Sunday, May 6, 2007

Meeting the Lazovsky Staff and Learning about Main Acitivities (April 18)

The day starts early at Lazovsky Zapovednik headquarters. Before 8 am on my first day, April 18, doors were already opening and closing, and footsteps resounding through the hallways. When I made my way to the reserve director Aleksandr Laptev’s office at 9, he was already finishing a meeting with his inspectors. The two of us chatted about the latest news at Lazovsky, which is currently in a battle with the local district administration and a private company “Tis.” (“Tis” means “yew tree” in Russian.) The situation: Lazovsky has had a lot of success in the past few years renting from the local administration a small piece of land on the Pacific coast. This land is not formally part of the Lazovsky Zapovednik but borders it and is considered a buffer zone, and Lazovsky provides conditions for a very limited number of tourists to vacation here in the summer, at a very modest price, without harming the surrounding environment. This has allowed the reserve to make a little bit of extra money, as well as to propagandize environmentally friendly tourism and acquaint visitors with the beauty of the region and the importance of conserving it. This year the local administration decided not to renew the reserve’s lease on this land and instead awarded it to Tis, which intends to build private cottages on the shore, making it effectively off-limits to visitors and potentially increasing violations of reserve regulations significantly. Lazovsky is fighting this decision with every means it can – from the Ministry of Natural Resources in Moscow to the Primorye Regional Administration to mass media campaigns to going to court.

After my talk with Laptev, today I got to meet staff from each of the three main departments at the zapovednik: nature protection, scientific research and environmental education.

Environmental Education
We started with a tour of Lazovsky’s nature museum and ecocenter, and a chance to talk with all of the environmental education department’s staff. They have 5 people at headquarters in Lazo and a few more in towns around the zapovednik. The staff in Lazo: Dima, the deputy director for education; Galina Aleksandrovna, head of the ecocenter; Olga; Zhenya, whose parents were infamous as Lazovsky, her mom as former head of the ecocenter and her dad as deputy director for science, and who left for a year to work at WWF’s leopard center to the west of Vladivostok; and Sveta, the youngest and newest staff member, who went to a beach near Lazovsky last summer and decided this is where she wanted to be. They are all incredible enthusiasts; you feel like they could take on the world.

At Lazovsky, like at most Russian zapovedniks, the environmental education department has only existed since 1995 – under the Soviet system reserves had almost no interaction with the local population. Lazovsky’s guiding principles in modern times are to process very strictly the violations that are currently occurring in the reserve, and to very actively educate young people so that these violations won’t occur in the future. The environmental education staff don’t limit their activities to the territory of the reserve but work extensively with residents of several towns bordering the zapovednik and with all ages, from pre-school (Zhenya’s responsibility) to primary and middle-school (Galina and Olga) to high school (Sveta). They have developed an entire environmental education curriculum and workbook for primary schools that has been enthusiastically implemented by teachers across the Lazo district, and the reserve staff conducts special complementary lessons on particular themes agreed upon with local teachers. With all their activities the reserve staff alone spends at least one day a week in the classroom. Moreover they conduct a number of events in Lazovsky headquarters: children are welcome at activities and clubs in the ecocenter, Galina organizes an “environmental theater” group, and for 12 years running now each April there is a big children’s conference held in the headquarters with children from several local towns, who present results of independent research they’ve conducted and also participate in an artistic program (song, dance, acting and more!). The zapovednik organizes a year-long contest with various components and events for local school children, and the winners spend 3 days on Petrov Island in the summer.

Petrov Island is the second piece of Lazovsky’s environmental education work. From September to May the reserve staff is busy with local schools, but in the summer work shifts to Petrov Island, one of two islands belonging to the zapovednik, where visitors can walk a loop trail on a very controlled guided tour with reserve staff. Only 3000 visitors are allowed each year, as the reserve has determined that more would cause harm to surrounding ecosystem.

Of course, the reserve also conducts tours for visitors at the nature museum in the zapovednik headquarters in Lazo – Zhenya’s job.

In the evening I got to talk more with Galina Aleksandrovna about the reserve’s education work, and I realized how she is a natural teacher and mentor, not just from the way she enthusiastically talks about her work, but also from her general interaction in conversation – she doesn’t interrupt, encourages questions, both talks and listens with great enthusiasm, and more – her whole manner is so respectful and intelligent. I realized how much I admire people like her, who really are too much a rarity, and how much I value these qualities.

Galina and I were also joined in the evening by Laptev, who brought me my permit to enter the territory of the reserve the next day. You can’t just enter the territory of a zapovednik without special permission. Laptev is a very smart director, and he expects you to be sharp too, but it is obvious that he also is close with his staff and respects them. We sat with him and chatted about his education and experiences at Lazovsky, and his trip to the States in 1996 (he has been to Denali and Olympic National Park – something many Americans would envy!). He came to the Russian Far East from Ukraine, and he has been working at Lazovsky for 35 years – he knew he wanted to work here ever since coming for summer field work as a student in 1970. I can’t help thinking how it is amazing the fascinating and talented people I get to meet, and what conversations I get to have. Who knows what the future could hold!

Nature Protection
The biggest problem confronting almost all Russian nature reserves is simple violations – something we are not so used to in the United States. This might be organized criminal poaching, as in the case of the “fish mafias” that poach salmon on Kamchatka, or it might be individual locals just looking for a means for subsistence. The latter is more characteristic for Lazovsky, although ultimately, all of these violations result from a lower standard of living in Russia – many people live quite poorly and so are willing to risk violations, and perhaps even their lives, and enter a wild territory. The nature protection department at Lazovsky is the biggest at the reserve, with about 70 full-time employees, 3 offices – one at headquarters in the town of Lazo, and two in other towns bordering the reserve, in Kievka and Preobrazheniye – and 5 ranger stations throughout the reserve, where inspectors (rangers) live year-round – they man these stations on 7-10 day shifts. Up until 2005-06, Lazovsky rangers were divided into patrols that would inspect an assigned section of the reserve with a given ranger station as their home base – the whole reserve was divided into a few of these sections, and this way the idea was that everything would get covered by one patrol that would work that section for 10-20 days. Unfortunately today the reserve doesn’t have enough money even for the gasoline needed to get these inspectors around, and now they can only fund such operations for a day or two.

Nonetheless Lazovsky is considered one of the most successful reserves in terms of nature protection, and not without reason. The zapovednik is very strict with violations. Every offense is officially and legally written up and reported – a great rarity in Russian parks – even if the violator is no longer on the scene. Moreover Lazovsky makes it a priority to make sure that fines levied are actually collected – even more of a rarity. Nadya, the woman who is responsible for processing violations at the office in Lazo, will hunt down violators and call and visit them repeatedly – 86% of fines levied at Lazovsky are paid, even if it takes years for the violator to pay them off. Nadya told me about one woman who got fined 650 rubles – about $25. She has been paying it off in 50 ruble increments for the past 3 years (“but she will pay it all!” adds Nadya). Moreover, Lazovsky takes serious offenders to court – 4 people were taken to court last year, for things such as collecting very large quantities of nuts, killing an animal, etc. – and recently they have been successful in raising the minimum fine from 500 rubles to 1000. (Repeat offenders pay more.) Recently the reserve has noted a decline in the number of violations, although the figure is about 100 violations per year. Types of violations include things like collecting herbs, hunting, fishing and setting fires on the territory of the zapovednik, as well as simply entering the territory without permission, often to vacation.

Scientific research
Science at Lazovsky, like in many reserves, has taken a bit of a hit since Soviet times, when things like large-scale research and helicopter expeditions for counts of various species were funded annually, and staff received much better salaries. Today there are less than 10 permanent scientists at Lazovsky, and they have positions they can’t fill (for example, for a botanist and a GIS specialist). The reserve has succeeded in conducting only one helicopter flight in the last 20 years. However, the biggest advantage to science at the zapovedniks is that it is conducted constantly and year-round, providing for a lot of consistency.

Today there are 3 main areas of scientific research at Lazovsky. The first is the so-called “nature chronicles,” which are conducted at every reserve. This is basically an inventory (although the reserve considers it monitoring) and count of what species are observed in the zapovednik, and which aren’t – every time a staff member comes across a given species, he notes it. They don’t monitor every single species – the list is divided into ten sub-categories (such as mammals, birds, plants, etc.) with a number of representatives selected for each sub-category – but still, the list is quite extensive. The data collected through this inventory/monitoring work at Lazovsky goes back about 60 years now. All these data are written up in huge annual reports, and there is always more information if the reserve has on staff an expert in a given category – if not, then there is just the minimum information necessary for the chronicles. This year the Russian Ministry of Natural Resources is working on developing a set of standards on monitoring work and the zapovednik nature chronicles – refining the system, you might say.

The second area of scientific work at Lazovsky is focused on studying individual species (for example, the Amur tiger, ungulates, mergansers) and the relationship between them and surrounding ecosystems. Every 5 years the scientist conducting this kind of research must put together a list of recommendations for protecting the given species both in the zapovednik and generally, and these recommendations are sent to the Primorye Regional Administration Department of Natural Resources (where they are usually ignored, or if not, then often interpreted as is most advantageous to government officials).

Finally, Lazovsky is working to develop a third area – forecasting. First and foremost this requires analysis of all the data collected in the nature chronicles. Right now the reserve is working to get all of these data into a unified computerized database which will then allow for real analysis, on the basis of which they can create models and prognoses for the future. But at minimum they expect this will take 5 years – right now Lazovsky does not do any modeling or forecasting work.

Lazovsky collaborates with scientific institutes, other reserves (such as Wrangel Island Zapovednik – merganser research) and NGOs (such as the Wildlife Conservation Society – tiger research) if the research that these organizations propose is of interest to Lazovsky. The reserve has the same policy for hiring scientific staff – theoretically, scientists can’t just research whatever they want (sometimes a problem in Russia), but should propose topics to the reserve and gain its approval, reaching some kind of mutual agreement.

Picture: Kids enjoying the Nature Museum at Lazovsky Zapovednik headquarters

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