There are people who work in environmental crisis areas. These are the most valuable and at the same time natural areas of high danger. One of such organizations,Sakhalin Environmental Watch, has been protecting the ecosystem of Russia’s largest island for 25 years. The hero of this article will tell you what it’s like out there — at the end of the world.
How did this Environmental Watch start to exist?
In 1995, our scientists decided to make a film about the Neftegorsk earthquake. Back then the whole settlement on Sakhalin was destroyed in 17 seconds. A few months later, it became known about the severe environmental consequences — the disaster-damaged underground oil pipelines, and there were huge oil spills everywhere.
The film showed how important it is to apply high safety standards for offshore projects in offshore oil fields. And this was our first victory. Now the hydrocarbon production facility in Sakhalin is one of the safest in the world.
Killer whales, beluga whales, and whales live in the Sea of Okhotsk off the coast of Sakhalin. Is the Environmental Watch protecting these aquatic mammals?
We have been protecting the gray whales that live near Piltun Bay for many years. During the summer feeding period, whales are closely tied to a specific area with favorable feeding conditions. They get food from the bottom. They are looking for thin silt that can be easily scooped up and filtered through whalebone. Any impact on nature in such places is detrimental to their population.
We discuss the parameters and design of new projects with oil and gas companies to eliminate the risk of adverse interference in the ecosystem. Once we even achieved the transfer of the underwater pipeline corridor tens of kilometers to the south. It was originally designed over the whale’s most important grazing ground, an area where mothers and calves feed.
In 2013 and 2015, we saw two whales in the water area of the Vostochny reserve. This was a big event because they had not sailed to our shores before. Scientists tried to find them in the catalog — you see, the pattern on the skin of gray whales is always unique, like a person’s fingerprints. It turned out that we were the pioneers who discovered them. The whales were named Pursh and Vengeri, after the names of the rivers in the reserve.
Is it possible to become a volunteer at the Sakhalin Environmental Watch?
The Environmental Watch has an annual volunteer program for the protection of the Vostochny reserve. We have been working there for over 25 years. This is a unique natural area. It occupies less than 1% of the total area of Sakhalin but includes more than 60% of all species of animals and plants that live on the island. We protect the reserve from all possible interference. More than 15 years ago, acts of poaching ceased to exist in the area. We conduct programs to monitor the populations of protected animals — pink salmon, bears, and sea lions.
To become a volunteer, you need to send us a resume, in which you must indicate your experience of hiking and bushcraft. You have to walk a lot on rough terrain, so you need good physical fitness. The volunteers buy tickets to Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk themselves, and we cover all travel and provision expenses.
Volunteers come for at least a month and live in a wooden house with stove heating. Usually, there are three of us, and there are always experienced employees in the group. Life there consists of regular walks across the whole territory of the reserve, measuring the population of chum salmon, coho salmon, and pink salmon entering for spawning. Volunteers have time to admire the wildlife, take photographs or simply meditate on the seashore. Walking around the territory of the reserve is an exciting journey. Sounds, smells, incredible views, and encounters with animals. It’s the opportunity to touch the wild.
The guys cook their own food, carry water from the river, collect firewood, improve the living place, and repair the house. Electricity in the evenings comes from a solar panel and a wind turbine. The place is fenced off with an electric fence to keep bears out.
How do you get along with bears? They’re all over there.
Usually bears on Sakhalin are afraid of people. If a bear catches fish in the river and something scares him, he always runs straight into the forest. Once I found myself in the path of such a stampede of an animal. Often it is enough to shout loudly for the bear to change its path. And I didn’t even shout, I just stepped aside. I knew that he was running at me only because it was the shortest path to salvation. With bears, it’s like with cars. Hundreds of cars rush through the streets. But if you follow the rules of the road, then you do not find yourself under the wheels. A bear does not hunt humans like a lion hunts an antelope. They do not perceive us as prey. If a bear decides to attack a person, then the rules of interaction have been violated. Just as we can arrange an accident if we cross the road at a red light. We always teach volunteers how to behave when meeting a bear.
And still, such situations seem to be quite extreme.
There were many cases in our work that are hard to relive. Once, a group of experts and I went to the famous whale prison to examine the conditions of keeping the animals and assess their condition. It was painful to watch, and I would never want to see such a thing again.
I often see Killer whales in the sea. These are very freedom-loving animals. And there they were locked in cramped pools. Some simply stood still, losing their will to live. Their backs were covered with ice. Many had frostbite. Even the border guards asked why the animals were in such a state.
Many believe that orcas enjoy performing in public and communicating with humans, so they have a good life in the pools.
Can you explain why orcas cannot be kept in captivity?
I will ask a counter-question, “Why can’t you keep a person in a tiny room?” Killer whales are some of the smartest animals in the world. All cetaceans have an extremely developed perception of the surrounding world. And locked up, they suffer much more than a person. After all, their senses are much better developed.
For a normal existence, killer whales need very large spaces. Usually, each individual swims about 100 kilometers a day. They navigate the ocean using echolocation. They constantly generate signals that, reflecting from various objects or going far into space, give them an integral picture of the world. And when they are in a concrete pool, these impulses are reflected off the walls. The lack of movement and abrupt distortion of acoustics are excruciating for cetaceans.
There are cases when killer whales showed aggression towards people while in captivity. At the same time, there was not a single case of a killer whale attacking a person in the natural environment. But in captivity, they have a very serious distortion of the psyche.
Orcas suffer greatly from the tricks that they are forced to perform. They are trained with food deprivation. That is, the animal is fed only if it obeys. When they’re used in show business, it seems that killer whales enjoy communicating with humans. Not really. This is a consequence of suffering from hunger. They are absolutely not adapted to contact with a large number of people.
There are a number of other biological and ethical reasons why orcas should not be kept in captivity. And it’s good that people started to think about it.
What’s the hardest part of your job?
I could say that the most difficult thing is to sit in an ambush waiting for poachers all night in subzero temperatures. But in fact, the most difficult thing in our work is human indifference and apathy. The opinion that nothing can be changed. Our work proves that even a small group of enthusiasts who persistently achieve their goals can change the world for the better.
Is it that with each victory there are more reasons for joy?
Yes, in recent years it has been easier to see animals, meeting with which was previously an event. First of all, these are fur animals — otter, sable, raccoon dog, American mink. For centuries, fur-bearing animals on Sakhalin have been hunted for fur. Before the arrival of the Russians and the Japanese, this was done by the indigenous people. Now, for the first time in several hundred years, the purposeful industrial production of fur-bearing animals has almost disappeared. Now we constantly meet sables when we go around the territory.
In the Vostochny reserve, hunting was banned in 2003, and it turned out to be a great blessing. Hunting experts have always insisted that industrial hunting exploits resources competently, that hunters knock out old ones and renew species. But in fact, we see that where the hunting ceased, there were much more animals.
When you arrive at Sakhalin, it is as if you are in a movie. The sea, forest, and sky are filled with life. Even stone cliffs seem to breathe — that is rarely seen. Are there any unique animals there?
Of course, this is Sakhalin taimen — a predatory species of salmon fish. He hunts for other fish, weighs several tens of kilograms, and reaches more than one and a half meters in length. Taimen is a relict species, the same age as dinosaurs. It seems to have been frozen in its evolution and has hardly changed over the past 40 million years! Many scientists consider the Sakhalin taimen to be the progenitor of all modern salmonids. There are many different species, subspecies, and populations of taimen in the world, but they all live in rivers. And every year the Sakhalin taimen goes to feed in the sea or sea lagoons. It has been leading this way of life since ancient times.
The number of the Sakhalin taimen is rapidly decreasing and needs urgent protection. Although it is included in the list of especially valuable species in the Red Data Book, we do not have special units that would preserve its population.
When did you first think about the need to protect nature?
At school, in astronomy lessons, it was a great discovery for me that our planet is absolutely unique in the observable outer space. Despite the ultra-modern advances in science that allow you to penetrate far into open space, so far it has not been possible to find anything even close resembling our Earth. However, the planet is incredibly fragile.
Wildlife must be protected because it is almost impossible to restore it. We live in the era of the fastest extinction of wildlife in the history of the planet. Whole species disappear from the Earth — this is an irreparable loss. It is very important to remember that and to preserve areas of wild nature, such as the Vostochny reserve and other specially protected natural areas. I urge everyone to do this.
Interviewer: Ksenia Kabak
Editor: Alina Kazakova