Wild donkeys are at the forefront of ecological restoration of Ukraine

The war, not surprisingly, made compliance much more difficult. Oleg Dzyakov, a Rewilding Ukraine employee from the Rewilding Ukraine headquarters in Odessa and one of the organization’s co-founders, talks about the dangers his teams faced through accidental frustration. Sea mines coming in from the Black Sea prevented the release of doe, and Dalmatian pelican monitoring activities were limited to binoculars and telescopes because parts of the Delta were restricted by the Ukrainian government. (In peacetime, they could do more accurate counts with drones.)

The reserve “Askania-Nova” – the oldest and largest biosphere of Ukraine, located on the eastern bank of the Dnieper – has been under Russian occupation since the spring of last year. Park workers have been conducting security work for almost a year. “The people who do their work there are heroes,” says Dziakov. “There’s no doubt about it.” But in March 2023, the last message about the creation of a new Russian directorate appeared on the reserve’s website.

The reserve has a large collection of wild and domestic ungulates, including kulans. Before the war, Rewilding Ukraine relied on the nature reserve to support the herds of the Tarutyn Steppe; the two successful iterations of adapted donkeys originally came from Askania-Nova.

“Now there is only one chance – to bring animals from Western Europe,” explains Dziakov. But this, he notes, is both very expensive and bureaucratically cumbersome – “especially in wartime conditions.” The birth of wild kulans in the Tarutin steppe, says Dziakov, is now important not only because it indicates the success of their project, but also because it may be the only way to increase herds.

The money to keep the projects running sometimes ran out, and the rangers had to reach into their own pockets to keep the work going. “We couldn’t wait. Animals cannot wait,” says Muntianu.

In the war for Ukraine’s survival and identity, preservation inevitably acquires a patriotic dimension, says Dziakov. The Russian invasion tore up millions of acres of land that he and many others had spent decades protecting. Some members of the wildlife restoration movement and broader conservation movements have tried to argue that restoration of the landscape can be seen as an element of its protection.

“A tank can’t drive through swamps,” says Bohdan Prots, an environmentalist and CEO of the Danube-Carpathian Program, a Lviv-headquartered NGO that works to protect the environment and lobbies for stronger environmental legislation. On the northwestern border of Ukraine, waterlogged fields and swamps kept Russian troops from attacking through Belarus, says Prots. “Rewilding,” he believes, “is a tool for protecting the country.”

Ukraine’s land and ecosystems were used as weapons during the conflict. In February 2022, Ukrainian forces again flooded the Kyiv-Irpin wetlands, breaching a Soviet-era levee, making it difficult for Russian troops to maneuver — a move at least partially credited with repelling the invading forces and saving the capital from capture. In June, the Kakhovskaya Dam in southern Ukraine was destroyed — most likely by Russia — causing widespread destruction and prompting calls to add environmental war crimes to the Kremlin’s already growing list of crimes.

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