Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Spring by poet Anathase Feth Chinchine

From Novossibirsk, April 29th 2009.

The next 2 weeks will be silent from my side as I will be hiking in Altai mountains. Spring is here, snow disappears, birds are singing, and people are meeting on the streets to refresh together the painting of games and benches in public gardens.

It is time for "shashlik" at the datcha, sunset at the river, and Easter celebration.

Who better than Russian poet Anathase Feth-Chinchine to express the feeling associated with starting spring. He brings his talent of musician of the verb to intimate confidences. His magic poems bring the reader to an unprecise world of beauty and joy, in which we cannot define how this magic operates...

Un vent chaud souffle doucement,
Doucement respire la plaine,
Les collines en verte chaine
Partent au loin en s'estompant.

Gris fonce, parmi les collines,
Ondoyant comme un long serpent,
Un chemin connu se dessine,
Parmi les brumes se perdant.

Dans l'allegresse insouciante,
Du haut d'un rayonnant azur,
Les trilles d'oiseaux nous enchantent
Qui s'egrenent charmants et purs.

Je viens t'apporter le message
Disant que le soleil est la,
Que sa clarte sur les feuillages
Brille d'un merveilleux eclat,

Que toute la foret s'eveille,
Que chaque branche maintenant,
Que chaque oiseau, que chaque abeille
S'anime au souffle du printemps.

Je viens vite a toi pour te dire
Que, vibrant d'une meme ardeur,
A te servir mon coeur aspire,
Comme a servir notre bonheur.

Je viens a toi te dire encore
Qu'au souffle pur de la gaiete
Je pressens que je vais chanter.
Mais quel chant est-ce, je l'ignore...

Anathase Feth Chinchine, 1820-1892

Case study: conservation of snow leopard or irbis in Russia

From Novossibirsk, April 29th 2009.

The snow leopard or irbis is listed in the official IUCN Red List as endangered. The snow leopard is the only big cat species that permanently lives at high altitudes and symbolizes the majestic, mysterious, and rigorous world of the Central Asian mountains. Being at the top of the food chain, the snow leopard can be seen as a flagship species for the conservation of all animals species of Central Asian highlands. The range of snow peopard includes 13 countries: Afghanistan, Burma, Bhutan, China, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Nepal,Pakistan, the Russian Federation, Tadzhikistan, and Uzbekistan.

Recent situation and role of economic crisis
The social and economic crises of the 90's in Russia strongly influenced the intensity and character of how the environment is used, which a dual effect on the snow peopard.
On the one hand, due to a decreased number of livestock and related pressure on natural pastures, population numbers of major prey species (ibex and argali sheep) have grown.
On the other hand, due to the fact that the living standards of the local population have declined, its pressure on biological resources has also increased. People who have lost their jobs have intensified their use of hunting grounds, including the introduction of poaching techniques highly dangerous for the snow peopard, particularly metal snares. At the same time, targeted poaching of the snow leopard increased because of the increased demand for their pelts.

I. Historic, biogeographic and ecological background
The genus has only one species, Uncia uncia (Shreber, 1775). It is one of few endemic species to the highlands of Central Asia among large mammals. In Russia, distribution of snow leopard is limited to the southern Siberian mountains.

Presence map

Most habitats of the snow leopard in Russia lie at an altitude from 2,000m and up to 3,500m. The total number of snow leopards in the world is estimated at 7,500 animals, and estimate for Russia lies around 150 to 200.
This animal is closely linked to alpine and sub-alpine zones, preferring highly or moderately cleaved rocky mountains with grasses or bushes. There are two major habitat types:
- One consists of dry alpine meadows and highlands steppes on the southern slopes, while taiga forests cover the northern slopes and ravines.
- Typical highland steppes and tundra with no forest form the other type of habitat.

Footprints of irbis in the snow

II. Problems of coexistence of the snow leopard and humans

1. Reaction of snow leopard to humans
Snow leopards do not attack humans even when wounded.

2. Direct elimination of snow leopards
Chasing snow leopards for trophies has grown recently. Nowadays, the snow leopard population is still able to compensate for the illegal take, but its reproductive potential is entirely spent on stabilising the current number.

3. Conflict between snow leopards and local herders
Livestock pasturing in the highlands is part of traditional land use that directly affects the snow leopard. In most of snow leopard range its prey population has depleted, which has forced the predator to attack livestock.

4. Elimination of major prey species
Populations of wild ungulates essentially have decreased because of uncontrolled hunting, for example ibex, red deer (which is severely affected by selective elimination of males during trophy hunting and hunting for their velvet antlers), marmots and partridges.

5. Destruction of habitats
A project under consideration is the pipeline and accompanying road across the Ukok plateau from Russia to China. If this project materializes, the snow leopard population of the plateau and Southern Altai will be fragmented and thus more endangered.

6. Inadequacy of the system of protected areas
The network is fairly well developed, but covers only very small portion of the snow leopard range. Of approximately 60,000 square km of potential area of the species habitats in Russia, only 3,500 square km (6%) lie within protected areas.

III. Strategic priorities and system of measures for conservation
1. Safeguarding the range structure
It is principally important to conserve not only the large and small groups themselves, but also these migration corridors.

2. Improving the network of protected areas
Areas usually protected areas include the home ranges of a few individuals or a family, but do not provide protection for the whole local group. One idea is to define territories with limited nature use as well as managed game and hunting areas where the population density of snow leopards is high. These territories should be not less than 400 square km with the following primary tasks:
- Conservation of typical snow leopard habitats, wintering grounds of ungulates and partridge, and marmots colonies.
- Restoration and maintenance of the numbers of wildlife in the mountains steppes , sub-alpine and alpine zones, primarily ibex, red deer, roe deer, Altai ular, etc.
After restoration of the ungulates' numbers, limited trophy hunting may be allowed in certain reserves.

3. Measures for conservation of major prey species and control over potential competitors
Maintenance of high numbers of wild ungulate species is a very important task. The necessary condition for accomplishing this task is excellent game hunting management and perfect performance by game control services.
In the Altai-Sayan, wolf, wolverine and brown bear occur in the snow leopard habitats. A concept of competition between wolf and snow leopard is being studied and strict control of the number of wolves might be recommended. Last remark: it is totally unacceptable to use poison for controlling wolves in the snow leopard habitats.

4. Prevention and elimination of poaching and smuggling
Establishment of mobile units has become the most effective mean of anti-poaching control. It is principally important to bring all cases of poaching, illegal possession, trade and smuggling to court and widely cover the results of these legal trials in the media.

5. Solutions to the conflict between snow leopards and local herders
The most effective way is the maintenance of healthy populations of wild ungulates and other prey species. In case of attacks, compensation schemes should be developed.

6. Establishment of a viable reserve population in captivity
With its current status, its reintroduction does seem necessary. However, if the situation continues to deteriorate, one cannot exclude consideration of such measures. These would require breeding centers for the snow leopard.

Threats to Altai biodiversity and WWF local actions

From Novossibirsk, April 29th 2009.

External economic pressures and threats of new origin jeopardize the biodiversity of Altai-Sayan eco-region described in the previous post.

1. Climate change

The region will be and is already affected by climate change, via sharp alterations of temperature and precipitations, but also major indirect effects: changes in animal migrations, accelerating desertification in arid regions, geographic shifts of local businesses and lifestyles of the indigenous people, forests fires and pests.
Recently, the following effects have already been traced: anomalous floods in Tyva in 2001, shrinking of glaciers, winter warming, changes of forest species at the top forest boundaries, changes in vegetation types on several slopes.

Sofiyskiy Glacier, Altai Mountains, Russia. Picture taken in 1997. In 1898 the glacier front reached the point from where the picture was taken.

2. Overgrazing by domestic livestock

During the past decade, a dramatic increase in the number of livestock and herdsmen, and the loss of traditional nomadic grazing practices, caused the overgrazing of pastures. This resulted in pasture degradation and destruction of wildlife habitat for rare and endangered species, including the argali.

3. Deforestation

Deforestation (together with overgrazing) is the main cause of the desertification in the region. It consists of uncontrolled removal of bushes and small trees for fuel wood and fodder for herds, as well as of commercial timber harvesting.

4. Poaching

Poaching and illegal trade of endangered species constitute a serious transboundary problem. Attracted by high prices on the market, some local people even base their family income on poaching and selling of rare species and their parts. For irbis: skin, bones, other parts for chinese medicine. For argali: mostly horns that can weight up to 50kg.

5. Mining and infrastructure development

These activities aggravate other threats to biodiversity by opening up the Siberian wilderness for further exploitation of mineral and timber resources, mining, logging, and poaching problems.

On top of those 5 threats is fire, recently increasingly used. It is prohibited but there is only low control. It is launched on purpose and done on the belief that grass will come better afterwards. But this is not true and presents a risk for birds' nets and soil: the ashes are blown away by the wind (and by the way pollute fields and water) and the soil remains unprotected against erosion and climate.

WWF local conservation actions

The key activity to protect this environment facing the described threats is to define protected areas. The 2 main tasks are to collect data and gather experts to constitute the file and make the authorities agree and sign. This so called "Econet" for Ecological Network of protected areas has already been an achievement in the past years: 287 areas cover 144,041km2. But experts calculated that 216 additional ones should be created in order to ensure Altai-Sayan biodiversity.

Currently, WWF is leading 2 projects. A first one's objective is to establish a natural park in Sailugem, which is a key habitat for Argali. After data is collected, the approval process can take up to one year. On another front, a anti-poaching brigade has been constituted to protect irbis in Sayana-Chuchinsky reserve. The key way is to propose local people to do other businesses like ecological tourism. These programs are inspired from experiences led in the Alps and suggested after a collaboration with Austrian teams.

Altai-Sayan eco-system: Global 200 priority worldwide!

From Novossibirsk, April 29th 2009.

The Altai-Sayan mountain country is one of the key Global 233 eco-regions worldwide, which represent 95% of biodiversity on Earth. WWF works on 35 of them as top priority and Altai-Sayan is one of them.

On top of rich biodiversity, the region represents the most complete sequence of altitude vegetation zones in Siberia. The area contains geographically distinct biomes, consisting of high-mountain taiga, mountain tundra, a mix of forests, desert and semi-deserts, steppes and wetlands. This mountaineous eco-region gives life to two of the world's ten largest rivers: the Ob and Yenissei, with a total watershed of over 5.5 million km2. It also contributes to the drainage of Lake Baikal. The health of the region is therefore crucial for eco-systems that stretch far outside immediate area.

Altai-Sayan region covers an area larger than the territories of the Netherlands, Switzerland, Austria, Denmark, Belgium, Great Britain and Germany put together.

The richness of the eco-system comes from its situation, at the border between:
- The tiger zone in the North with central siberian taiga forests,
- The steppes in western Siberia,
- The central asian deserts of China and Mongolia.
The region contains the world's largest unbroken stretches of Siberian pine forests of the highest quality, which consists mainly of endemic Siberian fir forests that have relict and endeimc vasculr plants and mosses.
Of more than 200 rare plant species, 12% are endemic. The region is also the north-western habitat of the snow leopard, also called irbis, as well the habitat of Altai mountain sheep, also called argali. These 2 flagships species are listed as endangered species in the IUCN Red List. We will talk more about them in the next posts.

Argali sheep


In addition, Altai-Sayan eco-region also preserves an important historical heritage with sites dating back to 35,000BC (petroglyphs, cave paintings, menhirs, steles, tumuli, etc.). And indigenous people today still share common cultures, mixed from pagan customs and shamanism, and centuries of ancient cultures (Scythian, Turkic, Iranian, Chinese) and languages families (Slavic, Turkic, Mongolian).

The actual population consists of 1.5 million people, who mainly live in rural areas and rely heavily upon local natural resources. People in the Russian part are engaged mainly in farming, cattle breeding and mining, and many people earn a living by hunting. Poverty, widespread unemployment and a lack of alternative economic activities can have a negative impact on both the natural resources and biodiversity of the region. In the next post, we will see more precise threats and what WWF is doing to prevent those.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

XVII to XXth century Russian civilization, e.g. painter Sourikov's house

From Tomsk, April 21st 2009.

Wood has been and remains a key construction material. We see it everywhere in Siberia: standing majestuous in the forest, cut and lying on the floor, being transported, processed, and finally used in constructions. Retracing Russian habitat between XVII and XXth centuries is the occasion to demonstrate the mastery in wooden architecture.

Street with traditional wooden houses in Taltsi museum, next to Irkutsk

Mayor's house


Examples of churches from the 2 variants of Christian Orthodox religions after the schism.

Eglise des vieux croyants

Other example, this time in Ulan Ude

And the most impressice piece is the main tower of the ostrog (i.e. fortress), here in the case of a volost, which is the smallest administrative territorial unit in tsarist Russia.

Details of bicephale eagle of Russian Tsar

Finally, Parish school:

And cimetery:

The famous painter Sourikov lived in Krasnoiarsk and his house now transformed in museum transports its visitors back to the life at the end of tsarist Russia.

Inside the house with a copy of his most famous painting, the original being in Russian Museum of Saint-Petersburg:

Leaving taiga and Orthodoxy for steppe and Buddhism

From Tomsk, April 21st 2009.

Steppe is the landscape of large meadows with tempered climate in drz regions. It is also called tampa in Latin America. In Russia, mz first steppe has been the one in the south of Buriatie republic close to Mongolian border. I expect to see more of it towards Altai and later along the border with Kayakhstan.

Monks playing soccer in the steppe near Ulan Ude

The republic of Buriatie has its own anthem, its parlament, and its capitale is Ulan Ude. This city is a true mix of religions and nationalities living together in peace, but buddhism represents the main religion. It is present via numerous temples and monasteries called datsan. The biggest is Ivolga, which is also the center for buddhism relgion in Russia.

Main temple

The Main Door, which will only be opened for Dalai Lama

Stupa and temple

Houses for the students or permanents lamas

Introducing Pribaikalie civilizations, e.g. Evenks

From Tomsk, April 21st 2009.

Russian Far East and Siberia, and especially the region around Lake Baikal, has a rich history of so called "Pribaikalie" civilizations. These populations were indigenous people living here before Russians pass the Ural mountains and conquer this region. Among them, we find the Buryats, Koriaques, Nanais, Tchouktchis, and Evenks. Most of local museums dedicated good exhibitions about their way of life: habitat, dress, activities (mostly hunting, fishing), and rituals closely linked to chamanism.



Traditional habitat: yourte

Their descendants continue to maintain their traditions and organize regularly celebrations opened to public. In the one shown in below pictures, each tent is dedicated to one family with their specific clothes and danses.

Danses and songs in front of the family's tent

Family members preparing the next song

Different family, different dress

Working on the campfire

Traditional game