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BERLIN (Reuters) - Once known as the "death strip," a 1,400-km long swatch of land that marked the former border between East and West Germany is now a refuge for a broad variety of flora and fauna.

The "Green Belt" project - first conceived in the 1970s, long before the fall of the Iron Curtain - was awarded the German Environmental Prize on Sunday at a ceremony in the northern city of Braunschweig.

The winners "called into life a European vision for the 'Green Belt' and a symbol for overcoming the Cold War," the German Federal Environmental Foundation said in a statement.

German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier lauded the project during the awards ceremony as a beautiful post-Cold War story that took advantage of the unique environmental conditions in the former no-man's land.

"The 'Green Belt' is now home to countless natural wonders that have been crowded out in other areas," he said.

Environmental activists and researchers Inge Sielman, Kai Frobel and Hubert Weiger, won a combined 245,000 euros ($284,300) for the project.

Frobel told broadcaster Deutsche Welle that the former exclusion area had given nature "a 40-year holiday" since it had remained largely undisturbed.

"We discovered that over 90 percent of the bird species that were rare or highly endangered in Bavaria - such as the whinchat, the corn bunting and the European nightjar - could be found in the Green Belt. It became a final retreat for many species, and it still is today," he said.

It is also home to over 1,200 species of animals and plants that are listed as endangered or close to extinction, including the black stork, dragonflies and the European tree frog.

The German project was expanded in 2002 to encompass 12,500 km of European territory, and now includes 24 countries and 150 conservation organisations.

Frobel said researchers were in close touch with South Korean officials about steps to ensure that the demilitarised zone between North and South Korea could eventually be turned into a similar nature reserve.

Two business executives - Bernhard and Johannes Oswald - also received 245,000 euros for their development of new electrical motors for industrial use that cut energy use by up to 50 percent, the group said.

($1 = 0.8615 euros)

(Reporting by Andrea Shalal, Larry King)

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