Russia's New Revolution in Conservation

Nation's first private nature reserve provides a haven for rare cranes and a place for people to explore wilderness

WHEN naturalist Sergei Smirenski set out to create Russia's first private nature reserve since the Bolshevik revolution, he knew that the greatest obstacle would be overcoming bureaucratic resistance.

The Moscow State University professor has charted a steep uphill course through a variety of foes, from local wildlife service officials who covet his funding to government officials who saw more value in development than conservation. But with incredible dedication, and the support of a wide range of international donors from Japan to the United States, the Murovyovka Nature Park has finally come into being.

Founded at a small ceremony last summer, the private reserve covers 11,000 acres of pristine wetlands along the banks of the Amur River in the Russian Far East. Here, amid forests and marshes encompassing a variety of microhabitats, nest some of the world's rarest birds - tall, elegant cranes whose numbers are counted in the mere hundreds.

The creation of the park marks a new approach to nature conservation in Russia, one that combines traditional methods of protection with an attempt to adapt to the changing economic and political circumstances of the new Russia.

``There must be a thousand ways to save a wetland. It is time for vision and risk, and also hard practicality,'' wrote Jim Harris, deputy director of the International Crane Foundation, a Wisconsin-based organization dedicated to the study and preservation of cranes, which has been a major supporter of the Murovyovka project.

Dr. Smirenski's vision has been eminently down to earth. At every step, he has tried to involve local officials, businessmen and collective farms in the project, giving them a practical, economic stake in its success. And with international support, he is trying to introduce new methods of organic farming that will be more compatible with preserving the wetlands.

Russia's traditional approach to nature conservation has been the creation of zapovedniks or nature reserves that are kept in a totally wild state, used only for scientific research. But this system has come under tremendous pressure in recent years as Russia's economic crisis has dried up government funding.

So naturalists such as Smirenski have tried to find new approaches that integrate the protection of ecosystems with human use. Zapovednik directors are now studying the use of ecotourism, for example, to raise funds. And at Murovyovka, the park has been created without a government role, amid intensive economic activity.

The land itself is leased for 50 years by the Socio-Ecological Union of Russia, an umbrella environmentalist movement that Smirenski is part of. The initial funding for the lease and the creation of the park came from a grant of $80,000 provided to the Wild Bird Society of Japan by POP Group Corporation, a Japanese textile firm.

``I try to give the money to the local people so they will have jobs through us,'' Smirenski says. This includes hiring a local builder to construct an educational center at the site. He is also planning to put money into a plant to make soy flour so that the local collective farms, whose farmland surrounds the wetlands, can process their stores of soybeans and find new markets for the flour.

An agricultural project is also under way to create an experimental farm to teach local farmers how to farm without the traditionally heavy use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers. Two Wisconsin farmers, Don and Ellen Padley, spent last summer preparing land in Tanbovka district, where the park is located, and they will return this summer to plant it.

Specialists from the University of Utah also came to study the local cattle industry, looking to develop possibilities for beef exports to Japan.

Separately, 10 New Jersey school teachers will spend the summer in the district running summer camps for the local children that will stress field trips and lectures on the nature around them.

These programs, particularly the agricultural project, are getting some funding support from the United States, including from the MacArthur Foundation, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, and the US Agency for International Development. The Trust for Mutual Understanding and the Weeden Foundation are also supporting the International Crane Foundation's work in creating the park.

The World Bank is funding a small project to study the possibilities for ecotourism in the Amur basin region. Delta Dream Vacations, a Delta Airlines subsidiary, is looking into flights to Khabarovsk and Vladivostok for ecology tours, with some of the money going to support the zapovedniks in the region.

But this money has also generated a jealous attempt by the local wildlife service to block the Murovyovka project.

``They said, `Give us their money, and we'll do it better,'' Smirenski says. They went to the local court to get a court order to halt the contract. Although they were successful at that level, the Amur regional government, with encouragement from Moscow, has already moved to reverse the decision as illegal.

``I don't pay attention to this negative side,'' Smirenski says in characteristic optimistic fashion. ``I decided we should continue to create.''

Beyond Murovyovka, there are even vaster grasslands and wetlands in the Amur basin that are vital nesting areas for rare birds such as the eastern white stork, and the red-crowned, white-naped, and hooded cranes. A complex of 100,000 hectares, for example, lies largely unprotected in Zhuravalini (literally ``a place for cranes``) downstream from Murovyovka. Creation of a national park, allowing for tourist use, has been proposed for this area.

A key part of the conservation strategy is to gain the support of regional governments by getting them to see that such internationally backed nature projects can lead to business and other ties, particularly to countries like Japan and China. For example, the cranes that nest in Russia have been tracked by satellite to wintering grounds in Izumi, on Japan's southern Kyushu Island. This linkage has proved useful in bringing regional officials from both countries together.

Last summer, 100 Japanese schoolchildren from the Tama region outside of Tokyo came to Khabarovsk on the Amur to experience the kind of untouched nature that has disappeared from Japan. As part of the exchange, the Mayor of Tama donated 26 second-hand fire trucks to his counterpart.

``After this, the mayor of Khabarovsk said, `Now I will listen to you, about your birds and all your problems,' '' recounts Smirenski. ``Now the officials understand what cranes mean to them.''

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