By Oleksii Vasyliuk and Yuliia Spinova
At the start of last month’s UN Biodiversity Conference (COP15) in Montreal, UN Environmental Programme Executive Director, Inger Andersen, made the memorable statement, “we are at war with nature” and must “make peace.” As Ukrainian ecologists now in Kyiv doing our work despite unsteady electricity — a full hour of uninterrupted internet is a luxury — and air raid sirens and explosions, we are constantly reminded of the extent to which war itself is at war with nature. For on top of the tragic loss of human life and the destruction of towns and cities, our country’s biodiversity is taking a beating. We would like to convey to the international community the impact the war in Ukraine is having on our flora and fauna, and suggest pathways forward.
First, it’s important to understand that the war’s assault on nature did not begin in February 2022. Rather, we have been monitoring the direct and indirect impacts of military actions on Ukraine’s natural ecosystems since the 2014 hostilities. Prior to 2022, combat occurred only in Eastern Ukraine, but there even protected areas, notably distinctive Ukrainian steppe ecosystems, were affected. The current full-scale invasion has significantly expanded the war zone into sites like the Polissia, an important Ramsar site; the coast along the Black and Azov Seas; and much of the steppe, which represents about half of Ukraine’s landscape.
An unexploded shell in the deciduous forest part of Kreidova Flora Nature Reserve, April 2017. Image courtesy of Dr. Yuliia Spinova.
Due to the war, affected ecosystems suffer soil and water pollution as well as harm from direct impact. The Russians use a carpet-bombing approach, often employing weapons forbidden by the UN, which cause fires across enormous areas. They are building bunkers and moving military equipment across the landscape, the kind of damage that was seen in WWII. However, in that war the front line moved constantly, which meant less concentrated damage. Today, the war is at a geographic standstill, with large areas scarred by craters from munitions. Continual bombardment over the course of months means more physical devastation happening more quickly.
In terms of biodiversity, Ukraine is responsible for one out of every three species under protection in Europe — those found only in Ukraine’s steppe zone. This includes species like the Middle-European great bustard, the heaviest flying bird in the world, the sandy blind mole rat, and the marbled polecat, so beloved that a special coin was made to honor it. Preserving these species depends on Ukraine. Unfortunately, they are endemic in areas where there is military action, so it’s possible that after the war they may no longer exist.
Much of Ukraine’s steppe grasslands have been plowed up for agriculture. Before the onset of war this was the main threat to biodiversity, as only 3% of steppe landscapes remained in a natural state, and even fewer were protected. Now it’s a different scenario. In occupied areas agriculture has pretty much stopped, and many fields have been abandoned. But that doesn’t mean it’s gotten any easier for nature. Much land has turned into crater fields dotted with the waste of military equipment. We’re also seeing the beginnings of agriculture in protected areas and national parks. Plus, invasive species are more of a problem. Before the conflict, there were natural landscapes and everything else was agricultural: invasives were pretty much limited to along the roads. People used to clear invasive plants — numbering some 700 species, about 150 from North America — but those populations are not there anymore. We have places where maple and pseudoacacia have taken over landscapes. The war has given invasive plants a chance to get established.
Trenches dug inside the Kreidova Flora Nature Reserve, June 2017. Image courtesy of Andrii Tupikov.
Bird biodiversity is also of great concern. In southern Ukraine, the entire coastal area where two seas meet is occupied by Russians. During the summer, large groupings of birds are found here — species like the great black-headed gull, the Dalmatian pelican and the Sandwich tern. Almost all migratory birds of Central Europe form colonies here in the summer and gather here again before flying to Africa in the fall. It’s a key migration stopover and the largest area of wintering birds in Europe, especially Central and Eastern Europe. Now we don’t know whether the birds that regularly travel here were able to do so, or were forced to go somewhere else. When data becomes available, we’ll have a better understanding, but we expect to see fewer birds.
The question of data brings up the challenge of continuing biodiversity science in wartime. Specialists living in occupied areas became refugees and some were not able to take data archives with them—they left with nothing. In the last two months Russia has begun actively targeting our research infrastructure with rockets and drones, which has done a great deal of damage. In Kharkiv, the university was destroyed in the first days of the full-scale invasion. Researchers hid everything they could and managed to put some data archives and collections of organic materials into basements. The city of Kherson was recently freed, and colleagues went to the herbarium to collect and hide what they could in storage.
The other big problem is lack of electricity, which makes communication really difficult. For instance, the night before writing this commentary, 30 drones were launched in the direction of one of us, and five hit energy infrastructure. The most important thing is that we’re trying to collect biodiversity data and upload it to the Global Biodiversity Information Facility. We have almost 400,000 records of data collected in occupied and free areas, which we share with international groups and fellow biologists and ecologists. The best way to preserve data is to publish openly.
Military equipment box lids in Kreidova Flora Nature Reserve. Image courtesy of Dr. Yuliia Spinova.
An important bright spot has been collaboration among scientists. The Ukraine War Environmental Consequences Work Group (UWEC), which publishes a monthly journal, is the only English-language project where specialists can read and publish about their expertise and share it internationally. Our editorial team includes scientists and communicators from Ukraine, Russia and Belarus. This is unusual. One of the consequences of war is the hate that is growing on all sides. It is touching for us that several people I’m working with have lost their countries and now they’re trying to help us here in Ukraine. The project has a huge democratic weight. When we’re trying to do the right thing for people and for nature, nationality doesn’t matter.
Despite the danger and difficulty, we continue to gather information on the war’s impact on biodiversity. We appeal to the international community to assist with monitoring and data management and to expedite programs that aid environmental preservation. Examples include granting approval of Emerald Network candidate sites under the Bern Convention, and for the IUCN to be able to add animals and plants that are endemic to war-affected areas in southern Ukraine to the endangered species list. We’d like also for people to get information out about the status of natural parks and reserves. Since the beginning of the war, the Ukrainian Nature Protection Group, of which we are part, has been collecting donations to support this work. We appreciate that people around the world care about biodiversity at risk, and want to help.
Committed as we are to Ukraine prevailing, we know that independent of the outcome of this war, nature will suffer. We know, too, that environmental damage will also occur in the aftermath of war, when rebuilding our country will require sand, granite and other natural materials. At this juncture, Ukraine has been able to reclaim some occupied areas. These places were homes to thousands of people, and sustained much wildlife. We see this as a victory, but it’s not purely joyful because those areas have been significantly damaged. Fight though we must, nature doesn’t care who wins; nature yearns for peace. And, ultimately, reparations.
Oleksii Vasyliuk is a zoologist and leader and co-founder of Ukrainian Nature Conservation Group and an editor for UWEC. He can be contacted via email@example.com.
Dr. Yuliia Spinova is an ecologist and co-founder and current member of UWEC. She can be contacted via firstname.lastname@example.org.
UWEC welcomes inquiries about biodiversity science and developments in Ukraine: email@example.com.
Banner image: A car burns after a Russian bombardment in Kharkiv, Ukraine, April 2022. Image by AP Photo/Felipe Dana via Flickr.
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This article was originally published on Mongabay