Saving Siberia's Unique Lake Baikal Region Nature Preserve Threatened by Local Encroachment, Lack of Government Funds

Article excerpt

PYOTR ABRAMENOK, the energetic director of the Pribaikalsky National Park, erupts angrily from his desk.

"Look at this," he exclaims, waving an official resolution that has just arrived from the local governor. The document proclaims a plan to reorganize all of the natural parks and preserves around Lake Baikal into a `green belt.' But behind this apparently innocuous goal, Mr. Abramenok smells a familiar rat.

"That's an excuse to put an end to all the nature-preservation organizations," the park director says. For him, this is just one more in a long string of forays by the local authorities to encroach upon and ultimately control the forests, steppes, and mountains that ring this lake, the most ecologically unique body of fresh water on the planet.

Among nature's wonders, Siberia's Baikal is almost legendary. Formed by a rift seven times deeper than the Grand Canyon, the lake holds a volume equal to one-fifth of all the fresh water on Earth. Its oxygen-rich waters support a wealth of plant and animal life, including 1,200 acquatic forms that are unique to Baikal alone, among them the world's only species of fresh-water seal.

The taiga-carpeted mountain ridges that gird the lake abound with Siberian wildlife, including rare sable, red and musk deer, moose, wolves, brown bears, and a large variety of ducks, endangered cranes, and other birds in the wetlands.

"The local authorities wanted to take away half our land this winter," park director Abramenok recalls. "They said we limit the possibilities for development.... They wanted to fire me, to replace me with someone who would accede to their demands."

With the backing of the federal government in Moscow, these efforts were turned back. But what he calls "a cold war" continues.

The problems of Baikal's nature preserves are by no means unique. In fact, they are typical of Russia's entire nature-conservation system which is composed of some 85 zapovedniks (nature preserves) and biosphere reserves, completely closed off to human use, and 26 national parks where tourists are allowed.

Built up over decades, beginning even before the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, this system is now under severe pressure. Under conditions of Russia's economic depression, only 30 percent of their funding needs are being met.

Poachers are raiding precious stocks of wildlife. (The innards from four bears, sold as folk medicine to Chinese buyers, will buy a Toyota in Russia, ecologists report.) Forest rangers lack even the most rudimentary equipment to counter fires. Meanwhile local governments are pressing to grab their lands.

"Everything is beginning to break up and fall apart," says Vladimir Krever, the Moscow representative of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). At stake, the fund concluded in a report issued early this year, is preservation of a biological diversity of global significance.

"The vast landscapes of the Russian Federation represent one of the last opportunities on Earth to conserve relatively intact ecosystems large enough to allow ecological processes and wildlife populations to fluctuate naturally," the WWF report said. But the report warns: "Without emergency funding from donor nations, biodiversity efforts in Russia will deteriorate rapidly in many areas."

The besieging forces at Lake Baikal vary from giant state enterprises seeking to set up tourist camps on the lake shores to collective farms trying to grab pasture land for their livestock.

They are backed by a local administration resentful of the loss of control over vast lands taken under federal authority in 1986 and 1987 to form a national park and nature preserve (zapovednik) which stretch along about three-quarters of the western shore of the lake. …