International Groups Work to Save Russian Wildlife Areas

A STRING of concrete towers carries power lines through wetlands not far from the banks of this broad river. At almost regular intervals, masses of brown twigs perch amid the metal structures on top of the towers. On one, an Oriental white stork stands like a stately sentry over its nest, protecting the two fledglings within.

This nesting area for one of the rarest birds in the world - only several thousand are thought to still exist - is located in agricultural land, outside the boundaries of a nearby protected game reserve. Last fall, Russian ornithologist Sergei Smirenski came up with a plan to preserve such endangered habitats: Buy the land.

The idea is not new in other countries. Private organizations such as the United States-based Nature Conservancy have done precisely this kind of thing. But in a nation where private initiative of any kind has been virtually forbidden, the concept is radical.

"It is crazy," Dr. Smirenski says, smiling, "because even now we have no laws on buying land." But these days in Russia, many "crazy" things are happening.

For now, Smirenski's Socio-Ecological Union (SEU), an alliance of more than 150 environmental groups in 12 of the 15 former Soviet republics, is settling for long-term, 99-year-lease agreements. The SEU chose as its test case an 11,000-hectare plot of wetlands upriver from here, near the town of Tambovka, a breeding ground for both storks and several varieties of endangered cranes.

Smirenski's next challenge was to raise funds. Last fall he went to several American nature organizations for help. The International Crane Foundation contacted organizations around the world. Almost immediately, Smirenski heard from the Wild Bird Society of Japan, the Japanese counterpart to the National Audubon Society in the US.

When Noritaka Ichida, the director of the Wild Bird Society, got the proposal, he immediately went to the largest daily in Japan, the Yomiuri Shimbun, which ran a front-page story on the idea. "I got many telephone calls," Mr. Ichida recalls, including 26 serious offers to fund the project.

"The birds that breed here will migrate to our country," Ichida explains. "We feel like it is our mother country."

This July, Ichida joined Smirenski and tens of other naturalists on an international expedition/seminar up the Amur River, during which they signed a contract with the local authorities to lease the land.

The SEU is also looking for international help to bolster the former Soviet Union's unique system of zapovedniki, or state nature reserves. This 80-year-old system of centrally administered wildlife areas is restricted to scientific research. Maintained by a dedicated cadre of naturalists, the system has allowed protection of countless endangered species.

These nature reserves are now threatened by the economic crisis that has cut budget funds and driven local authorities to allow such violations of the protected areas as grazing by livestock, hunting, and logging.

In collaboration with the Institute for Soviet-American Relations in Washington, D.C., the SEU is seeking private and governmental aid to help the system survive the transition under way in the former Soviet Union.

The agreement with Japanese supporters may provide a unique model. Rather than cash, which would be largely taken in taxes by the central government, the Japanese donors will supply the local government with vitally needed agricultural equipment and the advice of some Wisconsin farmers on how to conduct sustainable agriculture that will not harm the environment.

Both Smirenski and Ichida say they believe that if this wetlands project is successful - it also includes construction of a natural research center - more will follow.

"If we help the local people in developing their economy, they will help us in nature protection," Smirenski says. "It is impossible to save wetlands only by my hands. If the villagers understand what these wetlands are, they will protect them, and not for only one year."

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