Thursday, May 10, 2007

Travel into the Zapovednik, Petrov Island Ranger Station (April 19)

I got to spend my second full day (April 19) taking a trip into Lazovsky Zapovednik. (The headquarters where I lived are not located inside the zapovednik but on the border, in the town of Lazo.) This was my first real trip ever to a zapovednik, and I was super psyched. Permit in hand, at 9 am I boarded the inspector (ranger) van – which looked something like an old Soviet military vehicle, with only two seats in the front and a couple short benches in the back – together with Zhenya from the environmental education department, who would be my escort of sorts for the day. Zhenya and I hit it off well, and I think she’s pretty fantastic. She’s about my age, with unbelievable red hair and the brightest green eyes I have ever seen, a 5-year-old son and a husband who apparently loves her to death. (As Zhenya says, he even understands the importance of building her a real nice toilet, so she doesn’t have to use the typical wooden outhouse facilities found in the Russian countryside.)

Lazovsky is surrounded by roads on all sides, and Lazo is on the northwest side of the reserve, almost at its northernmost tip. Our trip today would take us to an inspector’s station on the coast, in the southeast corner of the reserve. So we headed south from Lazo, driving all the time along the zapovednik border, with the reserve off to the left. You get the impression that the interior part of Lazovsky should be pretty inaccessible – forested peaks of 500-1000 m rise up one after another after another. The forests in Lazovsky are mostly secondary and not old growth – they’ve been logged before. Nonetheless, one of the reasons for the creation of this reserve was to conserve the unique broad-leaf forest ecosystems found here, and Lazovsky is the richest reserve in the Primorye Region in terms of flora, with 1284 species of plants found on the territory of the reserve. Lazovsky also has a few rivers – best known for their salmon populations (chum, pink, cherry) – running through the reserve territory and along its borders, the biggest of which is the Kievka. But unfortunately, not one full river system is contained fully inside the reserve, making complete protection of a whole watershed quite difficult – and if one part of a river gets polluted, or too many fish are caught in one spot, then obviously, the whole system suffers. The rivers we passed were all pretty shallow and probably not more than 100 feet or so across, and the water this time of year looks a little green-gray-bluish.

We made our first stop in the little town of Kievka (yes, you guessed it, Ukrainians were “resettled” in the Far East in the first part of the 1900s). Here Lazovsky has an affiliate office for inspectors. (The office is literally called a “forestry station” – “lesnichestvo.” (Lazovsky has a second lesnichestvo in the town of Preobrazhenye, on the Pacific Coast.) Here we met the director of the Kievka lesnichestvo, Sergei Nikolaevich or “Dyadya Seryoga” (“Uncle Sergei”), who has been working at the zapovednik for years. He has a very off-color sense of humor, particularly about the outdated ranger and inspector equipment that the zapovednik is still using (due to lack of sufficient funding). I liked him right away. Zhenya says every year, especially as the active summer season draws closer and the insufficiencies in equipment, gasoline and so on become more apparent, he threatens to quit – but never does.

On our way out from Kievka we got a truly scenic view of the very colorful Kievka town dump. (Lazovsky district, like many more remote areas in Russia, has difficulties getting waste properly carted away.) The road gets worse and worse from Kievka, until it enters the zapovednik itself, where it is completely a dirt road (more like a mud road at this time of year). Along the way we passed old and current pasture land. Zhenya explained that in her opinion the Chinese are much more successful at farming in the Russian Far East not because they better understand any regional agricultural and climatic particularities, but just because they work much harder than the Russians. When you get to the reserve itself the pastures end, of course, and the road is barred by an old metal gate and a sign saying “Territory of Lazovsky Zapovednik. Entrance is prohibited!” Our driver unlocked the gate and we drove through. At this time of year the scenery is pretty drab (last autumn’s brown leaves on the ground, no leaves yet on the trees, plus it was a grey day), but we saw dozens of sika deer, which was very exciting! Sika deer are an important prey species for the Amur tiger. To me they seemed pretty big for deer. Recent survey counts put the population of sika deer in Lazovsky at about 500-600 individuals. At this time of year sika deer are brownish-gray in color, but in the summer their coat turns brownish-red with very well-defined white spots.

After about a 30 minute drive our trip into the zapovednik ended as we hit the Pacific coast and our destination – one of Lazovsky’s 5 ranger stations, “Petrov Island,” located on the shore across from the island of that name, which is not at all far off the coast. Today was the day that they relieve the inspector at the station. The facilities here at “Petrov Island” consist of the ranger station itself, one bigger building with a room for environmental education lectures and a room for visitors to stay overnight, and 6 small (2-room) cottages for summer visitors, which are usually already reserved for the summer 6 months to a year in advance. These cottages are not located on the territory of the reserve but right beside it, and the land is rented by the zapovednik, which provides services to the visitors for a small fee. We also got to meet the new dog in town at the ranger station, a very excited puppy who jumped all over us. They say the dogs at the Petrov Island ranger station don’t often make it too long before they are dragged off by one of the dozen or so Amur tigers inhabiting the reserve territory, who seem to have a weakness for canines, as Zhenya likes to say. The cat at the ranger station, named Kasyan, is doing quite well, however. He even used to have favorite zapovednik visitors – a German scientist and his students who study birds at the reserve. Unfortunately, the Germans often would find the nets they had set for birds were emptied by Kasyan before they got a chance to do any research about the feathered friends they’d caught.

While the inspectors took care of things at the ranger station, Zhenya and I walked around a little bit, collected some of the shells that wash up in large and very colorful numbers on the shore and checked out some very old tiger tracks in the sand. Right on the water you can see all kinds of seaweed right in the fairly clear waves – I’ve never seen seaweed in such quantity in the States. Zhenya told me a little bit about why nearby Petrov Island is so famous around here. It is home to the only grove of yew trees on the Sea of Japan, and the trees are 500 or more years old. Moreover it is an architectural monument of sorts – the theory is that ancient cultures lived here about 1500 years ago, and many artifacts have been found here. Although the island is not that big, and there are no rivers, there are 3 underground aquifers that are sources of water. According to legend natural springs on the island are a source of beauty and youth, and Petrov Island is also rumored to be one of the last places defended by Ghengis Khan. But of course the real magic of Petrov Island must be created by how people feel when they visit it. They say that the visitors to Petrov Island today create their own legends about the place. Lazovsky allows 3000 visitors annually to Petrov Island between May and September, and they walk a path around the island accompanied by two members of the reserve’s environmental education department. Petrov Island is essentially the only place in the reserve where visitors are allowed (with a couple of small exceptions). This little bit of visitation, combined with other PR activities of the reserve, which puts out some publications and has a regular segment on regional TV, makes Lazovsky one of the most well-known natural places in Primorye. Many residents of Vladivostok talk about how beautiful Lazovsky is, how lucky I am to get to visit there.

When we drove away from the ranger station it had already started raining. Our day took us also to Preobrazheniye, a fishing town of 12,000 that is surrounded by the reserve on all sides. (This creates some opposition among the local population, since entering the territory of the reserve is prohibited – many residents see the reserve as a threat and as something that limits where they can go to vacation. Lazovsky just opened a new education center here to help raise awareness and support among Preobrazheniye residents.) We then made it back to Kievka and finally back to Lazo, already in the evening. I realized on the way home that I had forgotten at the ranger station the shells I collected on the shore across from Petrov Island. Zhenya says that is a sign that I will have to come back. I sure hope so!

Pictures: 1. Me in front of the Lazovsky Zapovednik sign at the Petrov Island ranger station; 2. (left to right) Ranger station, environmental education building and cottages across from Petrov Island; 3. Petrov Island on a rather dreary day

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