Endangered species on Denmark’s fringe

How did one of the world’s most comprehensive collections of crocodiles end up in the town of Eskildstrup on the island of Lolland? Thomas Bech Hansen meets René Hedegaard, a man on a mission to save threatened animals and a vanishing region.

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Some 150 kilometres south of Copenhagen lies the island of Lolland. Abandoned houses pop up frequently, for sale signs are visible in about every third front garden. That is, of course, if you are not driving through acres of deserted farm land. There are not many young people here. And if they are here, they are probably waiting to finish school so they can seek opportunities in the capital or perhaps even south of the border in Germany. Welcome to Fringe Denmark, a degenerated part of the kingdom, a thorn in the government’s side and an economic disaster for rural areas.

Some people are determined not to give up fighting. Rene Hedegaard, originally an electrician by trade, is one of them. His project is a crocodile zoo. Unique sales point? It is the only place in the world to see all 23 of the world’s living crocodilian species in one place.

“It began as a pioneer project. I spent nine years of my spare time building the zoo with help from some friends. Now it is a full time occupation, and we are opening a totally renovated zoo, which is much closer to nature,” says Hedegaard, “Within the last three years, we have worked around the clock to refurbish the place, so we can open new facilities in summer 2014”.

“It is like time travelling, and that is one of many reasons why we must protect them.”

In refurbishing the zoo, Hedegaard has one eye on a major future development for the region. In 2018, the Fehmarn Belt Fixed Link will connect Lolland with Germany, paving the way for tourists from all of mainland Europe. Tourism is indeed one of the measures by which Fringe Denmark can be saved, according to experts.

Another drive behind his ambition comes from a very particular boyhood dream. And it also involves salvation.

“Many people do not realise the consequences we as humans face when animals become extinct.”

“I have had this interest for dinosaurs since I was just a kid, and crocodiles are the perfect extension of these ancient creatures. These are the last of the dominant reptiles, and they looked exactly the same all those millions of years ago. It is like time travelling, and that is one of many reasons why we must protect them.”

Indeed, Krokodille Zoo has a great focus on raising awareness of the fact that many crocodiles are risking extinction.

“Many people do not realise the consequences we as humans face when animals become extinct,” says Hedegaard. “That is why we emphasise education and research as well as giving the audience a fun experience. We want people to come away with a greater awareness of the challenges these animals face, and we can see how this makes an impression on many of our visitors.”

The glass ceilings of two newly-built tropical houses gleam in the summer sunshine. The stars of the show, those ancient predators, are idling on a group of rocks. Visitors are starting to appear, wearing caps and carrying cameras. René Hedegaard, the local community and the Danish government will all be hoping that more continental number plates roll by the bordered-up houses on Eskildstrup’s high street. Crocodilians might not be the only ones sensing a new lease of life.

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