This article describes three existing and planned transboundary ecosystems restoration programmes in the Danube Delta, Azov-Black Sea corridor and Polesia; as well as the immediate effects and potential longer-term consequences of Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine. The major project portfolios discussed are supported through the UK-based Endangered Landscapes Programme managed by the Cambridge Conservation Initiative with funding support from Arcadia, a charitable fund of Lisbet Rausing and Peter Baldwin.1,2,3 ECOS would like to extend particular thanks to ELP director Dr David Thomas for his considerable assistance with the preparation of this article. A wide range of Ukrainian and international partners have been and continue to be involved in planning and implementation work. These include Rewilding Ukraine (part of Rewilding Europe), the Odesa-based Centre for Regional Studies, BirdLife International and the Frankfurt Zoological Society.4,5,6 The programmes considered are:
- Restoring the Danube Delta (Ukraine, Moldova and Romania)7
- Carbon sequestration/storage in Ukrainian steppe ecosystems8
- Planned Azov- Black Sea Eco Corridor (partly Russian-occupied)9
- Polesia- Wilderness Without Borders (Ukraine and Belarus)10
These programmes have been selected in part because they cover areas for which the consequences of war in Ukraine have been very different. Whilst some important restoration work in the Danube Delta and adjacent steppe ecosystems has continued, the Azov-Black Sea Corridor is subject to ongoing conflict and the future of Polesia uncertain. Another reason for selecting the ELP programmes is the involvement of international “Big Conservation” partners and the significance of their role during the most serious conflict in Europe since World War II is highlighted. The UK-based Conflict and Environment Observatory also reports on what “may well prove to be the most highly observed conflict in history” using remote monitoring, including data from the areas under consideration.11 For up-to-date information on the wider consequences of the war in Ukraine for the natural (and built) environment, readers are advised to consult the websites of the Ukrainian Nature Conservation Group and the Centre for Environmental Initiatives Ecoaction.12,13 A comprehensive account of the war’s environmental impact by the UK-based journalist Fred Pearce was also published by Yale Environment 360 at the end of August 2022.14
Restoring the Danube Delta and Tarutino Steppe
Spanning 700,000 hectares across Ukraine, Moldova and Romania, the Danube Delta is Europe’s largest remaining natural wetland, reed bed and its most important natural water purification system. A UNESCO transboundary biosphere reserve was designated in 1998.15 To support this designation, cross-border nature conservation and restoration work had been underway since the 1990s. According to UNESCO:
The water ecosystems of the reserve are very diverse, including the freshwater ecosystems of watercourses, limans and numerous lakes and bays, and brackish water ecosystems in the delta of the Kiliya Arm.
The freshwater ecosystems give the reserve a rich biodiversity: 312 bird species can be found including the glossy ibis (Plegadis falcinellus), the purple heron (Ardea purpurea), the white-tailed eagle (Haliaeetus albicilla) and the largest population of great white pelicans (Pelecanus onocrotalus) in Europe. Fish species include the starlet (Acipenser ruthenus) – a small sturgeon, the thornback ray (Raja clavata) and the spined loach (Cobitis danubialis).
Other animals living in the Danube Delta include the meadow viper (Vipera ursinii), the European mink (Mustela lutreola), the harbour porpoise (Phocoena phocoena) and the common bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncates).
The biosphere reserve incorporates four Ramsar Wetland Sites: the Danube Delta in the Romanian part and Kyliiske Mouth, Kugurlui Lake and Kartal lake in the Ukrainian part. The Danube Delta is also inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List.
In addition, the delta “includes fixed and mobile sand dune areas home to psammophilic (sand-loving) plants. Grassland ecosystems are located on higher parts of riverine bars and on the edges of reef beds, adjacent to coastal bars.”
The ELP-supported work of Rewilding Ukraine in the Danube Delta was recently selected to take part in the UN Environment Programme’s European Restoration Flagship Project.16 Rewilding Ukraine and partners are currently working to restore 40,000 hectares of wetland and terrestrial steppe habitat, with a focus on key natural processes such as flooding and natural grazing. According to team leader Mykhailo Nesterenko, major achievements to date include:
- Restoration of large islands in the Danube Biosphere Reserve, one of the most successful wetland restoration projects in the region.
- A number of community-based projects in partnership with the municipality of Orlovka, including the re-introduction of water buffalo for natural grazing.
Nesterenko emphasises the real importance of engagement with local communities as the Danube Delta Sub-Basin District supports more than 1 million people.4 At present, he says there is limited knowledge and capacity to enable more environmentally and economically sustainable use of ecosystems which potentially reduces opportunities to improve both biodiversity and living standards.
A key feature of Rewilding Ukraine’s approach (and indeed that of Rewilding Europe) to ecosystems restoration is the use of large herbivores for natural grazing in both wetland and grassland habitats. The 5200-hectare Council of Europe Emerald Network-designated Tarutino Steppe forms part of the extended Danube Delta restoration area and is one of the few remaining areas of steppe grassland in Ukraine and Europe.17 In conjunction with regional partners, Rewilding Ukraine has embarked upon a multi-stage steppe restoration process with support from the Ukrainian government and European Union.
This process was developed by specialists at the Askania-Nova Biosphere Reserve (a 300 square kilometre steppe reserve in Southern Ukraine, currently an area under Russian occupation).18 Again with ELP funding, in 2020 the Rewilding Ukraine team translocated a herd of Kulan (wild ass) from Askania-Nova to the Tarutino Steppe with the aim of re-introducing natural grazing: steppe landscapes would previously has been grazed by herds of kulan, Saiga antelopes and deer.16 Research on the potential of natural and restored steppe grasslands for carbon sequestration and storage also forms part of the project.
Assessing carbon sequestration and storage in dry grassland ecosystems is an ongoing science-based initiative funded by ELP as part of the organisation’s Advancing and Applying Knowledge programme.19 The project seeks to promote an understanding of the roles of natural and restored steppe in the prevention of land degradation and desertification as well as climate change mitigation. An examination of potential schemes for carbon trading based on grassland ecosystems and the economic benefits of these is also underway. The steppe bioclimatic zone covers about half of Ukraine, but natural steppe covers less than 3%. Meanwhile arable land accounts for 57% of the country’s area, one of the highest proportions in the world. Before the Russian invasion, there was a commitment to a significant reduction in Ukrainian arable cropland (to 37-41% by 2025) to fulfil climate mitigation targets but food security concerns may put this in jeopardy.
Whilst the war on Ukraine has impacted profoundly on the work of Rewilding Ukraine and local partners, the organisation also wants to emphasise that commitment to long term ecosystems restoration in the Danube Delta and Tarutino Steppe continues, as does the backing of international supporters. Some of the wider environmental consequences of the Russian invasion and direct operational problems were described by Mikhailo Nesterenko and his colleague Katya Kurakina to IUCN’s National Committee of the Netherlands in early July.20 Since then, grain shipments from the port of Odessa have resumed along with hopes that the city and surrounding regions, including the Danube Delta, will avoid the destruction of some other Ukrainian territories described later.
In comments for ECOS, Nesterenko shared some of his immediate concerns, described ongoing work in the Danube Delta region and expressed hope for the future. The danger of explosive mines is now a major issue for the delta and coastal region with highly restricted access for civilians. For sites that remain accessible, work continues where possible including wetland restoration in partnership with the local water management authority. This has a positive impact for local communities still deeply affected by the war elsewhere in Ukraine, particularly its economic consequences. The prospect of conflict through the autumn and winter raises further concerns for energy security and, possibly, food supplies.
The latter prospect has meant that hunting organisations which normally provide Rewilding Ukraine with deer for grazing have reduced numbers. Nevertheless, contact with Askania-Nova continues despite the reserve being under Russian occupation and some emergency funding has been provided. It is hoped that joint work will progress, including kulan re-introductions. Nesterenko remains optimistic that natural grazing initiatives with water buffalo and konik horses, as well as re-introduction programmes with Kulan and deer, demonstrate that animals have adapted well to living in the Danube Delta and steppe areas and will not require any major support or supplementary feeding. “Our aim is to rewild these animals so that they can live without human intensive management,” he concludes.
Planned Azov-Black Sea Ecological Corridor – Saving the Black Sea Steppe Pearl Necklace
The Azov–Black Sea coastline supports more than 10,000 species of flora and fauna across coastal, estuarine, delta and steppe habitats. It forms part of an important migration route, providing a stopover for eight million birds twice a year as they travel between Eurasia and Africa or the Middle East as well as a safe passage to migratory fish such as sturgeon. Since the 1940s, however, ecosystem resilience and biodiversity have deteriorated due to substantial human pressures.
This project lays the groundwork for large-scale restoration to improve functionality of the mosaic of habitats along an eco-corridor stretching 800 km. Restoration plans will be produced for 11 sites covering 1,700 km2. Reviving key natural processes, including the hydrological regime and the coastal dynamics of erosion and accumulation, is expected to re-establish ecosystem services, benefitting both biodiversity and local communities.9
Work undertaken between 2019-20 led by CRS director Igor Studennikov addressed both improved management of natural habitats as well as human-induced pressures.21 A key component of the proposed Azov-Black Sea Eco Corridor is the Kinburn Spit, a protected area within Ukraine’s Sviatoslav White Coast National Park.22 Kinburn Spit contains a myriad of landscapes, from sandy beaches to relic forest, to steppe and salt marches, to sand dunes and reed beds. Another intended focus area was the Lower Dniester National Park, a mosaic of floodplains and waterways which provide habitat for nesting and wintering waterfowl as well as wild boar, roe deer, fallow deer and red deer.23 One provisional aim is the restoration of natural hydrological processes, in part through dam removal upstream. A further proposed component of the Azov-Black Sea Eco Corridor is the mouth of the Berda River, on Ukraine’s southeast (Azov Sea) coast. Together with Berdiansk Spit and Berdianska Bay, this area is an internationally important Ramsar Site.24
The proposed scope of the Birdlife International and local partners’ work is described by Martin Harper, Regional Director for Europe and Central Asia, as follows.
One of the largest remaining steppe complexes in Europe is located on Ukraine’s Black Sea coast between the Kinburn and Karadai peninsulas. Here, the forces of wind and sea have shaped a highly diverse landscape, consisting of sandy and saline steppes, coastal lagoons and barrier islands. Its exceptional biodiversity is illustrated by the sandy mole-rat, which is restricted to it. However, the landscape’s steppes have undergone severe degradation from conversion to arable land, widespread planting of pine trees and the loss of native herbivores. We aim to restore the connectivity, ecological functioning and species richness of this landscape through active restoration measures, strengthening of legal protections and the establishment of self-sustaining grazing regimes. The project will demonstrate how humans and wildlife can coexist through the development of new environmentally sustainable commercial activities, and strengthen awareness of the ecological and economic value of steppes, thereby leveraging further support for its restoration.
The reduced scope of Saving the Black Sea Steppe Pearl Necklace whilst avoiding areas of conflict around the Azov Sea, still lies within Russian-occupied territory of which Ukraine seeks to regain control. Thus at the time of writing, Ukrainian forces had embarked upon a counter-offensive in the key region of Kherson Oblast. Here the relationship between conflict and conservation is shown in stark relief. According to Martin Harper, the ELP will review its commitment to supporting this project in April 2023, following an assessment of the situation on the ground, and the possibility to effectively operate in the landscape (largely dependent on Russian military presence). However, throughout the conflict BirdLife International have continued to work closely with the Ukrainian Society for the Protection of Birds (the major partner in Saving the Black Sea Steppe Pearl Necklace) and this essential wider support is described later.25
Polesia – Wilderness Without Borders
Polesia – Wilderness Without Borders is an extremely ambitious long-term programme led by the Frankfurt Zoological Society involving national and international partners, including BirdLife and the British Trust for Ornithology. FZS commitment to large-scale nature conservation within Polesia continues, and the ELP project is being restructured although the situation is made particularly difficult because of Belarusian government backing for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. This has led to the closing down of Birdlife International’s partner in Belarus, APB, after twenty-four years of operation.26 Nevertheless, Martin Harper says BirdLife maintains contact with local Belarusian partners, providing help for “those staff that have had to leave the country but also to find creative ways of supporting our former APB colleagues as they develop future options to carry on conservation work.”
The overall aim of Polesia – Wilderness Without Borders is to support a contiguous network of protected areas covering almost 1.4 million hectares of ecologically functioning natural landscape in the heart of Europe. The plan is to create one of Europe’s largest protected natural wilderness areas, providing essential habitat to many threatened species. Specific objectives identified by FZS/ELP at the start of the project (2019) were to:
- Strengthen the protected area network within the core area of Central Polesia (“Prypiat Polesia”) through ecosystem restoration and more sustainable use of key natural resources
- Protect 100,000 hectares of currently unprotected wilderness through the establishment of new, or enlargement of existing, protected areas
- Submit a UNESCO World Heritage Nomination, to protect an area of at least 300,000 hectares
- Improve connectivity across Central Polesia for large mammals such as wolf, lynx, bison, and brown bear
- Restore at least 6,000 hectares of wetlands affected by drainage, through rewetting projects
- Introduce alternative, sustainable income options and develop a Polesia brand for local produce and handicrafts, to develop the economy, benefit local communities, and reduce the pressure on natural resources especially the harvesting of berries10
More information is available on the Polesia- Wildness Without Borders and Save Polesia websites.27,28 The Chernobyl Radiation and Ecological Biosphere Reserve is located within Polesia.
Post-conflict sustainable development and nature conservation
At the conclusion of the Ukraine Recovery Conference in Lugano Switzerland in July 2022, environmental NGOs, including WWF Ukraine and the Centre for Environmental Initiatives Ecoaction, called for “green post-war reconstruction.”29 Fifty Ukrainian NGOs had earlier supported the adoption of “green reconstruction principles.”30 There is currently much concern that government regulation of land and natural resource use, as well as new development, is being undermined and will continue be reduced and/or ignored both during and post conflict. This concern extends beyond Ukraine as the continuing war has created a range of pressures on the natural environment in neighbouring countries and across Europe. Moreover, the European Think Tanks Group forecasts: “The war in Ukraine poses a serious threat to global environmental governance, particularly with regard to environmental protection and biodiversity conservation. The war will likely influence supply chain-driven deforestation and ecosystem degradation, in part due to increasing food insecurity”.31
The ETTG policy briefing is subtitled “addressing crises in the short and longer terms.” This is very much the response of the international conservation organisations, funders and local partners to the war in Ukraine discussed here. BirdLife International has been working with the Ukrainian Society for the Protection of Birds since the outbreak of the war to support conservationist refugees primarily with and through their Polish partner by providing safe transit, accommodation and new employment. Creating some financial security for USPB staff within Ukraine and helping them develop strategic options to rebuild their operations (even if the Russians remain) has also been vital. USPB options for the future include: increasing monitoring efforts across Ukraine through a network of bird watchers and supporters of USPB both within and outside conflict zones; and also provision of more opportunities for young people to have contact with nature to assist recovery from psychological trauma. Some of these initiatives are described in a Birdlife article (with accompanying video) by Martin Harper and USPB CEO Oleg Dudkin entitled “The impact of the Russian invasion of Ukraine on wild birds and their habitats.”32
Harper emphasises the need to ensure that the value of nature and investment in the natural environment form part of “the post war reconstruction agenda.” With USPB and other partners: “We are also going to make the case for the Ukrainian Government to establish a new conservation corps to help with post war reconstruction akin to what FDR did as part of his new deal in the 1930s in the US.”
Aside from bringing the war in Ukraine to an end, one of the biggest challenges for both reconstruction and nature conservation will be mobilisation of international funding. There is also the ongoing economic cost of the conflict, including remediation of its catastrophic environmental impacts.33,34 Wherever possible, Ukrainian authorities are organising the documentation of these with the ultimate aim of forcing Russia to make reparations. However, whilst the government fully intends to pursue legal actions to seize Russian assets, the process is unlikely to be straightforward.35 Although the invasion of Ukraine has given considerable impetus to recognition of ecocide as a “fifth Rome Statute crime,” expanding the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court still remains some way off.36,37
In the meantime, international funding mechanisms have been deployed for nature conservation in Ukraine. These include the Nature Reserve Fund which is co-financed by the German government and has been used to support protected areas including the transboundary Carpathian Biosphere Reserve, also a focus of restoration work by the Frankfurt Zoological Society.38,39 The Nature Reserve Fund of Ukraine website provides up to date information about the impact of war on protected areas, including tens of thousands of internally displaced people seeking sanctuary from conflict in them.
According to the UNHCR, a third of Ukrainian people may have been forced to leave their homes since the Russian invasion with over ten million travelling to other countries, giving rise to the largest refugee crisis in Europe since World War 2.40,41 For those able to remain in their communities, daily life is now often very difficult. Priorities for international public and private funding have clearly needed to respond to the humanitarian crisis. In this context, Arcadia (the philanthropic fund behind the Endangered Landscapes Programme) has now become a major donor for humanitarian relief, as well as continuing to support largescale conservation and restoration work in Ukraine and neighbouring countries.42
Nevertheless, support for conserving Ukrainian natural and cultural heritage both during the war and through post-conflict recovery remain strong both within and outside the country.43,44 Here, the role of international NGOs, working with major institutions and funders, such as the Cambridge Conservation Initiative-managed ELP, and able to sustain long-term involvement in largescale ecosystems restoration led by local partners will be vital. To underline this requirement, a new report by the BBC’s defence correspondent Frank Gardner suggests that de-mining areas of Polesia, used by Russia to invaded Ukraine from the north, could take decades as may nature recovery.45 Donations can be made via the following links:
A supplementary article follows entitled “Conservation on the frontline” about ongoing work in the Azov-Black Sea Eco Corridor based on information provided by Igor Studennikov of the Odesa-based Centre for Regional Studies and Oleg Dyakov of Rewilding Europe.