Škocjan caves – Unesco World Heritage and one of the largest known underground canyons in the world

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The Škocjan Caves were entered on UNESCO’s list of world heritage sites on 28 November 1986. 

The Škocjan Caves are, above all, a natural phenomenon of global significance, ranking side by side with the Grand Canyon, the Great Barrier Reef, the Galapagos Islands, Mount Everest and others.

As one of the largest known underground canyons in the world; it’s no wonder that Škocjan Caves is now a UNESCO World Heritage site. The area has been inhabited since prehistoric times and provides both, great cultural and historical significance. Škocjan Caves were first written about by Posidonius of Apamea in the 2nd century B.C. and are marked on the oldest published maps of this part of the world.

For many years people have been attracted to not only the caves, but also to the gorge where the Reka River disappears underground into Škocjan Caves, then flows 34 km underground before reappearing in Monfalcone, Italy. Todate the explored length of the caves is 6.2 km. The caves represent the most significant underground phenomena in the Karst region and Slovenia.

In addition to our caves, only those in the border area between Hungary and Slovakia (Aggtelek Karst and Slovak Karst), Mammoth Caves and Carlsbad Caverns in the USA have received the same honour. Other caves have been entered as cultural monuments (for example Altamira in Spain and the prehistoric sites and cave paintings of the Vézere Valley in France). 

The entry itself is important from different perspectives: most significantly, that the Škocjan Caves have gained worldwide recognition and that the state has committed itself to doing everything in its power to conserve and protect this outstanding natural site.

The preparations for the establishment of the Škocjan Caves Regional Park began in the early 1990s, with the Škocjan Caves Regional Park Act adopted in 1996. A year later, the Public Service Agency, which presently employs 16 people, began its operation as the Park’s managing authority.

In addition to adopting programmes for protection and development of the Park, constantly monitoring and analysing the status of natural and cultural heritage, the Public Service Agency performs numerous other tasks: it is responsible for the promotion of the caves, research activity, education, infrastructure maintenance, as well as other activities. Co-operation with local residents is also important, especially those who are able to benefit from the Park’s establishment.

The rapid development of the area that used to be a demographically and economically endangered region is reflected in the fact that the Park has obtained membership in various international institutions, which greatly contributes to the quality economic development both within the Divača Municipality and the Karst in Slovenia in general.

The river flowing through the underground canyon turns north-west before the Cerkvenik Bridge and continues its course along the Hankejev kanal (Hanke’s Channel). This underground channel, first explored at the end of the 19th century, is approximately 3.5 kilometres long, 10 to 60 metres wide and over 140 metres high.

At some points, it expands into huge underground chambers. The largest of these is the Martelova dvorana (Martel’s Chamber); with a volume of 2.2 million cubic metres, it is considered the largest discovered underground chamber in Slovenia and one of the largest in the world.

It is interesting to note that an underground canyon of such dimensions ends with a relatively small siphon: one that cannot deal with the enormous volume of water that pours into the cave after heavy rainfall, causing major flooding, during which water levels can rise by more than one hundred metres.

At the onset of the new millennium, the Park joined the Alpine Network of Protected Areas, became a member of the Europarc Organization, which organizes international workshops and seminars in which the Škocjan Caves Park regularly participates. Finally, the Park was entered on another list under the auspices of UNESCO: The Ramsar Directory of Wetlands of International Importance, which includes wetlands which are important especially as waterfowl habitats.

The Škocjan Caves were included in this list due to their important natural habitat comprising highly specialised and often endemic land and water cave animal species, among them the endemic cave salamander (Proteus anguinus).