Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Muraviovka Park for Sustainable Land Use (June 11 – 15, 2007)

On the afternoon of June 11 I left Blagoveschensk for Muraviovka Park for Sustainable Land Use, Russia’s only private nature reserve. The park is about 60-90 minute drive from Blagoveschensk, and the closest town to it is Muraviovka, 2-3 km away with a population of 800. Muraviovka Park was founded in 1994 by Sergei Smirenskii, and it is the only nature reserve in Russia that is not funded by the government, and is not part of the Russian government’s system of local, regional and federal-level nature reserves. This has both its plusses and minuses – the main plus being that the park has a lot of independence to do what it wants to do; the minus being that the park has no strong arm of the government to fall back on if it has troubles, and that doing something out of the norm in Russia, especially if there is any foreign backing involved, sometimes brings the kind of suspicion that will increase your troubles.

Most of Muraviovka’s funding comes from international sources, including the International Crane Foundation (more on cranes below). THe park also supports a lot of its activities from money it raises on its own, through environmental education camps, tours and accomodations for visitors, selling some crops, and more. The territory of the park is rented from the local government under a long-term lease agreement. In Russia, if you rent land you must use it – you cannot just declare it a nature reserve and let it sit there. For Muraviovka this is an acceptable condition, because the park’s goal is to show that environmental protection and economic development can complement, rather than contradict, each other. Thus part of the territory of Muraviovka Park is under cultivation to grow soy, barley and wheat for sale, all without using any pesticides or herbicides. Muraviovka tries to attract local residents to work on this small-scale agricultural enterprise, making it a way to improve living standards in poor local villages near the park – something inspiring to think about in theory, but is hard to make happen in practice. (After all, “sustainable development” may be a buzz word, but how many real successful examples of sustainable development are there out there? It is very impressive to see people really working to make this happen.)

The park also grows corn that is used to feed rare cranes that stop at the park in the fall on their migrations south to China, Korea and Japan for the winter. Muraviovka is an important nesting and migration stopover point for the rare red-crowned and white-naped crane (японский и даурский журавли), as well as the Far-Eastern stork (дальневосточный аист). These 3 species are listed in the Russian and World Conservation Union (IUCN) Red Books as endangered. Muraviovka also provides habitat for 4 other species of cranes. Each year there may be a few pairs or individuals of each of these species that nest in 6000-hectare Muraviovka Park in the spring and then inhabit it through the summer, plus hundreds that stop over here to rest and feed during the fall migration south. (The territory of Muraviovka is an important stopover on the birds’ migration routes.)

Cranes and storks are also signature species at Khingansky Zapovednik, my next destination. At Muraviovka I started to learn more about the ecology and biology of these birds – where they nest (cranes build their nests in wetlands; storks in the trees), what they eat (mostly little fish), what their behavior is like, what they are threatened by. Cranes are known for their dancing, and they can dance anytime, just because they feel good. While wintering a whole flock can start dancing with one crane in the lead. Red-crowned cranes have the most complicated dances, and it even can be the case that every pair has its own dance. Each species of crane also has its calls, and you can identify 10-15 different calls, signifying such things as alarm, that there is food nearby, and so on.

Lately there has been a drop in numbers of red-crowned cranes in the Amur Region. Some think this might be due to the construction of hydroelectric dams on the Zeya and Bureya Rivers (tributaries to the Amur), which significantly reduce flooding of wetlands and marshy areas, drying them out. Red-crowned cranes even more than other species really need wetlands, and they can’t adapt to another place if they dry out.

While I was at Muraviovka we had opportunities to see pairs of white-naped cranes and Far-Eastern storks in the park with chicks. (The chicks are born in the spring – May – and the parents and chicks will stay in the park until the fall migration south.) You can’t approach them closely, and you have to be very quiet, but you can see them through binoculars. We also saw “bachelor” red-crowned cranes, as well as roe deer. The best time to see them is early in the morning – which means I was up at or before 6 am a couple of days! In June in the Amur Region the sun is already up at 5:00 am, and does not go down until about 10:30 pm.

Muraviovka Park keeps one red-crowned crane (named Kivili), two mandarin ducks (also a rare species), and one swan goose in pens at the park. Visitors to the park like to visit them. Muraviovka is known for being very strong in environmental education activities. Every year the park holds several 1-2-week long international environmental education camps (Russian-American, Russian-Chinese, Russian-Korean), pulling in both local kids and foreigners (Chinese and Korean kids), as well as Russian, American, and Chinese teachers. At least one camp each year is conducted all in English. This year in June and July Muraviovka has 3 camps (Russian-American, Russian-Korean, Russian-Chinese-American) that 200 kids total will attend.

Muraviovka sponsors contests for both kids and adults related to nature conservation, and the projects the park receives are pretty amazing – real works of art. At the park itself, in addition to camps, Muraviovka also gives guided tours for visitors along a short environmental trail, and has a small environmental education center. The camps the park offers and the tours are not free (and neither is staying as the park), as the park uses the money it makes to stay in existence – it has no government funding, after all, and works to earn money on its own. Its ultimate – although perhaps unattainable – goal is to make enough money to cover all its costs – right now it earns money on the sale of the crops it grows, on camps and tours, and on overnight guest fees.

While I was at Muraviovka I was lucky to get to spend plenty of time chatting with 4 of the park’s staff members – Sergei, the park’s founder, Marina, the park’s current director (who also teaches English at a local school), Galya, a university student doing summer field work in the park on crane roosting sites, and Svetlana, who works mostly out of Blagoveschensk. Marina lives at the park year-round, even in the frigid and snowy Amur Region winters. These guys take care of everything from weeding and painting to piles of administrative paperwork to organizing workers for the fields. I really enjoyed spending time with them, and even though I was in Muraviovka for only 4 days, I already felt attached to them by the end. They are real enthusiasts, plus very friendly, and it is always wonderful to see people so dedicated to what they do.

On my third day at Muraviovka a group of Korean filmmakers came to the park from Khingansky Zapovednik, and they brought with them an American graduate student, Robin, who is in vet school at Cornell and doing summer field work on parasites in cranes at Khingansky’s Center for Reintroduction of Rare Birds. Robin graduated from Harvard the same year that I graduated from Wellesley. It is amazing where you will meet another intrepid Americans – off in the middle of nowhere in the Russian Far East! Robin and I would get to spend more time together in Khingansky, too.

Fun fact: The Amur Region is the number-one grower of marijuana in Russia. It just grows here like weeds! Literally, we saw whole fields of it.

Pictures: 1. Scenic Kapustikha Lake in the evening, near the main resident (office, housing, etc.) at Muraviovka Park; 2. June is the season for beautiful irises in the Amur region; 3. and 4. Kivili, a red-crowned crane in captivity at the park. He was more than a meter tall.; 5. rushes along Kapustikha Lake; 6. A far-away view of Muraviovka’s environmental education center; 7. Kids on a tour check out Kivili;8. A swan goose. This guy was aggressive and would lower his head and charge at visitors to his pen; 9. Inside one of the cabins where kids and teachers stay during the environmental camps (this one was super nice!); 10. Marina and Sergei; 11. me and Galya

1 comment:

Cathy said...

I spent a month last summer teaching English at the language camp they run at Muraviovka Park each summer. Looking at your blog makes me forget the ravenous mosquitoes and really miss my time there. You aren't kidding about your Fun Fact #1 - I have pictures of the arm-loads of marijuana we pulled out of the fields to keep it from being harvested and sold by people who were up to no good. Thanks for the post.