Unsurprisingly, the war has made conservation a lot more difficult. Oleg Dyakov, a rewilding officer from Rewilding Ukraine’s Odessa headquarters and one of the co-founders of the organization, talks casually in frustration about the dangers his teams have faced. Naval mines drifting in from the Black Sea blocked the release of fallow deer, and Dalmatian pelican monitoring activities were limited to binoculars and telescopes as parts of the Delta were restricted by the Ukrainian government. (In peacetime, they could have done more accurate counts with the help of drones.)
The Askania Nova Reserve, Ukraine’s oldest and largest biosphere, located on the eastern bank of the Dnipro River, has been occupied by Russia since last spring. Park employees continued their conservation work for nearly a year. “The people who do their job there are heroes,” says Dyakov. “There’s no question about that.” But in March 2023, a final message on the reserve’s website stated that a new Russian directorate had been installed.
The nature reserve is home to a wide collection of feral and domesticated ungulates, including kulans. Before the war, Rewilding Ukraine relied on the wildlife sanctuary to supply herds to the Tarutino steppe; two successful iterations of re-modified donkeys originally came from Askania Nova.
“Now there is only one chance, to bring animals from Western Europe,” explains Dyakov. But this, he notes, is both very expensive and bureaucratically cumbersome – “especially in war situations”. The birth of the kulans back to the wild on the Tarutino steppe, says Dyakov, is now important not only because it demonstrates the success of their project, but also because it may be the only way the herds can grow.
The money to keep the projects running has sometimes dried up, and park rangers have had to pocket money to keep operations going. “We couldn’t wait. The animals can’t 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 torn apart millions of acres of land that he and so many others have protected for decades. Some in the rewilding and wider conservation movements have attempted to argue that restoring the landscape can be seen as part of its defense.
“A tank can’t go through the wetlands,” said Bohdan Prots, an ecologist and CEO of the Danube Carpathian Program, a Lviv-based NGO that conducts conservation activities and lobbies to support stricter environmental legislation. On Ukraine’s northwestern border, marshy fields and swamps have deterred Russian troops from launching attacks through Belarus, Prots says. “Rewilding,” he argues, “is a tool to defend the country.”
Ukraine’s land and ecosystems have been used as weapons during the conflict. In February 2022, Ukrainian forces flooded the Kyiv-Irpin wetlands again by breaching a Soviet-era dam, making it more difficult for Russian troops to maneuver – a move that has been attributed at least in part to repelling the invading forces and saving the capital from capture. In June, the Kakhovka dam in southern Ukraine was destroyed — most likely by Russia — causing widespread devastation and sparking calls to add environmental war crimes to an already growing list of crimes by the Kremlin.