Exploring the Hidden Part of Croatia: A Short-Term Scientific Mission to Lika, Croatia 


By Tamara Jovanović and Igor Ponjiger (University of Novi Sad)

In the period from May 13 to 17, MARGISTAR’s Tamara Jovanović and Igor Ponjiger visited the region of Lika, Croatia. They were invited by the Gospić branch of the Institute of Social Sciences Ivo Pilar and Velebit Nature Park. Over the course of five days, they achieved their scientific goals and got to know a fascinating part of Croatia that is often overlooked. Because their research and interests are closely tied and they have in the past collaborated on several papers within MARGISTAR, they decided to take the trip during the same period. Read on for more about their mission and the experiences they had.  

This May, we embarked on a short-term scientific mission (STSM) in the Croatian region of Lika. The destination was the town of Gospić, where the headquarters of both the Velebit Nature Park and the Ivo Pilar Institute are located. Our interests lie in two separate areas related to MARGISTAR’s aims, namely local community behaviour from a social science viewpoint and wildlife management and ecology. To delve into the topics of social sciences and qualitative research surrounding depopulation processes in rural mountain areas, we worked with Anita Bušljeta Tonković from the Ivo Pilar Institute. Other topics included wildlife management and ecology, adventure and wildlife tourism, and its impacts on rural areas. The perfect location to research these subjects was Velebit Nature Park, where we collaborated with the Director, Mario Šaban.

Ivo Pilar Institute – Finding Solutions for Depopulated Rural Areas

Upon arrival, we met the wider Ivo Pilar team in Gospić: Ivan Brlić (dr. sc. Institute Director), Ema Bašić (Research Assistant), and Adrian Knežević (Research Assistant). To kick off our meeting, we were given an overview of the RURALIKA project carried out by the Gospić team. This project deals with themes of modernisation and (post)transition processes in rural areas of Croatia and has conducted a case study on the Lika Region.

Next, we had the chance to speak with the team and find research overlaps amongst ourselves. We discussed the current state of migration from rural to urban areas, a problem visible in both the Lika (Croatia) and Vojvodina (Serbia) regions. Main issues relating to rural-urban migration are highlighted in an economic, ecological, interpersonal, and political sense, and pertain to identity and feelings of belonging as well. Together, we discussed how a joint paper might look and how to formulate hypotheses related to our planned research and started work on interview questions inspired by Anita’s previous research. We focused on the cultural specificities of rural identity and depopulation processes in rural mountain areas.

We then underwent intensive training on qualitative methodology and how to use MAXQDA[1] as a main tool for this type of analysis. We used Anita’s data from her previous research that employed a quantitative approach, using interviews with people from rural areas of the Lika Region. This part of the STSM concluded with a discussion surrounding our future collaboration and planning a visit to our Faculty of Sciences in Novi Sad for follow-up research and to give the Croatian team members the opportunity to experience Serbian rural mountain communities.

Velebit Nature Park – Sustainability, Wildlife and Tourism

After working with the Ivo Pilar team, we went to visit Velebit Mountain, the largest naturally protected area in Croatia and a more than appropriate location for mountain research. Our first objective was to engage with the Park Head and professional staff at Velebit Nature Park. This part of the visit was particularly significant due to our research focuses on wildlife protection and large predator monitoring. Meeting Park Director Mario Šaban led to a productive talk about the state of protected areas in Croatia, as well as notable problems and opportunities in the Lika Region. Afterwards, accompanied by Luka Krmpotić (Park Ranger) and Marija Petry (Expert Associate for the Protection and Preservation of Natural Heritage and the Ecological Network), we had a long tour of the protected area as it is the best way to familiarise and quickly learn about the surrounding environment.

Velebit Mountain area (source: Rewilding Europe)

The professionals at Velebit Mountain are also members of the LIFE Lynx project, which is aimed at saving the Dinaric-SE Alpine lynx population from extinction by improving its genetic and demographic outlook. As a part of this project and other monitoring activities, a network of trail cameras has been scattered throughout the protected area that gather valuable information on the Alpine lynx and other species. We took part in data collection and received first-hand advice on monitoring wildlife. Whereas this part of Croatia is notable for its evident depopulation, beautiful sights and pristine nature offer great potential for the development of sustainable tourism activities.

Hidden trail camera in Velebit Nature Park (top) and a lynx hair trap used to collect genetic material (bottom)

The guided tour of Velebit Mountain, parts of which are included in the UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve, was a memorable moment. The landscape’s beauty combined with the detailed explanations provided by our guides made this a noteworthy experience. The Velebit Region is known for its remarkable biodiversity and includes over 2,000 plant species, 79 of which are endemic, highlighting the ecological significance of this protected area and the critical need for its preservation.

Velebit Mountain is home to many mammal species as well as three of the main European carnivores: the lynx, the bear, and the wolf. This is something we not only heard about but had the chance to see for ourselves. We witnessed the collection of lynx genetic material (hair traps) and met the team from Rewilding Velebit that had recently collected a collar from one deer that was tracked in the area. These experiences were proof of the region’s rich wildlife and well-preserved nature.

Experiencing Lika (and Zadar)

An opportunity given by MARGISTAR to visit and experience rural mountainous areas abroad is valuable in understanding the challenges of the area and perceiving similar problems from a unique perspective. Thanks to this STSM, we got the chance to explore Lika, a rural part of Croatia which had been historically neglected.

Located in the hinterland of the Adriatic coastline, Lika is often overlooked, and based on our experience, is a hidden rural gem of Croatia. Lika is a mountainous region or plateau, surrounded by mountain ranges. Its rough borders are Velebit in the south, Velika Kapela in the west, Mala Kapela in the north, and Lička Plješivica in the east. All these belong to Dinaric Alps, an extensive mountainous area that stretches from Slovenia to Albania.

Town of Gospić from the bridge on Novčica River, Nikola Tesla Memorial Center in Smiljan near Gospić, and views from Velebit

Our decision to visit the town of Gospić was driven by the overlap of our research interests in the sustainable development of rural mountainous regions, wildlife management methods and solutions, and, most importantly, the people and the problems they face in these types of areas. We had high expectations for the mission, anticipating an abundance of knowledge and collaboration opportunities. After returning and looking back, we are pleased to report that these expectations were exceeded.

Visit to Zadar, the oldest continuously inhabited city in Croatia, with Anita Bušljeta Tonković and Ivan Brlić. Top left: Zadar Cathedral from the 12th century. Bottom left: coast near the famous Zadar Sea Organ, which plays music from sea waves and tubes located underneath large marble steps. Right: inside the Church of St. Donatus from the 9th century.

After Gospić, we visited Plitvice Lakes National Park. The most popular tourist destination in Croatia is also located in Lika and hosts over 1,3 million tourists annually. While this National Park represents a huge economic boost for the local economy, overtourism (as can be seen in some of our photos) is a main concern. Nonetheless, this didn’t spoil our experience. Picturesque tufa lakes with numerous waterfalls surrounded the area and made up for all the waiting!

Huge crowds in the Plitvice National Park

Takeaways from Lika

Due to its strategic and traffic significance in connecting the continental and coastal parts of Croatia, Lika is often called the “Backbone of Croatia.” However, historical turmoil, depopulation, economic issues, and other problems have left this area underdeveloped and marginalised. It is bewildering to witness a region that has so much to offer – the birthplace of one of the world’s prominent inventors Nikola Tesla, beautiful sights such as Plitvice National Park and Velebit Nature Park, the cuisine, and other sights we did not have time for.

A visit to Velebit Mountain reinforced the importance of protecting biodiversity. The region’s rich ecological diversity serves as a model for conservation efforts in other mountainous areas and is a valuable example for other countries. This especially applies to Serbia, which battles its own array of issues in protecting mountain regions.

Besides getting to know this stunning region, we made significant advances in our research and returned motivated to work and research these themes. Seeing rural areas of Lika provided us with insights into the vast possibilities of rural tourism development.

The Velebit karst ecosystem is particularly notable for its unique geological formations and endemic species.

Future Prospects

The mission provided ample networking opportunities. We established connections with several researchers at the Ivo Pilar Institute, opening doors for potential future collaborations. Discussions with Anita Bušljeta Tonković were particularly fruitful, and we have already begun exploring joint research papers focusing on rural mountain issues such as depopulation, and creative tourism perspectives.

The insights gained from this mission have significant implications for our ongoing research within the MARGISTAR COST Action. The potential collaborations established during this trip certainly enriched our collective understanding and approach to rural mountain research. Looking forward, we are excited about the possibility of further delving into the topics debated during this mission. The themes of rural sustainability and community involvement will undoubtedly continue to evolve, and we are eager to contribute to this field.

In conclusion, our STSM to Gospić, Croatia was an enriching and broadening experience. The visit to the Ivo Pilar Institute and the exploration of Velebit Mountain provided valuable insights about rural mountain areas and gained meaningful connections that will certainly be cultivated in the future. We are grateful for the opportunity provided by MARGISTAR and look forward to applying the knowledge gained to our research and future collaborations. Of course, our gratitude also goes out to our hosts Anita Bušljeta Tonković and Mario Šaban for their time and effort in organising this visit.

[1] MAXQDA is a software designed for qualitative, quantitative, and mixed methods research. For more information we suggest this book: Analyzing Qualitative Data with MAXQDA

For more impressions, follow MARGISTAR on Instagram

Keep In Touch

Join our newsletter for the latest project news and collaboration opportunities.

About MARGISTAR & How To Join

The MARGISTAR forum reflects collaboratively on natural, environmental, social, and economic inter-relationships and interactions in mountainous areas, and identifies a range of environmental, social, economic, and political challenges. It enables innovation by co-designing pathways for the transformation of marginalised mountainous areas towards their green, digital and healthy futures.

To join MARGISTAR, read the instructions here and get in touch!

Related articles

Fiona’s Short-Term Scientific Mission in Novi Sad, Serbia: Tourism Research Training in a Leafy Green City Steeped in History 

By Fiona Bakas (Lusófona University and IGOT, University of Lisbon, Portugal) This May, MARGISTAR’s Fiona Bakas attended a MARGISTAR...

The SIMRA Project: Enhancing Social Innovation in Marginalised (Mountainous) Rural Areas

By Ivana Zivojinovic and Isidora Dabic (University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences, Vienna)  The Social Innovation in Marginalised...

Helping rural Ireland reimagine a more prosperous future for their towns and villages

By Dr Michelle Cowley-Cunningham and Antonia Egli (Dublin City University) Rural development creates vibrant environments with improved economic opportunities...

Living Labs: Facilitators in Fostering Innovation in Marginalised Mountain Areas

By Klaus Wagner, Ingrid Machold, and Somaye Latifi (Federal Institute of Agricultural Economics, Rural and Mountain Research (BAB),...