A large number of protected natural areas and features show that Croatia is a country of exceptional, diverse, and comparatively well-preserved natural beauty, of which some examples, such as the Plitvice Lakes, are famous throughout the world.
The first legal norms in Croatia by which natural goods were protected date back to the 13th century, when deforestation in the area of Trogir, Korčula and Dubrovnik was restricted. The movement to protect nature, founded by experts, began in the 19th century.
The Nature Protection Act defines 9 categories of spatial protection, and the most beautiful, most valuable protected areas comprise two strict reserves, eight national parks and twelve nature parks.
Bijele Stijene and Samarske Stijene in Gorski Kotar and Hajdučki Kukovi and Rožanski Kukovi, in the area of North Velebit National Park, areas with irreplaceable natural features, are strict reserves.
National parks cover extensive, unique areas with one or more preserved ecosystems. The Plitvice Lakes National Park and the Krka National Park boast unique karst morphology and hydrology, with magnificent travertine waterfalls and lakes. Kornati and Mljet are island national parks with unique landscapes and abundant underwater ecosystems. The Brijuni islands include cultivated parks and valuable cultural and historical heritage from classical antiquity. Risnjak, Paklenica and North Velebit are mountainous areas with characteristic relief features, such as many limestone rocks and deep canyons, with high meadows and extensive woods, home to many endemic species.
A nature park is a partially cultivated area with important ecological features, in which certain economic activities are permitted. Of the 12 nature parks, 7 are in the mountains (Velebit, Dinara, Biokovo, Medvednica, Papuk, Učka and Žumberak–Samobor Heights). Telašćica and Lastovo islands are island parks whose qualities include a wide range of land and marine biodiversity. Kopački Rit and Lonjsko Polje are low-lying wetlands, habitats for rare animal species and home to original folk architecture. Vransko Lake is an especially important ornithological site for nesting and overwintering.
National and nature parks cover a total surface area of 5,930 km², which is 10.1% of the country. Other protected nature categories are special reserves, regional parks, natural monuments, important landscapes, forest parks and monumental park architecture. All nature protection activities are managed by the State Agency for Nature Protection.
Certain protected areas have been included in the international system for nature protection. The Plitvice Lakes and, since 2017, two primeval beech forests on Mount Velebit are on the World Natural Heritage List; Mount Velebit and the Mura–Drava regional park (part of the cross–border Mura–Drava–Danube biosphere reserve) belong to an international network of biosphere reserves (Man and the Biosphere – MAB), while Kopački Rit, Lonjsko Polje, the Neretva Delta, Crna Mlaka and Vransko Lake are on the international list of valuable wetlands (Ramsar Convention). Papuk Nature Park is part of the European network of geoparks.
With Croatia's entry into the EU, all protected areas, along with those which had been recognised as valuable, became part of the Nature 2000 ecological network of land and marine sites.
Endemic flora and fauna
The flora of Croatia is characterised by biological diversity (biodiversity) and has its own peculiar quality.
In terms of the number of plant species found, Croatia is ahead of most European countries. Due to climate differences and the position of coastal areas, which are in the Mediterranean region, the vegetation in such areas is quite different in composition and appearance from the lowland and mountainous areas inland, which belong to the Euro-Siberian region. This is particular evident in forest vegetation, but can also be seen in other types of ground cover.
Apart from biological diversity, peculiarity is also important, as reflected in the large number of endemic species, mostly on the Adriatic islands and mountain ranges of Biokovo and Velebit. There are 8,871 species and subspecies of Croatian flora (according to some estimates, over 10,000), of which 526 (about 6%) are endemic, and 1,088 (about 12%) protected.
Croatian fauna consists of all animal species which live permanently or occasionally in the country. In Croatia, there is an overlap of a range of animal species characteristic of northern Europe and those which mostly live in the western or eastern Mediterranean.
According to current knowledge, there are 23,876 species and subspecies of Croatian fauna, of which 565 (2.4%) are endemic and 1,624 (6.8%) protected.
Endemic species are found in almost all animal groups, but most are found among species which live in the karst region and the rivers which flow into the Adriatic, and on the islands. There are 88 species of fish in the karst rivers of the Adriatic confluence, of which 41 are endemic, while over 50% of reptiles are endemic. The underground karst world is even more diverse: the Dinaric karst has the highest density of troglobite species in the world (80).