- A new policy paper outlines the impacts of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on biodiversity and conservation efforts.
- The authors found that the escalation of the war has isolated Russia, a key party to many international conservation agreements and a vital country for protecting biodiversity because of its diverse habitats, as well as the threatened and migratory species it hosts.
- That isolation has impeded international cooperation on species conservation, they write.
- The invasion has also shifted the priorities of many countries faced with the knock-on effects of the war, such as potential food shortages.
The red-breasted goose is a well-traveled bird. From their breeding grounds in Arctic Siberia, flocks typically migrate over northern Kazakhstan through the Russian Republic of Kalmykia and Rostov Oblast to balmier climes near the shores of the Black Sea in Bulgaria, Romania and Ukraine. Wandering individuals — vagrants, in the parlance of ornithologists — have turned up as far afield as Ireland, India and Israel and Palestine, and they even grace ancient Egyptian frescos.
Diminutive and snub-nosed, an adult red-breasted goose (Branta ruficollis) is striking, painted as if by a master decoy maker with swatches of white, dark black and the auburn it’s named for. Though legally protected throughout its range, its beauty makes it a sought-after prize for illegal hunters, and the IUCN, the global wildlife conservation authority, now lists the bird as vulnerable. But energy projects, fishing and climate change are also dragging down its numbers.
For more than a decade, conservation organizations from around the region have worked across borders to codify protections for the red-breasted goose.
“You cannot protect a migratory species without acting actively in all the range countries,” Nicky Petkov, a project manager at the nonprofit Bulgarian Society for the Protection of Birds, told Mongabay. “This is one of the flyway basics.”
In late 2021, these groups achieved a major milestone, securing bans through legislation and decrees in parts of Russia and Kalmykia on spring hunting during the boreal spring, when the geese would start returning to their breeding grounds in the Russian Arctic.
Then, just a few months later, on Feb. 24, 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine in an all-out assault on multiple fronts, upending the established global geopolitical order and, with it, conservation efforts like the ones that secured these protections for the red-breasted goose.
The impacts of the invasion of Ukraine have rippled through the realm of global biodiversity conservation, according to a policy brief co-authored by Petkov and published Feb. 15 in the journal Frontiers in Conservation Science.
For the red-breasted goose, Petkov said, “The good thing is that we had already more or less finished most of our work in Russia.” But soon, the broader ramifications of the war, beyond the destruction of Ukrainian cities and infrastructure and the suffering and death inflicted on the country’s people, began to come into focus. The European Union, the U.S. and other actors began levying sanctions on Russia. Petkov said the satellite coverage for Russia and Kazakhstan on which they relied for tracking flocks of birds dropped out. And the severing of Russia’s connections to the SWIFT financial network has meant that a key partner NGO hasn’t been able to receive its final share of the project funding.
The bulk of global concern has focused on the devastation facing the people of Ukraine, said Eduardo Gallo-Cajiao, the paper’s lead author, and rightly so. He also pointed out that Ukrainian scientists continue to work to keep conservation projects afloat and document the impacts of the war on habitats and species.
“They’re the real heroes in the midst of all this tragedy,” said Gallo-Cajiao, an environmental scientist and postdoctoral fellow at the University of Washington in the U.S.
Gallo-Cajiao said sourcing information for his research on international conservation agreements suddenly became much more difficult after the invasion.
“The reality is that now it has spilled over to … affect biodiversity conservation initiatives with implications for biodiversity all over the world,” Gallo-Cajiao said. In part, that’s because bird species from Russia migrate to every continent in the world, he added.
Russia’s size alone makes it vital to biodiversity conservation. Research has shown that it’s home to more wilderness, boreal forest and peatlands than any other country. More than half of the coastline of the Arctic Ocean is in Russia. What’s more, the country is a part of more than 50 biodiversity conservation agreements, and currently chairs the Arctic Council, a group aimed at encouraging international cooperation in the Arctic.
“It’s important that [Russia is] in the room scientifically and practically because it does host so many diverse ecosystems, so many plant and animal species and migratory species,” said Laura Henry, a professor of government and acting chair of the Russian department at Bowdoin College in the U.S.
To better understand the impacts of the invasion on biodiversity conservation, Gallo-Cajiao pulled together a team of conservation scientists to pinpoint the broader effects of the war.
“What we are seeing is a big step backwards, basically,” he told Mongabay.
While not exhaustive, the policy brief provides a snapshot of why Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has proven so disruptive to conservation efforts, and what might be done about it.
“Obviously, we’re primarily thinking about the human cost of the war, and that’s appropriate. But the conflict does reverberate in all sorts of unfortunate ways, and environmental cooperation is certainly one of them,” said Henry, who was not a part of the research. “It’s really important that we are thinking about these issues.”
Russia has been isolated as a result of the sanctions and its separation from international banking systems. Those knock-on effects of its invasion have had the sort of chilling effects for biodiversity conservation efforts involving scientists and groups in Russia that Petkov witnessed.
The second effect the authors identified centers on Russia’s role in global biodiversity conservation initiatives and agreements. Along with leadership of the Arctic Council, Russia also headed the UNESCO World Heritage Committee at the time of the invasion. Though it’s no longer the committee chair, the invasion paralyzed its work to designate World Heritage Sites, which in some cases may be critical habitats for biodiversity.
Finally, the war has led to a shift in priorities for other governments. Russia and Ukraine supply a lot of wheat, barley and other foodstuffs to the EU, and the disruption in that pipeline has led to concerns about food shortages and caused spikes in prices. As a result, EU countries have implemented policies such as the farming of fallow land previously given over to biodiversity conservation, Gallo-Cajiao said.
Despite these challenges, he said he’s optimistic after almost 200 countries agreed to a new framework for stopping the global loss of biodiversity at last December’s COP15, the U.N. Biodiversity Conference in Montreal.
“What happened in Montreal was very encouraging to see despite the war,” Gallo-Cajiao said. “We need to definitely strengthen and keep the momentum going on global agreements such as the Convention on Biological Diversity.”
He also called for more research examining international conservation cooperation with the goal of making it more resilient to shocks like the invasion of Ukraine.
“We have to understand in detail, and thoroughly, what the effect of the war is for the system,” he added, “so hopefully, when the war ends, we know how to pick up the pieces.”
Banner image: Fewer than 300 spoon-billed sandpipers (Calidris pygmaea) live in far eastern Russia, making it one of the most threatened shorebirds in the world. A decade-long project to hand-rear chicks from collected eggs had led to the successful release of more than 200 young birds, but Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has blocked the project and the funds needed to continue it, scientists say. Image courtesy of Sayam Chowdhury.
John Cannon is a staff features writer with Mongabay. Find him on Twitter: @johnccannon
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Gallo-Cajiao, E., Dolšak, N., Prakash, A., Mundkur, T., Harris, P. G., Mitchell, R. B., … Biggs, D. (2023). Implications of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine for the governance of biodiversity conservation. Frontiers in Conservation Science, 4. doi:10.3389/fcosc.2023.989019
Watson, J. E., Venter, O., Lee, J., Jones, K. R., Robinson, J. G., Possingham, H. P., & Allan, J. R. (2018). Protect the last of the wild. Nature, 563(7729), 27-30. doi:10.1038/d41586-018-07183-6
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