plant and animal species, including over 100 considered to be endangered or protected.  

The white-naped crane is among the rare species living in the DMZCredit:
Ilya Naymushin/AP

South Korea’s ministry of environment is now drafting a conservation plan to ensure that the rare wildlife is not harmed in the pursuit of diplomatic détente.   

“The DMZ is home to a large number of species that have lost their habitat due to human interference. These include white-naped cranes which live in the midwestern part during the winter,” Seo Hyungsoo, a researcher at the South’s National Institute of Ecology, told The Telegraph. 

“There are also musk deer, which live in the mid-eastern part. If the DMZ didn’t exist, these species are highly likely to have been completely wiped out in Korea. That’s why they are of high value in preserving internationally,” he said. 

The golden eagle also soars in the skies between North and South KoreaCredit:
Anton Petrus/Getty Images


Other rare species include the Suwon tree frog, Eurasian otters, golden eagles and Chinese egrets. Sightings of the endangered Amur leopard and the Siberian tiger have been reported but never officially recorded. 

“Further measurements are needed in case the DMZ opens up to civilians. There will be threats of poaching the musk deer, and the designation of protected area for the birds in the winter is necessary,” said Mr Seo.

“The ministry of environment plans to establish a joint plan for conservation and management of the DMZ and devise a reasonable strategy for use without destroying the ecological value.”

Once described by Bill Clinton, the former US president, as “one of the scariest places on Earth” because of its potential to be a flashpoint for nuclear war, environmentalists now hope that in future its unusual natural beauty can be preserved and enjoyed.