Not surprisingly, the war has made conservation much more difficult. Oleg Dyakov, a rewilding officer from Rewilding Ukraine’s Odessa headquarters and one of the organization’s co-founders, recounts the dangers his teams faced with occasional frustration. Sea mines entering from the Black Sea impeded the release of fallow deer, and surveillance of Dalmatian pelicans was limited to binoculars and telescopes as parts of the delta were closed off by the Ukrainian government. (In peacetime, they could have used drones to make more accurate counts.)
The Askania Nova Reserve – Ukraine’s oldest and largest biosphere reserve on the east bank of the Dnipro River – has been under Russian occupation since last spring. Park staff continued their conservation work for almost a year. “The people who work there are heroes,” says Dyakov. “There’s no doubt about that.” But in March 2023, a recent report on the reserve’s website stated that a new Russian directorate had been installed.
The reserve is home to a large collection of both released and native ungulate breeds, including kulans. Before the war, Rewilding Ukraine relied on the wildlife sanctuary to provide herding to the Tarutino Steppe. Two successful iterations of newly customized donkeys originally came from Askania Nova.
“Now there is only one chance to bring animals from Western Europe,” explains Dyakov. However, this is both very expensive and bureaucratically complex – “especially under wartime conditions”. The birth of the feral kulans in the Tarutino steppe, says Dyakov, is important now not only because it shows the success of their project, but also because it may be the only way the herds can grow.
At times, the money to keep the projects running has dried up, and rangers have had to dig into their own pockets to keep them running. “We couldn’t wait. “The animals can hardly wait,” says Muntianu.
In a war for Ukraine’s survival and identity, conservation has inevitably taken on a patriotic dimension, says Dyakov. The Russian invasion has destroyed millions of acres of land he and so many others have protected for decades. Some of the rewilding and broader conservation movements have tried to promote the view that restoring the landscape can be seen as an element of their defence.
“A tank can’t drive through the wetlands,” says Bohdan Prots, an ecologist and CEO of the Danube-Carpathian Program, a Lviv-based NGO that conducts conservation activities and advocates for tougher environmental legislation. On Ukraine’s northwest border, flooded fields and swamps have deterred Russian troops from launching attacks across Belarus, Prots says. “Rewilding,” he believes, “is an instrument of defense of the country.”
Ukraine’s land and ecosystems were used as weapons during the conflict. In February 2022, Ukrainian forces flooded the Kiev-Irpin wetlands again by breaching a Soviet-era dam, making maneuvering difficult for Russian troops – a move credited at least in part to repelling the invading troops and saving the capital from capture. In June, The Kakhovka Dam in southern Ukraine was destroyed– most likely from Russia –devastate large areasand led to calls for environmental war crimes to be added to an already growing list of Kremlin crimes.