Sierra Magazine

Where Nature Reigns

Russia’s underfunded yet vast ecological reserves are rich with brown bears, wild honey–and rare humanity.

In western Russia a shrouded figure hurtles through a boggy glade, flapping a white cotton cloak. Behind her run two fawn-colored chicks, Siberian cranes, among the most endangered birds on Earth. Ten weeks old and over three feet tall, the chicks chase the ghostly shape’s billowing costume–the color and size of an adult crane–with imprinted tenacity. She flaps; they flap. She hops and jerks through the sucky swamp; they hop and jerk. She leaps a fallen log and splashes down; they too leap over the log.

But they do not splash. Instead the two young cranes fly. They glide beneath dark oaks, beside white birches, above yellow water lilies. Where the glade ends, they flop to the ground. They hustle back to their flight instructor, 21-year-old student Tatiana Zhuchkova, who is mired in mud,sweaty with exertion, bloodied by mosquitoes, and proud as any parent. Tatiana raised these chicks from eggs. She taught them to eat mushed-up fish, and then wild strawberries and water striders. If Tatiana’s chicks and another six at this nature reserve can survive in the wilds of western and central Siberia, where they will be released at summer’s end, they may significantly increase the number of Siberian cranes remaining in those areas, now perhaps fewer than a dozen birds. (The species’ only substantial population, 3,000 birds in east Siberia, depends on vulnerable wetlands in China.)

While they prepare for relocation, these chicks live with Tatiana in the remote Oksky nature reserve, founded in 1935 to restore endangered species. She and other students work without pay, and sleep in a cramped loft above the chicks’ pen. A researcher’s job here, which only the best students can win, might pay $300 a year, just below Russia’s subsistence level. The low salary doesn’t worry Tatiana. She calls herself a "patriot," an "enthusiast"–not a new-Russian money-chasing capitalist. "After a few summers working with cranes," Tatiana says, "I can’t imagine life now without them."

Like scores of idealistic Russian naturalists before her, Tatiana has come to work in her country’s system of scientific nature reserves–the largest in the world. Most people beyond Russia’s borders have no idea that the nation devotes more land than any other to what the World Conservation Union calls "strict nature reserves," areas dedicated mainly to science and usually closed except to researchers. Russia’s 100 reserves cover some 83 million acres, an expanse equal to America’s national park system, but with stricter protections.

Through a century marked by ecocide–toxic releases, poisoned lands, nuclear accidents–Russian naturalists have battled, often against a totalitarian government, to save refuges like the one where Tatiana now works. The defense of Russia’s reserves represents one of the most heroic but hidden stories of nature conservation in the 20th century.

Russia’s tradition of creating national reserves to protect natural resources began with forestlands set aside by Czar Peter the Great in the early 1700s. But by 1890, Russian naturalists began to preach a new conservation gospel. Aware that the United States had started to designate national parks to serve people–to offer the public a "pleasuring ground," according to our Yellowstone Act of 1872–Russians advocated creating reserves to preserve nature instead. Keeping expanses of land unspoiled, they insisted, amounted to a commandment, a zapoved.

As one of the founders of Russia’s conservation movement declared in 1908, within these reserves, to be called zapovedniki, "nature must be left alone." Would humankind get no benefit? Yes, he declared: "We may observe the result." In each reserve, beginning with Russia’s first in 1916, one could enter as a scientist or as a student of nature–perhaps even (in a slight contradiction) work as a breeder to restore endangered species or as a ranger to protect them from poachers. But to most people, the zapovednik decreed: Into these wildlands thou shalt not go.

In 1919, the second year of the Soviet regime, Vladimir Lenin–a lover of hiking and camping who understood that hunters were driving some wildlife toward extinction–proposed drafting the legislation that led to a system of multiple nature reserves. Through three decades they grew to cover 31 million acres: technically inviolate, but ever threatened by Soviet strivers for economic growth. In 1951, Joseph Stalin, bent on a "Great Plan for the Transformation of Nature," slashed the reserve system to below 4 million acres. After a decade of fighting, Russian naturalists managed to restore them back to 15 million–before Nikita Khrushchev slashed them again. Less-repressive leaders eventually replaced the slashers, and the protected acreage had grown once more by the time Vsevolod Stepanitsky took charge of the system in 1991.

I ride with the former director one misty morning on horseback through a small forest reserve near the Ukrainian border. Astride his steed, with his brush mustache and broad smile, he reminds me of the young Teddy Roosevelt. While at a Moscow university in the 1970s, he led a brigade of students who traveled to nature reserves to combat poaching. One of his patrols discovered evidence of duck poaching by a deputy minister of finance for the Soviet Union. (Their youthful idealism had its cost: Since the founding of the first brigades in 1960, several students on patrol have been shot dead.) Later he worked in reserves, helped found a national conservation group, and in 1989 began assisting one of Russia’s newly elected, pro-environment legislators. At age 32, he became head of all Russia’s nature reserves.

Almost immediately, the Soviet Union collapsed. Russia’s economy plunged. As inflation soared and funding sank, the zapovedniki were left with only 5 percent of their previous annual budget. Drawing on his experience as a student and researcher, Director Stepanitsky decided to bet on his system’s idealists and use all the meager funds for salaries: $300 a year for a good ranger, $460 for a youngish head of scientific research, $870 for a top director. On these near-poverty wages, his bet was this: When you need food, you will plant potatoes. When you need a cabin, you will find an ax. And if you need uniforms or radios or computers, you will learn how to speak the language of the World Wide Fund for Nature. A decade later, his wager remains on the table. Crossing Russia with photographers Igor Shpilenok and Laura Williams, I set out to see what is protected (and threatened) in the country’s zapovedniki–and whether these vast reserves can survive a gamble that pits lofty ideals against deepening poverty.

After our days with Tatiana and her cranes, we travel 650 miles east to the southern Ural Mountains, the start of Asia, and Shulgan-Tash Zapovednik. This reserve was created in 1958 to save wild Burzyan honeybees and their mountainous habitat, reminiscent of the Appalachians’ Blue Ridge range. There we meet Alkham Isanomanov and Fidrat Yumaguzhin, Bashkirian descendants of nomads who for centuries have tended what they call "bee trees."

On a morning hike, Alkham stops at one of the largest pines in the forest, its limbless base broader than two men could reach around, and prepares to climb. To his belt he straps an axe; a smoker filled with smoldering wood to help sedate the bees; and a dugout bucket, a linden log carved out to carry the honey–beekeeping tools whose use here may go back 1,400 years. Round the vast trunk he wraps a rope that he braided from cowhide. He begins his ascent rapidly, flinging the rope upward around the trunk to create a high handhold, kicking a leg up to snag a toehold, flinging the rope again for a higher handhold to pull to still higher toeholds. At 30 feet up, Alkham reaches his bees.

As Alkham pulls out the combs, fat with honey, from a rectangular hollow in the tree, Fidrat explains the stewardship that turned this pine into a beehive. About 1700, this tree sprouted as a seedling. A hundred years later, a Bashkirian beekeeper carved his family brand into the trunk, marking it as a bee tree for his grandchildren. He topped the pine 40 feet up, capped it with birch bark or a flat stone, and opened a clearing to give it sunshine. Capped above and lighted around, the tree grew in girth, but not height.

In the 1860s, the beekeeper’s grandson climbed the now-fattened pine. Using an ax, he carved a boxlike cavity in the trunk, 30 feet above the ground. Wild bees arrived and hung the space with tapestries of honeycomb. Over centuries of such husbandry, Bashkirians and bees and pine forests and flowery meadows thrived. But Stalin had other plans for the area. Seeking to collectivize agriculture, his government expelled Bashkirian beekeepers from the Urals. Fidrat’s great-grandparents were sent to become miners in Siberia. As old forests fell for Stalinist farmland, Burzyan honeybees lost both manmade and natural refuges. The bees seemed destined for extinction.

Stalin died first, in 1953. The area that is now Shulgan-Tash was set aside a few years later. The region’s few surviving beekeepers took on a new title, "ranger-beekeeper," and returned to their family tradition of preserving a mostly wild land in harmony with human culture. For Alkham, the benefits run deep: "Working with bees, climbing on the trees, it calms a person." Of course, bees do not come to all trees. But bees will come, he concludes, "when you invest your soul into preparing a den."

Some 1,500 miles east, just north of Mongolia, we meet Tamara Makashova, the longtime head ranger of Sayano-Shushensky Zapovednik, a reserve larger than Rhode Island. Aboard a rusting patrol ship, we motor the headwaters of one of Russia’s grandest rivers, the Yenisey, here starting its 2,500-mile run to the Arctic Ocean. Above us loom slaty canyons cut by the roaring river, though now the Yenisey lies quiet. Transformed in the 1970s by the construction downstream of Russia’s most powerful hydroelectric dam, the once-churning cataracts have bloated into a reservoir.

The reservoir, Tamara explains, has brought threats that could never have traveled a cataract-filled gorge: boatloads of hunters. Just beyond the southern boundary of the reserve lies Russia’s republic of Tuva, a sere land of yaks and camels tended by seminomadic herders. Favorite Tuvinian dishes feature heavy-antlered Siberian elk and Siberian ibex, among the largest of mountain goats.

Tamara has worked since the reserve’s creation in 1976 to protect its newly vulnerable wilderness, but despite her best efforts, Tuvinian poachers still slip in. Not far from a camp for conducting snow-leopard research, four of her young rangers disappeared a few years ago while riding on antipoaching patrol; their saddles were found buried.

Respect for Tuvinian traditions other than hunting has led the reserve to make compromises. It still permits pilgrimages to a spring where Tuvinians pitch tents, honor Buddha, and conduct a multiweek healing ritual in the high reaches of the reserve.

A more controversial compromise has followed the financial pressures created when the Russian government cut support in 1991. Tamara and her rangers began losing all transportation but horses. To keep boats running, rangers caught fish in the river and traded them with factories for spare parts. Then a government agency proposed that the reserve organize hunting trips to attract cash from foreigners.

Rangers now serve as hunting guides, but only on their days off and only on land outside the reserve. In 1998, the rangers led hunters from Austria, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Norway, Spain, and the United States on trips that took 10 bears, 15 elk, and 24 ibex. The net income to the reserve from hunting reportedly exceeded $21,000–about as much as the Russian government’s annual contribution. Now Tamara must explain to Tuvinians why rangers, hired to keep local people from hunting inside the reserve, today lead foreigners to hunt outside it. "We’re not proud of it," says Tamara. "We wish that we did not have to be this way."

East from the banks of the Yenisey, another 800 miles carried us past braided rivers and birch forests to Lake Baikal, the world’s oldest, deepest, most voluminous freshwater lake. Around its shoreline, three nature reserves–including Russia’s oldest, Barguzinsky Zapovednik–combine with three national parks to defend an area six times the size of Grand Canyon National Park in the United States. Up from Baikal’s shore, mountains rise sharply for a vertical mile, towering high as the canyon rim above the Colorado River. Down from the shoreline descends another mile-deep rift, almost 400 miles long, that holds one-fifth the fresh water of all the world’s lakes. And beneath Baikal’s lake floor lie at least four vertical miles of silt, deposited by hundreds of tributaries during 16 million years. While other lakes filled with sediment and disappeared, Baikal survived, growing wider and deeper where Asia splits at tectonic seams, permitting the evolution of hundreds of endemic species.

The area’s vast reserves protect animals both rare (Barguzin sable, Baikal seal) and abundant (brown bear, forest reindeer). They also provide home range for Baikal’s most revered field ecologist, Semyon Ustinov. Now in his mid-60s,Semyon took his first research job more than 40 years ago in the mountains of the Barguzinsky reserve, created in 1916 above Baikal’s eastern shore. That work took him only a few dozen miles from the village where he grew up, in a family of Old Believers, a devout Christian sect banished to Siberia in the 1700s.

Just after Semyon arrived, he and his coworkers faced the first Soviet plan to disrupt the natural systems of Baikal. To generate more electricity at a downstream dam, Soviet engineers proposed to deepen Baikal’s outlet by 75 feet, dropping the surface of the entire lake. They planned to do so by detonating 30 kilotons of explosives, unleashing more power than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. At unknowable political risk, Semyon and his colleagues in 1958 opposed the blasting. Joining other scientists and citizens in unprecedented activism, they won the first of many battles for Baikal.

As I trail Semyon into the mountains of Baikalo-Lensky Zapovednik, we follow tracks of reindeer and bear. Weeks before our arrival, a scientist crawled back from this bear country with his face gouged to the bone, so researchers are forbidden to hike without rifle-carrying rangers. But as Baikalo-Lensky’s longtime science director, Semyon can make an exception: I may walk with him. He carries no weapons. Visitors, he says, "go only with the protection of God when they go with me."

That seems a bit modest. At 66, Semyon’s muscles remain hard, his wiles quick, his build ursine. At the end of his powerful arms, each hand seems massive as the head of a splitting maul. As Valentin Rasputin, one of Russia’s best-known authors, once wrote, Semyon is a "Siberian on whom nature did not economize."

As we walk and talk in Baikal’s high country, Semyon recalls one of the reserves’ gifts, to him and others: individual freedom. When he began his career at Barguzinsky he had expected an assignment. Instead the director offered a choice. Would Semyon like to study sables, the animal the reserve was created to save? Or birds? Or ungulates and their predators? Semyon chose the latter: moose, musk deer, bear, and more.

Hiking without tent or sleeping bag, wrapping himself in a wool coat and lying beside a fire on nights that sometimes fell 45 degrees below zero, Sem-yon stayed out months at a time. On his returns, he wrote up his findings. They appeared in scores of professional journals, in popular newspapers and books, and in the Chronicle of Nature, a compilation of research kept in each zapovednik–creating an invaluable natural history of northern Eurasia. Siberian nature apparently did well by not economizing on Semyon Ustinov. It invested for maximum return.

Nature’s gain, I came to think as I approached the Pacific, stretches beyond any continent. Russia’s reserves have survived an ecocidal century as a global emblem of human yearning to know and love the natural world. Along with rich flora and fauna, the reserves harbor rare humanity–as their director knew when, at 32, he bet that his entire system could be saved by its idealistic rangers and researchers.

Soon their difficulties may deepen. At the end of last year, with Stepanitsky’s own idealism under siege, the longtime director resigned. He blasted his bosses for cutting staff and pressing reserves to make money by logging alongside (or even inside) their territories. "When going to work is like going behind enemy lines," Stepanitsky told his colleagues, "that’s not for me." He has moved to the World Wide Fund for Nature in Moscow, where he will continue to fight for the wildlands that he first defended as a teenager. Embattled still, Russia’s nature reserves rely more than ever on their hardy breed of idealists–saving elk from poachers, carving dens for bees, teaching cranes to fly–nature lovers in a romance at least as big as a continent.

Fred Strebeigh teaches writing at Yale University’s school of environmental studies.

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