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West Estonian Archipelago Biosphere Reserve

Photo by: Karina Klais

West Estonian Archipelago Biosphere Reserve is situated in the eastern Baltic Sea and comprises the islands of Saaremaa, Hiiumaa, Vormsi and Muhu, as well as numerous islets and marine parts. Located in the transition zone between temperate needle-leaf to broad-leaf forests, terrestrial habitats contain pine forests, mixed spruce and deciduous forests, juniper and coastal meadows, swamps and peat bogs. The alvar forests (spruce, pine or birch forest on limestone plains with thin soils) are of particular interest.

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What are the zones?

According to the UNESCO Man and the Biosphere (MaB) Program principles, the biosphere reserve area encompasses three zones:

Core Area: Only low-impact and non-damaging nature use is permitted in this zone (research, educational activities, ecosystem maintenance, and species protection).

Buffer Zone: Limited human activities are allowed in this zone.

Transition Area: Diverse and sustainable nature use takes place in this zone.

Core Zone

In Estonia, the core areas of biosphere reserves are selected to include protected reserves and designated conservation zones, the buffer areas encompass protected areas and restricted zones of protected objects, and the remaining part of the biosphere reserve area is considered the transition area.

Core areas consist of the most strictly protected natural sites, which are reserves and designated conservation zones. The total area of core zones is 475 km2.

Image by Sandra Kaas
Image by Siim Lukka

Buffer Zone

Buffer areas encompass restricted zones around protected natural objects, nature reserves, and permanent habitats. The total area of buffer zones is 4542 km2.

Transition Area

The transition area constitutes the territory and waters outside of the core and buffer zones. The transition area covers 10,169 km2.

In pursuit of its objectives, the biosphere program operates in all three zones. It adheres to the legal nature conservation restrictions in core, buffer, and transition areas.


Program Ambassadors

A Biosphere Reserve ambassador is a volunteer who has an interest, knowledge, and dedication to disseminate information about the activities of the program area and explain its principles. Biosphere Reserve ambassadors form an informal network, supported by the Biosphere Reserve hub, to maintain connections.

National Coordination

  • The Ministry of Climate approves the West Estonian Archipelago Biosphere Reserve program and implementers.

  • The Ministry of Climate and UNESCO Estonian National Commission coordinate reporting to UNESCO.

  • The state financially supports the implementation of the program through various initiatives.

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West Estonian Archipelago Biosphere Reserve Implementation Unit

  • The implementation unit is approved for a specific period by the Ministry of Climate.

  • The implementation unit consists of the Hiiumaa Biosphere Center (covering Hiiumaa and Vormsi municipalities) and the Saaremaa Biosphere Center (covering Saaremaa, Muhu, and Ruhnu municipalities).

  • The comprehensive program team, including program managers from both centers, is responsible for coordinating the program's activities. In addition, the centers provide support to the program team through other necessary competencies and existing networks (such as communication, IT, administration, etc.).

  • Starting from 2023, the Hiiumaa Biosphere Center operates under the Hiiumaa Development Center Foundation, and the Saaremaa Biosphere Center operates under TalTech Kuressaare College. The overall coordinator of the implementation unit rotates based on an agreement between the centers.


  • The Council advises on the preparation of the program area action plan, approves the action plan, and evaluates its implementation annually. The composition and procedures of the Council are approved by the Minister of Climate.

  • The members of the Council include representatives from the Saaremaa, Hiiumaa, Muhu, Vormsi, and Ruhnu municipalities, Hiiumaa Development Center, TalTech Kuressaare College, UNESCO Estonian National Commission, Ministry of the Environment, and Environmental Board, as well as an expert from the UNESCO "Man and the Biosphere" international coordinating council.

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