For the country’s once beleaguered wildlife, the war has been a godsend.
By LILY HYDE
URZUF, Ukraine — The two-week-old calf was, in a way, another victim of the war.
A smallholder farmer named Galina Korovaytseva had left it tethered in her yard late last month in Urzuf, a village on the Sea of Azov about 50 kilometers west of the frontline between the government of Ukraine and Russian-backed separatists.
When she came home, just before dark, she found it had been killed by wolves, which had devoured its insides. “My husband was still at work,” Korovaytseva said. “We always put [the calf] inside at night. But they came and ate it.”
More than 10,000 people have been killed in the more than four years of fightingin eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region. An estimated 1.6 million more have been displaced. The economy has been devastated. And there’s risk of environmental damage — contamination of the soil and air from destroyed factories, flooded coal mines, landmines and exploded military ordnance.
But for the country’s once beleaguered wildlife, the war has been a godsend. Because of the ongoing fighting, there’s no systematic monitoring of the region’s wild animal population. But local residents, soldiers, rangers and environmentalists agree: The area is undergoing an unintended — and unexpected — rewilding.
As recently as 2014, wolves attacking domestic animals in eastern Ukraine were tales told by grandparents. Today, in part because of a hunting ban in the war zone, large, wild predators are flourishing — along with other rare flora and fauna — along the 450-kilometer frontline.
“For hundreds of years populations of big animals were controlled, and now for the first time they are uncontrolled,” said Oleksiy Vasilyuk, an ecologist from the Ukrainian NGO Environment People Law. “For us, it’s great news.”
Before the war began in 2014, the Donbas region was the most populated in Ukraine except Kiev, and the most industrialized. “Nature was very degraded; there was almost nothing left,” said Vasilyuk.
Vasilyuk likened the effect of the war to the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. After a nuclear reactor exploded in 1986, the area around the failed power plant became a de facto nature reserve — one of the richest in the region. It has since been made an official reserve.
Parts of eastern Ukraine are “now experiencing an effect like Chernobyl,” Vasilyuk said. “The area is polluted not by radiation but by industry. The air and water quality is bad. The ground soil is contaminated. But the most important thing is that there are fewer people now, along with less industry and agriculture. Yes, there’s a war going on, and animals migrate from noise and activity. But their populations are really growing.”
The cost of war
Not everyone is as pleased as Vasilyuk, whose attempts to get wolves into the “Red Book” of endangered species in Ukraine have been met with less than enthusiasm from hunters and smallholders around Urzuf. Unlike Chernobyl, the war zone in eastern Ukraine is still inhabited.
The war makes itself felt daily in Urzuf, in the shots and explosions from the nearby military training ground, in the increased numbers of armed men, in the absence of holidaymakers who used to come from what is now occupied territory and from Russia, and in the wolves, jackals and foxes that roam with impunity, snapping up unguarded pets and livestock.
“They’re not afraid anymore of people, they’re not afraid of lights,” said Semyon Goliyollu, who lives on the same street as Korovaytseva, the woman who lost her calf to wolves. “Everyone’s scared of these wolves.”
Local residents rely on livestock to supplement their livelihoods. A bull calf a few weeks older than Korovaytseva’s sells for 5,000 hryvnias (about €160) — a significant sum for a couple living on a monthly salary of half that.
Hunters around Urzuf are desperate for the hunting ban to be lifted. They talk of “a piece missing from our souls” and hunting dogs getting fat. They have petitioned both the army and local authorities to allow at least a cull of predators to protect livestock and prevent outbreaks of disease. Four people in the district were infected with rabies from a fox this winter, said Vasily Sagarits, director of the district’s hunting association.
As well as contributing to the local budget with permit fees, the association’s 700 hunters used to participate in a rabies control program, in which oral vaccines in bait were dropped for wild animals. The program ended in 2013 with the last hunting season before the war.
Ukraine has been hit by a shortage of rabies vaccines, after their import from Russia was banned because of the conflict. “It might be an emergency situation soon,” said Sagarits.
A park divided
Before the fighting began, several nature reserves were responsible for protecting Donbas’ remaining steppe, chalk hills, wetlands and coast. One of these was Meotida National Park, in the south Donetsk region.
The war has cut the park in half — and been disastrous for those who manage it. Its headquarters in Novoazovsk, now on occupied territory, was sacked in the summer of 2015. Cars, boats, computers and the fruits of 15 years of research were lost. Nadia Dolgova, the park’s director, rescued what she could in three car trips across the frontline, until she and her husband were stopped at a separatist checkpoint and detained for several hours because the salvaged items included maps, binoculars and a Ukrainian flag.
Nevertheless, said Dolgova, who is now based in Urzuf, “The war has been good for our park. No hunting. No one shoots birds. No systematic disturbance from people and dogs. Yes, there’s frequent [military] fire, but birds get used to that, just noise doesn’t scare them.”
The park is known for its more than 240 bird species, including 100 breeding species. Its colony of Dalmatian pelicans — the only one in Ukraine — is now on separatist territory and was reportedly devastated by military action and fishing. But a few have been sighted on this side of the frontline, and last year Dolgova’s staff observed great white pelicans, the first recorded sighting in the area for 150 years.
The increased military presence along the coast and frontline has made a nesting colony of greater black-headed gulls inaccessible to fishers, poachers and curious tourists. It is flourishing as a result. “Now, there’s 24-hour guard and 3 to 4 kilometers under systematic patrol,” said Dolgova — a level of security that was impossible for the park even in the pre-war days when it had vehicles and a fuel budget.
The increased presence of armed men is a mixed blessing though. Soldiers like to try out their rifles and night-vision goggles on wild boar and deer, said park staff and hunters who say they have found the vehicle tracks and dead animals to prove it.
Dolgova complained to a military commander: “They explained that they were practicing: ‘There’s a war on in the country and where should we practice, on people or animals?’”
‘Nature has no borders’
The most visible military presence in Urzuf belongs to the Azov battalion, which occupies a large fenced base on a prime section of coast in the village.
An Azov battalion commander who identified himself only as “Shark” insisted his soldiers do not indulge in any illicit target practice. “We see boars and hares and foxes, but in Azov we have a humane attitude to animals and no one hunts or shoots them,” he said. “I love animals more than people.”
He added that the battalion takes care of Urzuf’s stray cats and dogs. “We really love and respect them and help them, we have even built a little house for them to live in.”
Environmentalists have brought a court case against the army for turning part of the Meotida National Park into a firing range. In addition to the impact of shelling on land, they say, ordnance fired offshore is damaging the delicate ecosystems of the Sea of Azov.
Many of Dolgova’s former colleagues still live on the other side of the frontline, where the Dalmatian pelicans have reportedly returned, along with scientists to monitor them. “You can’t tell birds to fly only here and not there because there’s shooting there, and it’s where separatists and occupants live,” said Dolgova. “Nature has no borders.”
“We still talk [to the scientists], of course there’s not always a phone connection, but when we can we exchange experience,” she said. “We still consider it our territory, and I hope we’ll be able to win it back and unite our park again.”
Where people are unable to go, nature flourishes, said Vasilyuk, the ecologist. He said he hopes one day to see Donbas as it was before centuries of hunting and industry left their mark.
“None of us can imagine what the wild nature of Donbas is like; no one has ever seen it,” he said. “Of course, the war has to end first, but I think we have the chance to get another super wild natural area that exists nowhere in Europe.”