In western Russia a shrouded figure hurtles through a boggy glade, flapping a white cotton cloak. Behind her run two fawn-colored chicks, Siberian cranes, among the most endangered birds on Earth. Ten weeks old and over three feet tall, the chicks chase the ghostly shape's billowing costume--the color and size of an adult crane--with imprinted tenacity. She flaps; they flap. She hops and jerks through the sucky swamp; they hop and jerk. She leaps a fallen log and splashes down; they too leap over the log.
But they do not splash. Instead the two young cranes fly. They glide beneath dark oaks, beside white birches, above yellow water lilies. Where the glade ends, they flop to the ground. They hustle back to their flight instructor, 21-year-old student Tatiana Zhuchkova, who is mired in mud, sweaty with exertion, bloodied by mosquitoes, and proud as any parent. Tatiana raised these chicks from eggs. She taught them to eat mushed-up fish, and then wild strawberries and water striders. If Tatiana's chicks and another six at this nature reserve can survive in the wilds of western and central Siberia, where they will be released at summer's end, they may significantly increase the number of Siberian cranes remaining in those areas, now perhaps fewer than a dozen birds. (The species' only substantial population, 3,000 birds in east Siberia, depends on vulnerable wetlands in China.)
While they prepare for relocation, these chicks live with Tatiana in the remote Oksky nature reserve, founded in 1935 to restore endangered species. She and other students work without pay, and sleep in a cramped loft above the chicks' pen. A researcher's job here, which only the best students can win, might pay $300 a year, just below Russia's subsistence level. The low salary doesn't worry Tatiana. She calls herself a "patriot," an "enthusiast"--not a new-Russian money-chasing capitalist. "After a few summers working with cranes." Tatiana says, "I can't imagine life now without them."
Like scores of idealistic Russian naturalists before her, Tatiana has come to work in her country's system of scientific nature reserves--the largest in the world. Most people beyond Russia's borders have no idea that the nation devotes more land than any other to what the World Conservation Union calls "strict nature reserves," areas dedicated mainly to science and usually closed except to researchers. Russia's 100 reserves cover some 83 million acres, an expanse equal to America's national park system, but with stricter protections.
Through a century marked by ecocide--toxic releases, poisoned lands, nuclear accidents--Russian naturalists have battled, often against a totalitarian government, to save refuges like the one where Tatiana now works. The defense of Russia's reserves represents one of the most heroic but hidden stories of nature conservation in the 20th century.
russia's tradition of creating national reserves to protect natural resources began with forestlands set aside by Czar Peter the Great in the early 1700s. But by 1890, Russian naturalists began to preach a new conservation gospel. Aware that the United States had started to designate national parks to serve people--to offer the public a "pleasuring ground," according to our Yellowstone Act of 1872--Russians advocated creating reserves to preserve nature instead. Keeping expanses of land unspoiled, they insisted, amounted to a commandment, a zapoved.
As one of the founders of Russia's conservation movement declared in 1908, within these reserves, to be called zapovedniki, "nature must be left alone." Would humankind get no benefit? Yes, he declared: "We may observe the result." In each reserve, beginning with Russia's first in 1916, one could enter as a scientist or as a student of nature--perhaps even (in a slight contradiction) work as a breeder to restore endangered species or as a ranger to protect them from poachers. But to most people, the zapovednik decreed: Into these wildlands thou shalt not go. …