Nature and Biodiversity

Amid war, Ukrainian biologists fight to protect conservation legacy

Image: Unsplash/Alexandr Podvalny

Marlowe Starling
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Nature and Biodiversity

  • As Russia’s invasion of Ukraine continues into a second year, conservation biologists have been forced to implement new solutions to protect their country’s conservation legacy.
  • Dangerous conditions have made it difficult to go afield and survey threatened species, so finding ways to work away from field sites and conservation areas, has become key.
  • The scientific community is working to digitize and upload as much information as possible to an international biodiversity database.
  • So far, 310,600 records have been added to the database, and some physical assets have been moved to safety in western Ukraine.

Before Ukrainian biologist Mikhail Rusin can grab his shovel and venture afield, he first needs to ask locals if there are land mines nearby in one of the few areas he can access. Others are still occupied by Russian troops, where the endangered sandy blind mole-rats he studies live. But that’s only one of the stresses of carrying out wildlife research in a war zone. In November 2022, Rusin, a mammologist with Kyiv Zoo who has studied at-risk species like the mole-rat (Spalax arenarius) and other rodents for more than 20 years, resumed his field research in newly reclaimed Ukrainian territory. Soon afterward, he encountered a chilling display of contempt: a tree with at least five hanged hamsters, one of which was a gray dwarf hamster (Cricetulus migratorius) – a species assessed as vulnerable by the country’s list of threatened species. It’s hard to say whether it was the work of retreating Russian soldiers or Ukrainian farmers fed up with rodents consuming their crops. Both Russians and Ukrainians, Rusin says, “are always in constant stress” on the frontlines. “They could do something that in normal life they would never do.”

Mikhail Rusin crouches by a sandy blind mole-rat mound near Kardashynka, Ukraine, prior to Russia’s invasion. An endangered species endemic to southern Ukraine, the rodent lives almost entirely underground, making it vulnerable to Russian-built military trenches. Photo courtesy of V. Busel.
Mikhail Rusin crouches by a sandy blind mole-rat mound near Kardashynka, Ukraine. Image: Mongabay/V. Busel.

The mole-rats are having a hard time coping, too. The rodents, which are roughly the size of guinea pigs, have extremely limited vision and spend most of their lives underground. Now, they are even more elusive, dodging bombs and Russian infantry units that have dug trenches through the sliver of southern Ukraine that is the only known habitat of the endangered species.

Their plight exemplifies a larger problem in conservation: Not only is protecting it a low priority during wartime, but researchers can’t study it safely because of the surrounding danger. It’s an overlooked problem in conflict zones: With few resources to preserve protected areas and study at-risk species, the extinction risks to wildlife are largely unknown. As a result, species like the bald ibis have disappeared from war-torn Syria and Libya — and Ukraine’s sandy blind mole-rat could be next.

Seeking solutions on the other frontline

As the mole-rats hunker down in their burrows near Kherson, Ukrainian entomologist Oleksiy Vasyliuk sits in his windowless home office in Kyiv when, suddenly, there are audible explosions. Just seconds later, the power goes out.

Vasyliuk stays calm and picks up his phone to continue explaining how Ukrainian scientists are determined to highlight the war’s environmental degradation. He leads the Ukrainian Nature Conservation Group (UNCG), an NGO founded in 2018 and one of the country’s few conservation groups.

“Ukraine must save some territories which are valuable for nature,” says Vasyliuk, as translated by Tetiana Shamina, the organization’s press officer. “For us, like an organization, it is a priority.”

It is not, however, a priority for the rest of the nation. Some biologists volunteered for military service or were conscripted when the war started, such as herpetologist Andriy Tupikov.

An unexploded shell in the Kreidova Flora Nature Reserve, in Ukraine.
An unexploded shell in the Kreidova Flora Nature Reserve, in Ukraine. Image: Mongabay/Dr. Yuliia Spinova.

“On February 24, at 5 am, I had only 2 thoughts: how to save my wife and how to get to the military enlistment office quickly,” Tupikov wrote in a blog post published in May 2022. “There was no such thing as me sitting and thinking whether to go or not to go. I knew that I would definitely go to the territorial defense of Kharkiv.”

Biologists not on the frontlines have found other ways to continue their conservation efforts, from data collection to political activism. But Ukraine faces a specific conservation challenge dating back to when it was part of the Soviet Union.

From about 1930 to the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, “conservation issues were fully subordinated to economic decisions,” says James Goodwin, a scholar who teaches a course about Russian attitudes toward nature at the University of Florida. The communist regime prioritized industrialization and agriculture, making way for accelerated projects that degraded natural habitats. Under Stalin, the USSR famously dried up the Aral Sea by diverting rivers for cotton irrigation, and in Ukraine it dumped industrial pollution into the Dnieper River. Although there were conservationists in the Soviet Union, their work wasn’t encouraged, Goodwin says, leaving post-Soviet nations like Ukraine in a data deficit.

Ukraine faces a specific conservation challenge dating back to when it was part of the Soviet Union.
Ukraine faces a specific conservation challenge dating back to when it was part of the Soviet Union. Image: Kreidova Flora Nature Reserve/Andrii Tupikov.

UNCG members have worked together for the past five-plus years to overcome this history by establishing protected areas and gathering data. But with approximately 16% of Ukraine’s territory still occupied by Russian forces as of January 2023, and large portions of the country under constant military threat, it’s impossible for scientists to safely survey wildlife populations, especially in areas recently liberated by Ukraine’s army.

“Our biologists can’t have access to those territories,” the UNCG’s Shamina tells Mongabay. “The territories which are free now, which were de-occupied from Russians, well, it is very dangerous to go there because those territories are mined. Our army won’t let us go there. You must be crazy to go there.”

Instead, the group focused on ensuring wartime laws and regulations don’t put ecosystems at further risk. Many of Ukraine’s war-era laws have led to greater environmental destruction, Vasyliuk says. He and his team members have written blog posts and a letter to President Volodymyr Zelenskyy calling for changes to regulations that encourage logging and fossil fuel extraction. They haven’t been able to stop all of these threats, but their efforts have helped to protect forests from being converted to agricultural land, for example.

“We have some influence in Ukraine,” Vasyliuk says. “Nowadays, authorities really engage us to [consult them] for some laws and legislation.”

Conserving data to conserve wildlife

Scientists are also using this time to safeguard their field data by digitizing it and sending it abroad. In 2020, a fire in the city of Kharkiv occurred near university servers storing Ukrainian conservation data for the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF), an international database. It was their first wake-up call to the dangers of keeping data in one place. So began a small-scale campaign to create backups on hard drives and colleagues’ computers, says Oleksii Marushchak, UNCG’s chief data manager.

Then, when missiles struck Kharkiv near the university servers at the beginning of the war, researchers realized “everything could be ruined in one second,” mole-rat biologist Rusin recalls. So they migrated their records to servers in Norway, making copies of everything for safekeeping.

But scientists in post-Soviet nations like Ukraine have a “strange habit” of publishing studies without sharing the data, Marushchak tells Mongabay. Many biologists keep their records only in physical formats, so when the war began and dozens of conservation biologists in eastern Ukraine had to evacuate on short notice, they left behind notebooks filled with GPS coordinates and handwritten observations.

Marushchak and his team have encouraged the country’s conservation biologists to digitize as many data sets as they can to preserve what’s left of their records. Without these, he says, it will be difficult to manage species’ conservation in the future, especially for endemic ones with small territorial ranges.

Some data have already been permanently lost, causing concern over how to effectively assess species’ conservation statuses after the war. In occupied areas containing nature reserves and field stations, much of the abandoned data have either been destroyed or stolen, Marushchak says. For example, at the Chernobyl Radiation and Ecological Biosphere Reserve, Russian troops stole radioactive samples and computer drives full of conservation data.

Zoologist Oleksandr Gaydash (left) and ornithologist Maksym Yakovlev count Dalmatian pelicans: they would normally use drones, but this isn’t allowed during the war, so many species counts are probably lower than they would be otherwise, giving scientists an incomplete picture of wartime wildlife populations. Photo courtesy of Oleksandr Rula.
Oleksandr Gaydash and ornithologist Maksym Yakovlev count Dalmatian pelicans. Image: Mongabay/Oleksandr Rula

These losses have inspired scientists nationwide to protect whatever data and samples they still have. Over the past year, Ukrainian biologists have added more than 310,600 records to the GBIF database, according to Marushchak’s estimate, which includes older data from research in multiple countries. Even an entire herbarium of nearly 32,000 plant species was relocated from Kherson to Ivano-Frankivsk in western Ukraine in January. Just two days after the specimens were transferred, Kherson was attacked.

“This war inspired them,” Rusin says of his colleagues’ efforts. “Of course, it’s not nice, but at least it’s a good outcome of the war.”

All of this effort, however, has not eased the country’s ecological crisis. Along the Black Sea coast, biologists are finding thousands of dead endangered Black Sea bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus ponticus). They say the deaths may be due to the sonar devices of Russian warships, which impede marine mammals’ hearing and confuse their sense of direction.

Another major concern: nesting colonies of wetland birds. Vasyliuk says migratory birds in the Kherson region, such as the threatened red-breasted goose (Branta ruficollis), are likely in danger as Russian forces plow through wetlands. Inland, Russian troops have set tens of thousands of hectares of forest ablaze, Vasyliuk says, burning much of eastern Ukraine’s woodlands and putting an estimated 20 species of plants at risk of extinction.

But right now, it’s impossible to accurately survey populations, data manager Marushchak says. “I’m afraid we will never know the exact amount of losses.”

Ukraine's Kyiv Zoo captive breeds European hamsters before they are released into the wild.
Ukraine's Kyiv Zoo captive breeds European hamsters before they are released into the wild. Image: Kyiv Zoo/Bogdan Skulskii

Small steps to recovery

A year into the Russian invasion, conservationists are still in limbo, relying on others in the scientific community with limited funding. As an NGO, the UNCG relies mostly on donor money and grants, Vasyliuk says. The federal government only funds other conservation projects for a year or two at a time, he says, making it almost impossible to conduct long-term research.

For now, Ukrainian conservationists are relying not on the government, but on each other and fellow citizens who care about their research. “We are proud of the fact that, mostly, the great amount of money that we have [is] from ordinary people who think that our work is important,” Shamina says.

As for Mikhail Rusin, he still has not been able to access the sandy blind mole-rat’s territory, but he hopes to one day find this species that could soon disappear.

There are an estimated 15,000 to 20,000 of the rodents in Ukraine, but that figure is based on an assessment conducted in 2008. Rusin says its habitat is severely fragmented, which means isolated populations could be at increased extinction risk.

Unlike many biologists in Ukraine, Rusin has resumed some of his field research, even as his friends and colleagues, some of whom he hasn’t heard from since March 2022, fight in the war. Many don’t know if they will have jobs afterward, he says.

Releasing European hamsters on the Tarutino Steppe in October 2022, for rewilding in Ukraine.
Releasing European hamsters on the Tarutino Steppe in October 2022, for rewilding in Ukraine. Image: Rewilding Ukraine/Aleksandr Kurakin

Even amid the chaos, there have been moments of success. In September 2022, Rusin and his team released a group of captive-reared European hamsters (Cricetus cricetus), a critically endangered species, into their native steppe habitat. “Luckily, this species will not go extinct, but still, a lot of local populations could be highly threatened because of the war,” he says.

It could take decades for these environments, like the Russian-occupied steppes, to recover, Marushchak adds. But as with Chernobyl, now a “living laboratory” for nature left untouched by humans since the 1986 nuclear accident, he says the best thing for wildlife after the war will be to leave it alone.

For now, Marushchak says, they should focus on digitizing records to share with the wider scientific community. “Some people said, ‘OK guys, I may be killed tomorrow or in a week, but my work will be helpful for scientists worldwide,’” he says. “We need to know what [data] we have in order to understand what we need to do to save [wildlife] in future generations.”

Marlowe Starling is a freelance environmental journalist who writes about conservation, climate change and pollution, with bylines in Mongabay, Environmental Health News, Earth Island Journal, the Associated Press and a variety of Florida news outlets.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this report stated that Mikhail Rusin is currently able to study sandy blind mole-rats in Kherson, but he later clarified to our reporter that the study area is in an area occupied by Russian troops, and he has only been able to work in the Mykolaiv and Sumy regions.

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