Site icon Conservation news

Nature-based recovery needed for Ukraine’s damaged protected areas (analysis)

A car burns with two people inside, after a Russian bombardment in Kharkiv, Ukraine, Thursday, April 21, 2022. Image by AP Photo/Felipe Dana via Flickr.

A car burns with two people inside, after a Russian bombardment in Kharkiv, Ukraine, Thursday, April 21, 2022. Image by AP Photo/Felipe Dana via Flickr.

  • A group of ecologists has published the first interim analysis of the impacts of Russia’s invasion on Ukraine’s protected areas, which has been an environmental disaster.
  • Conservationists and international policy makers must reckon with the damages from this invasion and support Ukraine in a nature-positive post-war recovery.
  • This article is an analysis. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily of Mongabay.

As winter closes in, Ukraine is facing demoralizing news. Western support for the war is faltering, Ukrainian troops in the east are being pushed onto the back foot amid a Russian troop surge, and Kyiv is once again under attack from Russian drone strikes targeting energy infrastructure, the biggest such attacks since the invasion began. US officials have estimated Ukraine’s human death toll at over 120,000, and the figure will continue to grow.

But I, as a conservationist, am expecting additional losses that have gone largely unreported. A group of Ukrainian ecologists and myself have been monitoring the impacts to Ukraine’s nature caused by the invasion, we know that another winter of conflict will wreak yet more death and destruction on Ukraine’s precious ecosystems, among the most biodiverse on the European continent.

In the course of our research — which has tracked the numerous assaults conducted in protected areas, through which the frontline has run — we have made many troubling discoveries.

Aftermath of a forest fire caused by the invasion in Sviati Hory NNP. Image courtesy of Kateryna Polyanska.
Aftermath of a forest fire caused by fighting in Sviati Hory National Nature Park. Image courtesy of Kateryna Polyanska/Environment People Law.

Areas rich in biodiversity often disproportionately overlap with sites of armed conflict. The invasion of Ukraine has been no exception. Russian troops have utilized protected areas both in an attempt to access strategic Ukrainian settlements, but also as locations in which to conduct active warfare. We have compiled first and second-hand research and reports on the impacts for Ukraine’s forests, wetlands, aquatic ecosystems, seas, islands and Europe’s largest steppe habitat. And the list of findings is sobering.

We’ve detailed the ecological disasters of bomb blasts causing bird deaths, shelling altering wildlife behavior and migratory routes, and the immediate impacts of explosives on vegetation cover and soil erosion.

In the Black and Azov seas, mass dolphin deaths are suspected to be the result of military ship activities causing acoustic injuries to inner ears and chemical skin burns, prompting Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to accuse Russia of ecocide during the COP15 U.N. biodiversity summit in Montreal, December 2022.

Ukraine’s protected area managers and rangers are also in danger. For those that have stayed in areas occupied by Russian forces, there are reports of executions, detention and torture. And in Ukrainian-held territory many have been internally displaced or enlisted in the military. Those teams that continue their protection efforts in areas close to the fighting put themselves at great risk.

In Ukraine today, the practice of conservation is perhaps like nowhere else in the world. Over the summer when I visited Kyiv, Kateryna Polyanska of Environment People Law, showed me slide after slide of the destruction as we sat hunched over her laptop. Before the war Kateryna was an ecologist like any other, now she designs soil profiling techniques to identify chemicals and heavy metals left by explosives, hand-collecting evidence of contaminated soils from blast sites.

A dead dolphin washed up.
A dead dolphin washed up in Tuzlovsky Limany National Park in Ukraine, 27 July, 2022. Image courtesy of Ivan Rusev.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the frontlines in Russian-held territory, efforts to conserve natural resources appear to have ceased. Newly appointed Russian protected area staff have reportedly set about building fortifications and exploiting natural resources in the areas they are supposed to be protecting. In one instance, a military training ground was established on a Ramsar site (a wetland of international importance) where staged military exercises include the shooting of important bird colonies as target practice.

Russian troops have confiscated firefighting equipment from local communities, exacerbating the burning of almost 6,000 hectares of rare plants and wetland habitat on the Kinburn Peninsular. In 2022, over 100,000 hectares of Emerald Network protected areas burned across Ukraine, unprecedented burning resulting in large part from the explosion of munitions. Over 40,000 hectares of radiation-contaminated forests and grasslands burned in the Chornobylskyi Biosphere Reserve.

But the Russian attack on the Kakhovka hydropower plant on June 6th was the biggest environmental catastrophe of the war to date. The Ukrainian Nature Conservation Group (UNCG) estimates that this single act of war has caused more environmental damage than the combined consequences of all military operations since the beginning of the full-scale invasion. Our team, some of whom are members of UNCG, has extensively catalogued the damage caused by the dam’s rupture: the draining of the Kakhovs’ke reservoir Key Biodiversity Area and Ramsar site upstream; the 62,000 hectares flooded downstream including nine protected areas; the landmines, ammunition, agricultural runoff, sewage, military debris and up to 450 tons of engine oil flushed into the Dnipro river and discharged into the Black sea where Ukraine, Romania and Bulgaria have numerous coastal and marine protected areas.

More insidious than the direct impact of explosives and fires are the long-term practical and psychological impacts of mining with explosives. Thirty percent of Ukraine’s territory is now potentially mined, equivalent to an area twice the size of Portugal, making it the most widely mined country in the world. In protected areas, mines are buried in beach sands, hidden in forest and grassland vegetation, floating in rivers, lakes and the Black Sea. Unexploded objects like mines are lethal to wildlife and people, they threaten the future of conservation management practices and nature tourism alike.

YouTube video player

Ukrainian authorities have valued the ever-rising bill of environmental damage to the country at over US$ 46 billion. As a country committed to protecting and conserving at least 30 per cent of its terrestrial, inland water, and coastal and marine ecosystems and restoring at least 30% of its degraded terrestrial, inland water, and coastal and marine ecosystems by 2030, it is now essential that Ukraine is assisted in achieving these targets.

Eventually, Ukraine will need to heal from not only the economic and ecological losses, but also the psychological damage of the war. At the end of the first year of the invasion, just under a third of Ukraine’s surveyed population were exhibiting symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Researchers have found many links between mental wellbeing and time spent in nature, including significant reductions in PTSD symptoms, stress, improvement in social relationships and life satisfaction and an increase in happiness in PTSD-afflicted people. But for Ukraine’s natural habitat and wildlife to support in its people’s recovery, there will need to be some nature left.

The frontline has now crossed and retreated from many protected areas, many are still occupied and many are still the sites of active hostilities. There is no way to predict the border outcome of this invasion but the work to heal Ukraine’s damaged ecosystems and rebuild the country’s conservation sector is beginning.

See related: Ukrainian biologists fight to protect conservation legacy

Unexploded munition on a tree, image taken from the road. Image courtesy of Kateryna Polyanska.
Unexploded munition on a tree. Image courtesy of Kateryna Polyanska/Environment People Law.

One urgent step for conservationists and policy makers will be to map out scenarios for an environmental recovery plan. Among others, these will include:

The careful assessment and recovery of Ukraine’s nature, including the roughly three million hectares of protected areas that have come into contact with the war, will require enormous effort. Not only is this a vast area to restore but, considering the complex and varied types of damage, the process of recovery will require concerted and coordinated effort, innovation and cooperation from a variety of skillsets and expertise. For example, large-scale, environmentally-friendly de-mining, planning safe ecotourism, peace parks and defensive rewilding will all require specialist knowledge.

Ukraine presents an opportunity for building back better. While the country is not yet a member of the European Union, nature is borderless and Ukraine possesses 35% of the European continent’s biodiversity. So, success in protecting Ukraine’s wildlife will directly impact the success of the European Union’s Biodiversity Conservation Strategy.

I was deeply moved by the bravery, dedication and resourcefulness of my fellow ecologists in Ukraine, and hope that as a global community we can support them in their vision for a nature-based recovery.

Hannah L. Timmins is an ecology consultant for Equilibrium Research based in Nairobi. She has worked on forest protection in Indonesia and Kenya, expansion of protected areas globally, and development of policy and conservation practices. 


 See related coverage:

Ukrainian biologists fight to protect conservation legacy

Amid war, Ukrainians are tracking Russia’s crimes against the environment

Exit mobile version