Saving Siberia's Unique Lake Baikal Region

Nature preserve threatened by local encroachment, lack of government funds

PYOTR ABRAMENOK, the energetic director of the Pribaikalsky National Park, erupts angrily from his desk.

``Look at this,'' he exclaims, waving an official resolution that has just arrived from the local governor. The document proclaims a plan to reorganize all of the natural parks and preserves around Lake Baikal into a `green belt.' But behind this apparently innocuous goal, Mr. Abramenok smells a familiar rat.

``That's an excuse to put an end to all the nature-preservation organizations,'' the park director says. For him, this is just one more in a long string of forays by the local authorities to encroach upon and ultimately control the forests, steppes, and mountains that ring this lake, the most ecologically unique body of fresh water on the planet.

Among nature's wonders, Siberia's Baikal is almost legendary. Formed by a rift seven times deeper than the Grand Canyon, the lake holds a volume equal to one-fifth of all the fresh water on Earth. Its oxygen-rich waters support a wealth of plant and animal life, including 1,200 acquatic forms that are unique to Baikal alone, among them the world's only species of fresh-water seal.

The taiga-carpeted mountain ridges that gird the lake abound with Siberian wildlife, including rare sable, red and musk deer, moose, wolves, brown bears, and a large variety of ducks, endangered cranes, and other birds in the wetlands.

``The local authorities wanted to take away half our land this winter,'' park director Abramenok recalls. ``They said we limit the possibilities for development.... They wanted to fire me, to replace me with someone who would accede to their demands.''

With the backing of the federal government in Moscow, these efforts were turned back. But what he calls ``a cold war'' continues.

The problems of Baikal's nature preserves are by no means unique. In fact, they are typical of Russia's entire nature-conservation system which is composed of some 85 zapovedniks (nature preserves) and biosphere reserves, completely closed off to human use, and 26 national parks where tourists are allowed.

Built up over decades, beginning even before the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, this system is now under severe pressure. Under conditions of Russia's economic depression, only 30 percent of their funding needs are being met.

Poachers are raiding precious stocks of wildlife. (The innards from four bears, sold as folk medicine to Chinese buyers, will buy a Toyota in Russia, ecologists report.) Forest rangers lack even the most rudimentary equipment to counter fires. Meanwhile local governments are pressing to grab their lands.

``Everything is beginning to break up and fall apart,'' says Vladimir Krever, the Moscow representative of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). At stake, the fund concluded in a report issued early this year, is preservation of a biological diversity of global significance.

``The vast landscapes of the Russian Federation represent one of the last opportunities on Earth to conserve relatively intact ecosystems large enough to allow ecological processes and wildlife populations to fluctuate naturally,'' the WWF report said. But the report warns: ``Without emergency funding from donor nations, biodiversity efforts in Russia will deteriorate rapidly in many areas.''

The besieging forces at Lake Baikal vary from giant state enterprises seeking to set up tourist camps on the lake shores to collective farms trying to grab pasture land for their livestock.

They are backed by a local administration resentful of the loss of control over vast lands taken under federal authority in 1986 and 1987 to form a national park and nature preserve (zapovednik) which stretch along about three-quarters of the western shore of the lake. Two older preserves and a national park already protected the southern and eastern shores.

Baikal was largely untouched until the late 1950s, when Soviet industrial planners decided to build a huge pulp and paper plant at the lake's southern end to exploit the vast resources of timber and pristine water. The decision prompted the birth of the Soviet Union's first environmental movement, led by prominent scientists and writers.

But despite frequent promises to close the plant, it continues to pollute the lake's waters. Even more serious damage comes from plants built along the Selenga River, the largest source of water coming into the lake. Fish populations have dramatically decreased and microorganisms that are vital parts of the lake's food chain are under severe threat.

The nature preserves and the dedicated people who work in them are the first - and maybe even the last - line of environmental defense. Up in the mountains of the Baikalo-Lensky zapovednik, naturalist Semyon Ustinov is fighting a constant battle against a collective farm that wants to graze its cows on precious steppe habitat.

``The local authorities don't understand that protection of the territory is protection of Baikal itself,'' says the tall biologist, reknowned in this region for leading the fight to protect Baikal. ``They only want their cattle to be brought there. They don't want to think about tomorrow.''

But the greatest nightmare for the reserves is the threat of forest fires, particularly those set by man.

Fires are a particular danger in the thin soils of the northern forest, which are slow to come back to life.

``Our fires mean desert for decades,'' Mr. Ustinov explains. ``Even moss needs 80 years to be restored.'' Yet, only six fire fighters are available to battle flames in the entire Pribaikalsky National Park, covering an area of 2,693 square kilometers (about 1,036 square miles).

Both the park and the zapovednik are starved for money. The local authorities are holding back the half of the park's meager budget that they provide. And the zapovednik, funded from Moscow, is getting only 1/10th of its budgeted monies.

During the first few years after the preserve was founded, the finances were ``not enough, but it was possible to live,'' preserve director Alexander Zayatz says.

But since 1992, ``we can say that's it's a horrible situation,'' he explains. There is only enough money for salaries of the 60-odd scientists and rangers with nothing left over for equipment, including for fire protection.

The two forest rangers stationed at the Brown Bear Ranger Station near Pokoiniki Bay live in a cabin, surviving from their own livestock, gardens, and fishing. Their pay amounts to little more than $20 a month.

Asked what they need, ranger Gregory Pechalov shoots back without hesitation - ``equipment.'' The rangers lack even elementary things, such as motorcycles or snowmobiles, to cover the huge territory they are responsible for, they explain.

Even scientists who work for months at a time in the preserve monitoring the wildlife and doing other studies receive a meager salary of about $40 a month.

``It is difficult to attract new employees,'' Ustinov says. ``People worked out of their enthusiasm. They were true nature lovers.''

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