The Cold War and Ecological History: Why the Red Deer Won’t Cross the Long-Lifted Iron Curtain

Dearly beloved, I have missed you.

But I would also be a liar if I didn’t say I had the most wonderful ten weeks of travel in India. I played ceaselessly bemused voyeur at a friend’s wedding, soaked in the warm rains of Mumbai, picked tea in the Nilgiri mountains, and spent an afternoon socializing with Bollywood celebrities – an experience so bizarre and surreal, it belonged in a Luis Bunuel film.

I also went on a safari in the Mudumalai Forest Reserve in southern India, where I saw peacocks, bison, elephants, and langurs. And deer. I saw lots and lots of deer. Really, after the first thirty seven herds, I lost count. I mean, I understand the forest is full of spotted deer, and that’s fantastic. It’s magical when you spot that first herd: the stags with their majestic antlers, the doe grazing collectively in what I would like to believe is a wonderful show of female solidarity, and the fawns – Oh! The fawns tumbling in the undergrowth. It makes you feel like this little girl doing the rounds on the internet these days, utterly unable to get over her baby brother’s cuteness.

“Oh my gosh! I want him to stay little!”

But then you see another herd. And then another. And then another. And so forth, until the next time your sister pokes you in the ribs and says, “Look! Deer!”, your reaction is something like this:

Anyway, I am back in Berkeley. I’m soft from all the excessive eating, I’m nostalgic about the Indian summer but very, very happy to see the mist in the hills behind my apartment, I’m super-efficient at housework in the wee hours of the morning because my body hasn’t realized that it’s back on pacific time, and I’m eager to tell Boyfriend all about the trip – the tea gardens, the political developments, the trashy movies (of which I watched plenty), and the deer.

Now, he’s a big tea drinker, Boyfriend is. He is a politics junkie, he is even a fan of pop culture. But a wildlife person he is not. By the time I came to detailing my safari to him, Boyfriend had started to lose a little bit of interest in my stories. (And I don’t blame him entirely: at this point I’d been talking for four days straight.) So it surprised me when his ears perked up at the mention of the deer. Of course, I didn’t have to wait very long for the reason why he was interested in them – he held his silence while I meandered through my tales, and as soon as I was done, he said:

“Did you know the deer in the Bohemian Forest between Czechoslovakia and Germany do not cross the line that used to be the Iron Curtain? Even though there is no longer any physical barrier to prevent them from doing so?”

Oh, so that’s why deer interest you now. Because the very idea that some semblance of the Cold War continues today in a little section of the mammalian class, sends orgasmic pulses of electricity to your unabashedly nerdy brain.

But it is a fascinating story, for which you must first picture the Bohemian Forest in relation to the Iron Curtain:

Extent of the Iron Curtain. (Image source.)

Bohemian forest, south-west Czech Republic/south-east Germany. (Image source.)

In the decades following the Second World War, most eastern European countries allied politically, economically, and militarily with the Soviet Union, while most western European countries allied with one another, as well as with the United States. Marking the borders of Soviet influence were East Germany and Czechoslovakia, both bordering West Germany, which represented, at the time, truly deplorable values such as individual freedom and – gasp! – well-coiffed hair.

The Bohemian Forest, which lies at the border between the Czech Republic (formerly a part of Czechoslovakia) and West Germany, and extended the tendrils of a thriving ecosystem into both countries, was ripped right through the belly by the Iron Curtain. Physical barriers were erected along large parts of the Iron Curtain, and one such was a tall fence passing through the Bohemian Forest, marking the border between two countries, two ideologies, and two very different ways of life. Often put in place by the Eastern Bloc nations, which claimed that the barriers prevented western fascists (with their ridiculously sleek hair) from infiltrating their borders and preventing the socialist way of life, these barriers effectively acted as a detriment to large scale migration from the Eastern Bloc to western Europe. Points along the Berlin Wall, for instance, famously had nails lining the ground, so cars couldn’t pass. The fence passing through the Bohemian Forest, similarly, was electrified and heavily manned by Czech armed guards, and in the years before the end of the Cold War, nearly five hundred people were electrocuted or shot while trying to enter West Germany.

The animals of the Bohemian Forest were the undocumented casualties of the electrified fence. The Red Deer heavily inhabited the forest, and during the decades between the end of the Second World War and the disintegration of the Soviet influence, several of this species died at the fence. The ones that remained learned from the reinforced unpleasantness of venturing near the fence, and stayed away from it, thus separating the herds on either side for generations.

After the Iron Curtain was lifted, and its physical barriers brought down, Germany and the Czech Republic decided to work together to establish a transboundary wilderness refuge in the area, extending from the German Bavarian Forest National Park to the Czech Sumava National Park. The idea was for the animals to roam as they pleased, crossing the border at will, and making their habitat where they felt like.

Twenty years down, Czech and German Red Deer refuse to venture anywhere near where the fence once stood. They still live in separate communities, not even crossing over to graze. New generations of deer have been born in the last two decades, generations that never experienced the losses of the Cold War period. But they do not cross the line of ideological conflict that ended two decades ago.

Such is the fury of war. Such is the hatred and inhumanity unleashed upon the innocent babes born to mothers and fathers who hath suffered in woe, mothers and fathers who hath passed on these tales of suffering to their babes. Such is the fury of war, that even the innocent are no longer unsullied. The innocent bathe themselves in the blood of their forefathers martyred at the electrified altar of fascism, and vow to teach their children and their grandchildren that the Great Iron Curtain exists, even though the eye sees it not…

Ok, that’s bullshit. But it’s probably what you’d believe if you read the flurry of media coverage following the study, most of which fattened itself around the juicy angle, “Iron Curtain Still Exists for Deer in German and Czech Forests!” While seeded in the physical bifurcation of the forest, this behavior among the deer has little to do with the politics of the Cold War. It actually comes from migratory and parenting tradition.

Deer have “homebody” instincts, which cause them to migrate within limited areas. Migratory areas are traditional, in that the mother teaches her fawn where to roam. And these fawn, when mothers themselves, teach their children the same, and so forth. So when a two-year old fawn named Ahornia – who is being tracked by wildlife biologists via a GPS collar – mysteriously turns around and retreats when she approaches the area where the electrified fence once stood, it’s not because her mind flashes back to a vision of her great grandfather, Rádsetoulal “Little Deer” Jelínek* having his front right hoof burned to toast at the fence. No. It’s because her great grandmother taught her grandmother, who taught her mother, who taught her that she should graze within the constraints of a relatively small space.

There is, of course, the question of gender. (Isn’t there always?) Pavel Sustr, head of the Czech team studying the migratory patterns of about 1800 deer in the Sumava forest, found that occasionally, male deer venture beyond this ghost-line of the Iron Curtain. Most of them return, but at least they dare to cross it, which is a lot more than the females have been observed to do.

The reason for this too, is tradition. Female fawn remain under the care of the mother for longer than male fawn, who wander off a little earlier with the adult males of the herd. The migratory patterns, therefore, while learned by both, are slightly stronger in the females. So as per the lessons of Deer Survival 101, male deer sometimes venture far from the herd and cross the border not because they are inherently more courageous or adventurous, but because they don’t know better.

History nerds might be disappointed, I know, to learn that this continued separation of deer has nothing to do with Cold War politics. I mean, how mind-twistingly cool would that be, right? But I find this prevalence of tradition among herding animals fascinating too. While it is amazing how the same set of knowledge is passed from generation to generation, it is also interesting to see the complete lack of new knowledge, or even just exploration and curiosity. And it’s interesting mostly because it makes one realize that these are really just expectations we, as naive observers, have of animals in the wild, perhaps because we look for reflections of ourselves in everything. And reflections of our history. Therefore, I believe, the great urge to declare how “Two Decades Later, the Cold War Continues in the Animal Kingdom!”

*No, Rádsetoulal “Little Deer” Jelínek is not a real deer. It’s a name I made up as a (possibly very bad) joke – Rádsetoulal is a Czech name that literally means “liked wandering around,” and Jelínek is a Czech surname that means “little deer.” (Ahornia, on the other hand, was named by wildlife biologists. She probably doesn’t have prominent horns, or something. Don’t blame me for her name.)

Want to know more? Go here. And here. And if you’re seriously scientifically minded, here.

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One thought on “The Cold War and Ecological History: Why the Red Deer Won’t Cross the Long-Lifted Iron Curtain

  1. Many thanks, I really enjoyed reading this intelligent and well-informed blog, and the unrelated “faits divers” that helped break up the heavy stuff into easily digestible portions. The clip with the little girl and the baby is just too cute for words.

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