A Russian environmentalist untangles a “ghost” fishing net. Such nets are deadly to wildlife, including the endangered Russian desman. Photo by V.I. Bulavintsev
The Russian Desman Hangs by a Thread
November 28, 2019
In Russia, the Red Book of Rare and Endangered Species is about to be reissued almost eight years late. Scientists fear that rare and endangered species of mammals and birds of interest to hunters will not be included. At this very moment (the commission’s final session will be held tomorrow, November 29, 2019), zoologists are fighting for the inclusion of more than a dozen species that are in dire straits. Among them are the Asian black bear (Ursus thibetanus), the reindeer (Rangifer tarandus), the greylag goose (Anser anser), the Siberian bighorn sheep (Ovis nivicola), and the killer whale (Orcinus orca).
What Went Wrong
The Red Book of the Russian Federation is supposed to be reissued every ten years, but the most recent edition dates to 2001. An updated version of the Red Book was planned for release in 2017. At the time, scientists had made lists of rare and endangered species for the new edition, and the lists had been approved by the Red Book’s commission, but then everything went wrong.
The Russian Federal Ministry of Natural Resources and the Environment (Minprirody) suddenly changed the roster of the commission that reviews and approves the book. Zoologists who could stand up for rare animals were, for all practical purposes, removed from the commission. As a result, many species in need of protection vanished from the list. The new commission for some reason decided not to include 23 species of animals that had previously been listed in the Red Book.
Scientists were publicly outraged, and the process of reissuing the Red Book was suspended. In October 2019, Minprirody tweaked the commission’s roster again. Of its 44 members, only 20 scientists have remained. The other 24 members are officials from Minprirody, subordinate agencies and institutions, and regional hunting departments.
“If you remove the scientists from the commission and put hunters and bureaucrats on it, it’s clear how they are going to vote,” says Sofia Rosenfeld, a biologist and member of the commission’s expert panel on geese. “People must be smart and objective in order to evaluate the scientists’ proposals. Hunters cannot be objective. Business interests are obviously trying to delist the species from which they profit. And yet the fact that these species are on the verge of extinction bothers no one.”*
The Leftover Principle
Alexei Zimenko, the director of the Biodiversity Conservation Center, and I are talking in his office. Located in a small old building on Vavilov Street in Moscow, the Center occupies several rooms off a corridor. It has not been remodeled in a long time, but inside it is a cozy as a biology classroom. Zimenko sets the most recent edition of the Red Book on the table. According to him, the book has not been updated for so long because there are “gigantic problems with the protection and study of wildlife” in Russia.
“Since 2000, the country’s main priority has been economic success. But environmental issues and nature conservation are considered obstacles to this success,” Zimenko says. “Biological research is financed on the leftover principle. For example, at one point Barguzin Nature Reserve, on Lake Baikal, had a powerful research base and material support up to and including its own airfield. But in the early 2000s, we gifted the oldest employee three freestanding lamps for lighting, so that he could scrape by somehow. And at another Far Eastern reserve, there is now just one scientist on staff, and three more travel there and stay for a month, at most.”
According to Zimenko, the delay in republishing the Red Book could be due in part to the fact that there are very few or no scientists researching many of the animal species in Russia.
“Due to insufficient data, several species may not make it into the Red Book. But this country has excellent researchers who are ready to work with limited resources. So, we do have information on many species. But, for example, when it comes to the Russian desman (Desmana moschata)—a rare Red Book species—we have three researchers total: two at the Oka Nature Reserve and one in Moscow. And we have just one person in the whole country who researches moles.”
Things Are Bad for the Russian Desman
Using the example of the Russian desman, Zimenko tells me about how scientists research Red Book species.
The small, semi-aquatic creature lives in bodies of water in central Russia and along their banks. Estimating its numbers is a job best done from August to September, when the water is not high. A group of researchers travels to the desman’s habitat and inspects the shoreline meter by meter. They wander the banks and the shallows in search of the animal’s burrows—it is the numbers of these that are counted. In point of fact, a similar “walking” count is made for all animals. Ground squirrels, for example, are counted by the numbers of their burrows, and tigers, by their paw prints. The “heel” of every print is measured with a ruler: it is a different size for every tiger. That way one can grasp how many tigers have passed through an area and whether they were males, females, youngsters, or adults.
There are not enough people for such a colossal amount of work: a small group cannot physically manage to inspect a huge area. So, there is little current data on the state of the Russian desman, as for many other species.
“In the early 2000s, we conducted a nationwide inventory of the desman with the help of hunting researchers who had previously been in charge of doing counts of the wildlife in their districts. Today, there are few such researchers, and their duties have been reduced, along with their funding. Furthermore, the desman is not a commercial species, so counting it basically is of no interest to anyone. Therefore, we can get current data on the state of the desman only after studying several sites and estimating its overall numbers. And it’s the same thing, unfortunately, with many species. How, for example, can we estimate the numbers of the polar bear, if it travels across the ice for half a year, and every trip to the Far North is terribly expensive? Back in the day, my fellow scientists lived right in the nature reserves and were able to make observations without gigantic outlays of money for flights. Today, there are very few scientists who work in the necessary fields.”
According to Zimenko, things are bad for the Russian desman. Compared with Soviet times, the state of the species has deteriorated dramatically. Today, there are approximately 7,500 of them in the wild. For such a tiny animal, that is incredibly low—there should be tens of thousands. In the 1990s, the oversight of bodies of water decreased significantly, and people began fishing in droves, often using nets. If a desman gets caught in a net, it becomes entangled and drowns underwater. Things got even worse when Russian-made nets were replaced with ones made in China from monofilament fishing line. They are impossible to escape, and some of these nets are so cheap that fishermen often simply discard them. The nets are washed away by floodwaters, becoming conveyor belts for destroying aquatic life.
“We tried to ban the import of those fishing nets to Russia. They destroy not only the Russian desman, but fish and birds as well. Even moose were getting killed, as it happened. Consequently, the decision was made to ban the import of equipped (readymade) nets. But importing reels fitted with monofilament line to Russia is still permitted. A great country has been unable to solve a seemingly simple problem. It is shameful! And so the Russian desman is hostage to our troubles with the government management of natural resources and wildlife conservation. Among other things, the Russian desman reacts to climate change—drought and the lack of floods affect its reproduction. The desman is hanging by a thread.”
Cut Out and Shot
But if the Russian desman can at least be found in the Red Book, many other species on verge of extinction risk not even getting into it. For example, the Asian black bear (Ursus thibetanus), whose situation, according to researchers, is catastrophic.
The scientific community has long been in favor putting the Asian (white-chested) black bear in the Red Book. But the hunting community has prevented that in every way possible. At issue are the bear’s paws and bile, which are in great demand in China. The Asian black bear winters in the hollows of large trees. Hunters cut down the tree, chase out the bear sleeping there, and shoot it. Or they cut out an opening in the tree through which they can extract their “trophy.”
Female bears also give birth to their young only in tree hollows while they are hibernating. They give birth and feed their bear cubs in a semi-drowsy state. Hunters do not differentiate whom they kill, but the bear cubs are often left behind and usually die.
In the Maritime Territory (Primorsky Krai), where the white-chested bear lives, large trees are being intensively cut down. And this is the second problem: with every passing year, it becomes harder for the bear to find a place to winter. It is forced to winter among tree roots or burrows in the ground, like the European brown bear (Ursus arctos), but in such conditions it is more vulnerable to predators and hunters. If it does not find a place to winter, a bear cannot even lie down to hibernate. A bald bear in the forest that has not fallen asleep or managed to shed its fur, according to zoologist Nikolai Formozov, is a “heartbreaking sight.”
Formozov has a Ph.D. in biology and is a member of the Red Book commission’s expert group on mammals. He has advocated for the inclusion of the Asian black bear in the Red Book.
“The white-chested bear was in the Red Book of the USSR. Later it was removed, even though things had got worse for it. In the Soviet Union, its population was estimated at 7,000 individuals—fewer than the polar bears in the Arctic. Today, even by the hunters’ inflated numbers, pulled out of thin air, there are only 5,600. In fact, of course, there are fewer than that. And at the same time, the hunters say that it is safe to cross it out of the Red Book. That, in my view, is a crime!”
The Death Throes of a Species
Formozov calls what is happening with the white-chested bear the “death throes of a species.”
“The species is in bad shape, and some not-so-obvious signs make it easy to understand. When a species is on the verge of distinction, it often shows up in inappropriate places. Previously, the basic foodstuffs for the Asian black bear before hibernation were the acorns of the Mongolian oak and pine nuts. When the acorns weren’t ripe, the pine nuts came to the rescue, and vice versa. So, the bear alternated between acorns and pine nuts. But the cedars have been cut down. And now we see hunger driving them into the flood plains, to eat cherry trees. Right next to villages. In that situation we get the reaction ‘Oh, there are so many of them!’ But this is an illusion. It has happened that up to twenty white-chested bears have been killed by poachers during such forays. The same thing was written about Caspian tigers when they began showing up in inappropriate places—that there were a lot of them. But this was the very end of that tiger’s existence. It disappeared completely, remaining only in the form of taxidermic mounts. The same thing happened with the cheetah in Kazakhstan . . . These are its death throes.”
Things are nearly as bad for the saiga antelope (Saiga tatarica). The saiga antelope lives in Kalmykia and the Astrakhan Region. In good times, there were 800,000 of them. By the early 2000s, only 5,000 remained. Among those 5,000 only about five percent are males, because poachers hunt the animal for its horns: like the paws of the Asiatic black bear, the saiga antelope’s horns are used in Chinese medicine.
“There are none of them left to reproduce,” says Formozov. “The situation is simply catastrophic. Alexey Yablokov proposed adding the saiga antelope to the Red Book back in August 2003, but at the time the hunting lobby would not stand for it. The situation for this species continued to worsen, and here we are, sixteen years later: we defended our position and got the saiga antelope listed in the Red Book.”
Now the numbers of the saiga antelope have stabilized somewhat, thanks to two places where they are protected: the Stepnoy Nature Refuge and the Chornye Zemli Nature Reserve. Even so, the species is in a precarious situation.
And then, at its last meeting, the commission did not even review the case of the Manchurian sika deer (Cervus nippon mantchuricus), whose situation is critical. In the 1930s, hardly any of them remained. Today in the Far East, where there is an extremely high level of poaching, the numbers of sika deer and of other hoofed animals are so low that tigers are not able to raise their cubs. There are almost no places where female tigers can catch prey and bring it back to their cubs. Therefore, the numbers of tigers have also been falling.
The Curlew That We Lost
By international standards, in order to be sure that a species has gone extinct, we must wait fifty years from the time it was placed on the endangered species list. However, even now, twenty years later, it is impossible to identify the species that we have nearly lost.
“The spoon-billed sandpiper (Calidris pygmaea) is very close to extinction,” says Formozov. “The sociable lapwing (Vanellus gregarius) is also close to disappearing. But the biggest loss in recent years is the slender-billed curlew (Numenius tenuirostris), which nested in Western Siberia. Nobody has been able to locate it for quite some time now. Its migratory routes and stopover sites are well known. It is a ‘tasty treat’ for birdwatchers, who have been looking for it a long time. In the 1990s, they spotted fifteen specimens, then seven, then three; several years ago, they spotted one. Now there are none.”
The slender-billed curlew. Drawing by Henrik Grönvold, as published in M.A. Menzbir, Hunted and Commercial Birds of European Russia and the Caucasus (Moscow: I.N. Kushnerev and Co., 1900–1902). Courtesy of Wikipedia
Formozov explains that while the commission argues over mammals and there is a chance to protect some of them, things are practically hopeless when it comes to birds.
“Not one of the birds was put on the endangered list, not even those for which there was impressive data,” laments Formozov. “Such is the situation, for example, with the European turtle dove (Streptopelia turtur). In my childhood, there were lots of them; they were found everywhere in the Moscow Region. Now the numbers of the turtle dove have fallen, at a minimum, by a factor of fifty, at a maximum, by a factor in the hundreds. This is due to the unfortunate situation in their wintering habitats: forest belts have been cut down in the steppe zone, while chemicals are used to fertilize fields. For these and other reasons, there is nowhere for the bird to winter.”
“The hunters, in response to our proposal to put the turtle dove on the list of protected species, say, ‘We’re not to blame for the reduction in numbers. Why do you want to forbid shooting them?’ They say that inclusion in the Red Book would be of no use because they will continue hunting them. Where’s the logic?”
“There is data on the decline in numbers. There are guidelines for compiling the Red Book: when there is a certain decline in numbers, you must put them on the list. Period! But, they say, ‘No, we’re not including them. Next question!’”
Again We Have Achieved Nothing
The commission met on November 1, for the first time since the public outrage of the scientists over their removal from the commission on rare and endangered species. This time it was a “correct” commission: the roster has been changed to include as many scientists as necessary. But even so, much of what happened at the meeting remains a mystery.
“First, the ministry came up with the idea of asking the regions’ opinion about the feasibility of listing the taxa we had proposed in the Russian Red Book,” recounts Sofia Rosenfeld. “We got their answers and were dumbfounded. Their responses show how bad things are in these regions! In the best case, they can write the name of a species without making mistakes; in the worst case, what they write is sheer nonsense.”
“For example, a region has a species in its regional Red Book, but they brag that everything is fine with it and that it is hunted! It’s obvious that they completely fail to understand what’s going on. And now, if one region is against listing a species, and eighty are for it, that’s it, we cannot list it! This is unprecedented. On November 1, we achieved nothing, and not one question was put to a vote. They threw out all of our geese again. We ended up drafting internal memos and petitions.”
The Battle over the Geese
On a Saturday afternoon, Rosenfeld is working at the Institute of Ecology and Evolution of the Russian Academy of Sciences. It is a dilapidated building, with plaster crumbling in spots, exposing the bricks. Inside there are signs of a renovation that took place ages ago.
“It is everything you wanted to know about the attitude towards scientists in Russia,” Rosenfeld says, smiling, in response to my remarks about the ruin.
Rosenfeld’s computer monitor shows an enlarged photograph of geese in flight. She has been counting birds on photos all day, entering the data into a separate spreadsheet.
“I have to examine 20,000 photographs and count up all the geese. And also determine where there is a swan, a brent goose, or a greylag goose,” Rosenfeld comments on her work. “But I’m also constantly monitoring everything that is happening with the Red Book, writing memos and substantiations, and giving interviews. My life is spent dealing with paperwork, and I’m unable to do real work!”
At the last meeting of the rare species commission, Rosenfeld represented geese.
“We proposed listing the greylag goose (Anser anser) in the Red Book: it has been doing poorly in Russia,” she recounts. “When spring hunting for geese was opened (in Soviet times, it was outlawed—Takie Dela), it was a real blow to the greylags, because that is right when the species is nesting. Spring hunting causes huge damage to all our geese. This is a horror and a disgrace for Russia, and no civilized country has it anymore. Imagine: geese fly across fifty regions to breed, and everywhere they are shot! And later the rest of them are shot at their breeding sites. A goose is sitting on her eggs, and hunters are running around the wetlands. A goose flies up from under a hunter’s feet—bang! Or the male tries to lead people away from the nest—bang! And geese are monogamous birds, after all. You kill its mate—that is it, it will no longer breed, at least this season. Or maybe not at all. Geese are like people: some grieve so much for their partner that they won’t form another couple for the rest of their lives. The whole world has understood this, but we in Russia have not! On hunting sites and forums, hunters talk about how cool it is to hunt geese when they are sitting on their eggs or have just flown into breeding sites, having traveled thousands of kilometers! They say things like, ‘They don’t fly off, they try and lead us away,’” explains Rosenfeld.
Rosenfeld recounts that in 2018, the website The Petersburg Hunter posted a photo with the results of the previous year’s spring goose hunting. One of the users reported that their team of three people had bagged 183 geese in a single day. In the Nenets Autonomous District, a group of hunters bagged 700 geese in the spring of 2017. And there are many such examples.
Autumn migration of birds in the Dvuobje Wetlands. Photo by Sofia Rosenfeld
“I have nearly lost my mind trying to fight this. Personally, I don’t understand how it is possible to have fun murdering another living being, but I am not a crazy Green. I am convinced that hunting has a right to exist as long as it does no harm to what is hunted. But what I am seeing now is terrible. Quick, quick, shoot, before they fly off to a neighboring region, or to Europe, or to China, quick, quick! The main thing is that our neighbor does not get it! It is obvious that current hunting regulations cannot cope: it is essential to make protective measures stronger. And the only way to save the birds that are disappearing right before our eyes is to list them in the Red Book,” Rosenfeld says.
When asked how many greylag geese are left today, Rosenfeld says that it is not a matter of numbers, but of speed. If the population has fallen by half in ten years, that is enough to list the species in the Red Book.
In addition to the greylag goose, scientists have proposed listing three subspecies of the bean goose (Anser fabalis) in the Red Book. In twenty years, the numbers of the taiga bean goose have fallen from 110,000 to 45, and this is a disaster.
“There are motorboats and good equipment nowadays. A motorboat sails by a spot where a female is sitting in her nest, and the male tries to lead the hunter away and is shot. The bean goose remains only in places impassable to boats. But there are no geese left where the rivers are navigable. All these arguments in defense of geese were rejected by the commission. I think that everyone is under the influence of high-ranked oligarchs who hunt. Do you know what birds will definitely be listed in the Red Book? Two subspecies of godwit. Because nobody wants them—they’re not hunted. The battle is over the geese, ducks, sheep, goats, and deer,” Rosenfeld explains.
Yamal Gets It
When Rosenfeld is not doing paperwork, she is doing field work. For many years, she and her colleagues have been doing air counts and ringing Anseriformes on the Yamal Peninsula, in the Nenets District, and on the Taymyr Peninsula. In some places, they go out into the field with telescopes and count birds. Where there are no roads, they use an airplane.
“Across our huge country, all of the data we get is the result of the incredible work of mad scientists,” says Rosenfeld, smiling.
Rosenfeld says that the attitude toward bird monitoring in the country’s northern regions should be an example to other Russian officials.
“In Russia, monitoring has been entrusted to bureaucrats who have no money, gasoline, or concept of what to do and how to do it. It is set up like this: the federal government subsidizes the monitoring of wildlife. Here are three rubles for you to spend on monitoring rare species, and for hunted species, here are three hundred rubles. Next, region, you can do as you like: if you want, you can count geese. Or deer. Or seals. There is no system. A region can spend money on monitoring from its own regional budget, but, in our country, there are few wealthy regions that want to monitor anything. We have established a system only in the Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous District,” Rosenfeld explains.
Wild reindeer on Shokalsky Island. Photo by Sofia Rosenfeld
This year , Rosenfeld was in the field from April to September. First, she counted moose and deer on the Yamal Peninsula from the air. Next, she did an aerial survey of waterfowl and hoofed mammals on the Yamal and Taymyr peninsulas and in Yakutia (from Taymyr through the Lena River delta). Then she counted waterfowl during their autumn migration in the Nenets Autonomous District.
“When the work is done,” Rosenfeld explains, “we say to the authorities, ‘Here’s where you have geese; there are the deer; here you need to make a nature preserve; forbid hunting here; there, oilmen are a danger.’ And they follow our recommendations. That is how it should be, but only the Yamalo-Nenets District and the Nenets District work with us in this way. They have realized the importance of waterfowl. The officials themselves admit it: ‘But we have no other hunting resources left—all the rest have been knocked out!’ And that is the case: the wild reindeer and moose have been knocked out, and if the geese are knocked out, what will you have left?”
Proper Monitoring and How it Works
When Rosenfeld explains how the work of protecting and monitoring wildlife is done in the west, she rolls her eyes.
“Europe understood long ago that in order to use something, you have to keep track of it. Understand what is happening with the resource—how it is doing, whether it is decreasing or increasing, and how much you can remove without harming the population. This thing was thought up in the U.S. in the 1800s, and ever since they have had the best system for monitoring hunting resources.
“The U.S. and Canada have government-funded fish and wildlife services, and their officials work in every state and province. For the management of waterfowl alone, there are special councils for every migratory route. And how many and which animals can be hunted and how to protect them are decided only after an annual report is submitted. The annual report includes data about the numbers, the success of breeding programs, and other population parameters. It is the result of a colossal amount of work by government teams!”
“If the monitoring data is off, they immediately give scientists the signal: ‘For some reason we have too few of this duck. Figure it out, and here is the funding!’ They spare no expense. In two or three years, the scientists figure it all out and say, ‘Here is what is happening, do this and that.’
“‘Good,’ says the government. ‘We did what the scientists told us, and everything is fine with the duck again.’
“That is what monitoring is for! When we were [in North America], looking at all this, my heart nearly broke!”
Rosenfeld is sure that something can still be done to protect nature in Russia.
“We can save species that are going extinct and put everything back on track. However, we have to amend the legislation and the hunting rules, and adopt strategies for migratory birds. We need to free ourselves of xenophobia and cooperate with all countries. But the most important rule is not to push things to the point of no return, when a species is slowly dying out and nothing can be done about it,” she says.
At the next meeting of the commission, which will be held tomorrow, November 29, scientists expect a separate vote on “disputed species,” a list that includes the Asian black bear, the Yakutsk bighorn sheep, the Barguzin reindeer, the greylag goose, several types of bean goose, and others.
According to Rosenfeld, the natural resources ministry has been rushing to complete all of the procedures for adopting the final list for the Red Book’s reissue.
“We’re still battling for the geese and others, but I don’t know what will happen. At some point, they can bang their fists on the table and say, ‘This is how it’s going to be!’ Then we will rouse the public again. What do we have to do to save these poor birds and beasts? We will stop fighting only when Russia starts listening to scientists again,” says Rosenfeld.
Translated by Mary Rees. All photos courtesy of Takie Dela
*How the Red Book Works
The Red Book is an annotated list of rare and endangered species of animals and plants in need of total protection. Species listed in the Red Book are withdrawn from economic use: they cannot be hunted, caught, or sold. In Russia, the Red Book has legal force, and criminal or administrative liability is stipulated for causing harm to Red Book species.
In addition to the Red Book of the Russian Federation, each region in the country has its own Red Book. A species listed in a regional Red Book is not necessarily included in the federal Red Book. For example, a species in the Saratov Region may be threatened, but in the Tambov Region it is doing well, and its state nationwide is generally good as well. In this case, it will only be listed in the Saratov Red Book. On the other hand, a species included in the federal Red Book must be listed in all regional Red Books.
In the Red Book, animals and plants are divided into six categories: probably extinct; threatened with extinction; population is rapidly declining; rare species; undefined status; vulnerable species. Listing each species in the Red Book is the result of many years of work by botanists and zoologists across the country. Scientists study the numbers, dynamics, and state of a species to decide whether to include it in the Red Book or not, whether to re-categorize already listed species—for example, if there has been a positive trend over ten years, the species has spread its habitat or increased its numbers, scientists think about whether to change the category from rare species.
Scientists report the results of their research to a special commission, which consists of expert sections on birds, mammals, fish, higher plants, lower plants, fungi, and so on. Experts analyze and discuss the collected data and then submit their proposals for including species in the Red Book to the commission’s bureau, which consists of scientists (who constitute the majority of members) and officials from the hunting, fishing, agriculture, etc., authorities. Proposals made by scientists to include a particular species in the Red Book had always been approved, but this has not been the case since 2017, when things went awry.
Translated by the Russian Reader. In the spring of 2020, the Red Book of Russian Federation was officially amended and reissued. Forty-three mammals and birds were added to the new Russian federal list of endangered species, including the saiga antelope, the wild reindeer, the greylag goose, the Siberian bighorn sheep, and the bean goose.