Monday, June 29, 2009

Overpassing the Polar Circle, studying endangered whales' species

From Petrozavodsk, June 24th 2009.

Swimming in Barents and White Seas during Second World War, the blue whale has seen approaching Russian, Finnish, but also German ships helping Finnish taking back territories they had lost against Russia earlier in the war.

Murmansk for example was extensively destroyed by bombs and has recovered strong influence under the next quinquenal plans to develop Russian industrial power.

Murmansk end June: 5 degrees and rain

The bay of Murmansk, important interface between sea and railway, mainly used for coal transport

Petrozavodsk remains the dynamic capitale of the republic of Carelia, very much in touch with neighbour Finland and enjoying the presence of close by UNESCO site Kiji.

The cause of blue whale's population reduction (commercial whaling) is reversible, understood, and is not currently in operation. For this reason, the species is assessed as endangered. The total population has been depleted by at least 70%, and possibly as much as 90%, over the last three generations, assuming a 31-year average generation time.

The blue whale is a cosmopolitan species, found in all oceans except the Arctic, but absent from some regional seas such as the Mediterranean, Okhotsk and Bering seas.

Habitat and ecology
Blue whales feed almost exclusively on euphausiids (krill), both at the surface and also at depth, following the diurnal vertical migrations of their prey to at least 100 m (Sears 2002).

The migration patterns of blue whales are not well understood, but appear to be highly diverse. Some populations appear to be resident year-round in habitats of year-round high productivity, while others undertake long migrations to high-latitude feeding grounds, but the extent of migrations and the components of the populations that undertake them are poorly known.

Major threats
The main threat in the past was direct exploitation, which only became possible in the modern era using deck-mounted harpoon cannons. Blue whale hunting started in the North Atlantic in 1868 and spread to other regions around 1900 after the northeastern Atlantic populations had been severely reduced. The Antarctic and North Atlantic populations were probably depleted to the low hundreds by the time whaling ceased, but are increasing (see above). Blue whales have been protected worldwide since 1966, although they continued to be caught illegally by former USSR fleets until 1972. The last recorded deliberate catches were off Spain in 1978 (IWC 2006).

Blue whales are subject to some ship strikes and entanglements (NMFS 1998) but reported cases are few. The remote distribution of some blue whale populations probably makes them less vulnerable to human impacts than some other cetacean species, but local populations that inhabit waters with significant levels of human activity may be subject to some threat, such as disturbance from vessel traffic, including ship noise (e.g. Gulf of St Lawrence population, NMFS 1998). Globally, there appear to be no major threats to blue whales at present.

During this century, a profound reduction in the extent of sea ice in the Antarctic is expected, and possibly a complete disappearance in summer, as mean Antarctic temperatures rise faster than the global average (Turner et al. 2006). The implications of this for blue whales are unclear but warrant monitoring.

Conservation actions
The IWC had granted protection to blue whales by 1966. Catch limits for all commercial whaling have been set at zero by the IWC since 1986. However, this moratorium does not apply to Iceland, Norway or the Russian Federation, which have objected to this provision. No blue whales have been recorded deliberately caught since 1978. The species is on Appendix I of both CITES and CMS.

Local measures may be required to protect the habitat of specific local populations in order to ensure their long-term viability in the face of increasing human impacts, e.g. see Hucke-Gaete et al. 2005.

Showing the importance of whales species protection, WWF Russia has recently achieved major projects on grey whales, all run in the waters around Sakhalin islands where activity of oil-and-gas companies is increasing:
1. Tracking project in summer 2004,
2. Field conservation projects in 2006 and 2007.

The first project is interesting to understand the techniques used for tracking whales. You can find more info under

The 2nd series of projects were run independently from those funded by companies who operate Sakhalin gas and oil projects.

In June 2006 WWF team went to Sakhalin to carry out research on distribution and behavior of Gray Whales during construction work for the underwater pipeline. Presence of independent observers rather forced Sakhalin Energy Company to follow really high environmental standards during construction works. Survey results will be also used by WWF to develop the project for designation and establishment of a federal sanctuary in the coastal waters and the lagoons of north-eastern Sakhalin.

Main task of WWF expedition in 2007 was to reveal at the earliest possible stage any potential negative impact on Gray Whales from construction of Sakhalin-2 Piltun-Astokh-B upper platform parts, and to inform the company itself and the state agencies in case any of such impacts are observed. To support these efforts made by WWF for conservation of Gray Whales engineering and technology center Scanex organized in 2007 day by day monitoring for movements of all vessels in the area around Piltun-Astokh-B platform.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Along the Black Sea coast

From Sochi, June 15th 2009.

My impression of Black Sea is first set in the city of Novorossisk, not far east from the border with Ukraine and Crimea. Important harbour, it is a good base to discover the region and understand key industries here: cement, oil, and military affairs. Indeed, the Russian fleet of Black Sea is no longer welcome in Ukrainian harbours and will therefore relocate in the next months and years to Novorossisk.

Despite the fact that they are made of stones (except in Anapa), beaches are comfortable, well organized and pleasant. All the local youth is meeting there on afternoon, jumping and swimming in an unhibited joy.

The city is also rich in memorials, celebrating the hard battles and important victory of Red Army against Germans in 1942 and 1943, gaining ground back in parallel with the victory of Stalingrad.

The region is also famous for its champagne, better said sparkling wine. The production is made since ... in the village of Abraou-Diourso and its beautiful peaceful lake. After the visit of the factory and inventory room, a session of wine testing makes me discover the 6 variants produced, the brut one being the best one by far.

With my active and nice host Kirill and his friends, i could enjoy the pleasures of the sea with an evening boat trip in Novorossisk bay, and a camping one-day trip to Guelendjik for marine and fishing and campfire.

The last day was dedicated to Sochi, now internationally famous for the upcoming Olympic Games that will be organized in the nearby mountains. The resort is nice, agremented with lots of beautiful and rich parcs, and well organized for families with children.

And a good sense of humour with the naming of restaurants :-)

It is now time to go from the Black to the White Sea in Arkhangelsk and Murmansk, where we will be talking about our last endangered animal species, specific species of whales.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Paragliding and hiking in Caucasus mountains, on land of re-introduced bison

From Pyatigorsk, June 7th 2009.

How could i come so close to Caucasus region and not discover their snowy summits at the border with Georgia and sandy coasts on the Black Sea? Adapting my travel plans, i have decided to follow the footsteps of Russian poets Pouchkine and Lermontov, who have both been exiled in this region during past tsarist time and pulled their inspiration from oriental traditions and romantic landscapes.
After presenting in more details the bison bonasus species and associated risks, i shall describe my experience in Caucasus mountains, going from alpinism to paragliding.

Among the most important ecological challenges that stand in front of the Caucasian Nature Preserve is protection and restoration of one of the few bison populations living in natural conditions. Although pure bison species became extinct in the 1920s, some hybrid species have survived in captivity, including those that inherited some of the characteristics of the pure mountain bison. These animals belonging to the so-called Belovezh-Caucasus line, have composed the backbone of the modern bison population of the Caucasus Nature Reserve. After 50 years of selection work these animals have occupied the empty environmental niche that used to belong to the mountain bison. The Caucasus Nature Reserve is the only remaining habitat of the mountain bison, in other places it has been almost completely exterminated by poachers.

In 2000, the total population was 714, not all of these are mature individuals. The population decreased by >20% between 1990 and 2000, and has continued to decline since 2000. All subpopulations have fewqer than 250 individuals.

Bison bonasus's distribution

Optimal habitats for the European bison are deciduous and mixed forests, but the range should include about 20% of grassland habitats (meadows) (Pucek et al. 2004, K. Perzanowski pers. comm. 2006).
In the Caucasus region, European bison prefer foothill forests; in summer, they feed on alpine meadows (Kazmin and Smirnov 1992, Kazmin et al. 1992).

Habitat degradation and fragmentation due to agricultural activity, forest logging, and unlimited hunting and poaching were the primary reasons for the decrease and extinction of European bison populations.
Conflict and political instability continues to be a threat to the species in the Caucasus, where reintroduced free-living herds have suffered very severe losses (leading to extinctions) in recent years (Pucek et al. 2004). Other current threats include lack of appropriate habitat, fragmentation of populations (and concomitant loss of genetic diversity), inbreeding depression, disease, hybridisation, and poaching. There is little space for a large herbivore such as the European bison in Europe’s contemporary ecosystems, especially in the west. The most significant limit for the enlargement of European bison populations is human population density; forestry and agricultural activity is not a limiting factor.

1. Continue captive breeding, following a coordinated programme that focuses on maintaining genetic variability. Hybridisation between existing breeding lines (Lowland and Lowland-Caucasian) should be avoided, as should hybridization between European bison and American bison Bison bison.
2. Establish a Gene Resource Bank (semen collection in the first phase) to serve as a safeguard against loss of important genetic diversity.
3. Continue reintroductions and benign introductions, into forests and other ecosystems (including large tracts of land where human activities are abandoned, such as former farmland or military training grounds). A target of 3,000 free ranging animals of each genetic line is recommended as a management goal. It will be necessary to link isolated subpopulations (e.g., by creating habitat corridors) and restore metapopulation function to enable the population to be self-sustaining in the long term.
4. Regulate bison populations by culling, when necessary, to prevent populations exceeding the carrying capacity of remaining habitat.
5. Manage habitat appropriately, for example by creating watering places, and cultivated meadows or feeding glades for use by other ungulates.
6. Implement and enforce stricter regulations to control poaching.
7. Continue producing the European Bison Pedigree Book, and expand its scope.
8. Establish an International Bison Breeding Centre, to coordinate reintroductions, monitoring of captive and free-ranging herds, and genetic management of particular herds.
9. To promote protection of the species, upgrade it to Appendix II (strictly protected fauna species) of the Bern Convention.
Further details, as well as recommended research activities, can be found in Pucek et al. 2004.

It all started with a friendship between a French traveller and an Austrian student in political sciences, and their backpacks.

On the way up, between attractive flowers and threatening gletchers:

Powerful gletchers

Our comfortable base camp in the middle of a pine forest:

This pine surrounded by snow has been described by Lermontov in a short poem, making the parallel with the palm under the sun:

Loin, perdu dans le Nord, un sapin solitaire
Scintille sur une hauteur,
Se balance et sommeille, et la neige legere
Lui fait un manteau de splendeur.

Dans un desert aride et vaste, il voit sans cesse
Au pays du soleil levant
Un palmier triste et beau qui sur un roc se dresse
Tout seul sous les rayons ardents.

Michel Lermontov, 1841

Second time in a few weeks i practice alpinism in Russian mountains, after my first experience in Altai range early May.

Should we trust this brige?

Sunset on Ullu-Tau summit, above 4,000m.

Lermontov again, reaching the paroxysm of romantism and poetic evocation in his poem Le Rocher, gives soul and spirit to rocks and clouds sharing moments together in the night:

Un nuage dore s'abrite pour la nuit
Contre un rocher geant, sur sa vaste poitrine,
Et s'envole tres loin des que l'aurore a lui,
Puis, jouant dans l'azur, avec gaiete chemine.
Mais une trace humide est demeuree au creux
Du vieux rocher geant. Desormais solitaire,
Plonge dans sa pensee, il reste malheureux
Et verse lentement quelques larmes ameres.

Michel Lermontov, 1841

The mountain zone of the region is famous for rich biodiversity, and specifically in term of vascular plants with 967 species (more than the Altai with 297 and the Urals with 621). Here are a few examples on my hiking path.

The city of Pyatigorsk, which inspired Lermontov for his book "a hero from our time", is surrounded by small mountains that are ideal to practice paragliding. There are a few experts in the city and i had the chance to get to know one of them, Roman, who took me with him for my first flight. Supported by paraglides made by French company Ozone, it was a wonderful and adrenalin-full experience i will never forget. Here are some pictures before i can post a video that will give you a better feeling.

Entrance of the club, at Yutsa mountain near Paytigorsk

Pyatigorsk from the sky

Paragliding colleagues