As they walk through the gorge, visitors are often stunned by the dense vegetation around them: towering pine trees and ancient cypress trees with massive horizontal branches stand proud on the slopes. At higher altitudes there are forests of maple, and where moisture is more plentiful, there are sycamore, oleander and willow trees.
In the National Park area there are more than 450 species of plant, 70 of which are species and sub-species native to Crete, such as Cretan dittany (Amaracus dictamnus – a type of mint), Ebenus cretica - a species of perennial flowering plant of the Fabaceae family, zelkova (Zelkova abelicea) and the Cretan Pine (Pinus brutia cretica). Some of the plants, such as Bupleurum kakiskalae, a species of flowering plant of the Apiaceae family, Myosotis refracta refracta (a type of forget-me-not) and the orchid Cephalanthera cucculata are found only in the gorge. An idea of the natural wealth of the gorge is given by the fact that no one is yet sure precisely how many species actually exist within it.
There is also, of course, an impressive array of fauna in the gorge, which is home to a host of species and sub-species which are exclusive or almost exclusive to Crete (32 species of mammal, 3 species of amphibian, 11 species of reptile and around 200 species of bird).
The “star” of the National Forest is the famous Cretan wild goat, best known as the “Kri-kri” (Capra aegagrus cretica). This is the gorge’s most famous resident and it was to protect it, in effect, that the gorge was declared a National Park. It thrives in mountainous parts of the gorge on inclines greater than 30%! Less easy to find unless you are looking for it specifically is the Cretan shrew (Croccidura zimmermani), a little bald creature which is unique to Crete. The species, which lives at altitudes greater than 1,150 metres, has only been studied to a limited extent. The same applies with the Cretan wildcat (Felis sylvestris cretensis), a rare feline species which was thought to be extinct until recently - scientists from the University of Perugia managed to rediscover this wild cat as recently as 1996, identifying it by the characteristic dark rings around its tail.
The National Forest is also a sanctuary for many different types of bird. Prominent among these are “nature’s refuse collectors” the vulture (sometimes known in Greek as the kokalas from kokkalo (bone) (Gypaetus barbatus). One of the rarest birds in Europe, it lives alone or with a partner on remote peaks or rocks on large mountains. With its characteristic “beard” of feathers beneath its beak, the vulture is deep orange in colour on its breast and abdomen, the result of rubbing against soil which is rich in iron oxide. As the alternative Greek name kokalas indicates, this vulture, found only on Crete, feeds almost exclusively on bones. It drops them from a great height to break them into smaller pieces. Then it swallows them and digests them with the powerful gastric juices its body produces.
And finally, let’s not forget that on the edge of the National Forest a special type of livestock farming is practised, with 14,000 (!) goats grazing freely as goat herders watch from a distance with binoculars!
For more info see the Samaria National Park website.