Woman among the animals

Secrets of the forest from the Far North to the shores of Lake Baikal

5 minutes
Woman among the animals

Have you ever met a woman who fights off poachers, regularly meets bears, and works in a ranger station that can only be reached by helicopter? Our hero is exactly such a rare bird. She has been protecting nature reserves for 20 years and now will tell you how to meet nature humanly.

Svetlana Babina
Biologist, specialist in environmental monitoring, deputy science director of the “Protected Baikal region”

What’s the hardest part of your job?

I organize scientific work in the reserve. One of our main tasks is to preserve and restore rare species of animals and plants, and, perhaps, the most difficult thing for me is to survive the failure in this business. I once worked on the restoration of the western population of the white crane — the Siberian Crane. There were only a few pairs of them left back then. A team of scientists and I were really passionate about this project, and every year we tried different methods, but not all of our attempts brought the expected results. And then four Siberian Cranes were shot by poachers. After such cases, you tend to give up. But when you see successes, your own, and of your colleagues, you regain strength and passion back. The stories of the restoration of the bison and the American crane population show that everything is possible, there are effective ways, and this still needs to be done.

Earlier, before my scientific career, I literally protected nature — with a gun in my hands. Together with the inspectors, we carried out raids and detained poachers. That work had its difficulties. Not all of them were willing to talk peacefully, but usually, such situations were tackled quickly if we acted as a team. It is much more difficult to solve the problem when the perpetrators are in high positions in some institutions. Once we tracked down a poacher in a reserve in the Far North — it turned out to be the chief forester. Until he was removed from his position, they were sabotaging our efforts, and we could not do anything in this reserve — even build a ranger station.

Encounters with armed men in the forest sounds very dangerous. Usually, men do this kind of work. How did you dare to do this?

Oddly enough, I loved this work even more than the scientific one. I guess I’m a fighter in my heart. There were also situations when confrontations spilled over from the thicket of the forest into real life. But I still loved this job. Especially ambush missions. Just imagine — you urgently assemble a team at midnight, go to the forest to check some intel data, peer into the darkness, track a car by the headlights, plan which side to move from and who stays to cover. This is all very exciting. Even when my husband and I had a child, I could not leave my job. Fortunately for me, in the village where we lived, the local Khanty had a boarding school at a kindergarten. I left my daughter there for a week or two when I was going for raids in the taiga.

Now I have a lot of office work, and, unfortunately, I work much less outdoors — about 70 days a year. Fieldwork is my favorite time, I am always looking forward to it. For me, this is a kind of rest. I usually don’t even take a vacation — I just don’t know how to spend this time.

To pet a wild animal, approach it — does this happen in your line of work?

We mainly observe animals from afar or from observation towers. Direct contacts are rare, in principle they should not happen — these are still wild animals. But one day I had to train the Siberian Crane chicks to get food. It happens like this — you, dressed in a special Siberian Crane costume, take them to the swamp, periodically making sounds, imitating the voice of a crane. In a swamp, you lower your “beak” — or rather a hand in a special mask — into the soil, and create the illusion that you are eating the swamp vegetation. First, the chicks simply copy your actions, and then natural mechanisms are triggered — and they begin, unlike you, to really get food.

Another thing is random encounters, meetings in the forest. There were many of them.

And were there extreme ones among such ones, for example, with a bear?

I have crossed paths with bears so often that I’ve gotten used to these encounters and have learned to maintain my composure. There was an extreme situation only once. Usually, such cases are associated with lured animals, and this was this case. A bear got into the habit of walking to the ranger station, where I stayed to work for the whole summer. She was fed there since childhood. One day she caught me off guard while my colleague, who was supposed to be on guard with a gun, was distracted. When there was less than a meter between me and the bear, I threw what was in my hand — the book — into the bushes. The bear rushed after it like a dog, and I managed to escape. It’s just that the bear was used to being thrown food at it like a dog. This saved my life.

Do you have any favorite animals?

I am a mammalogist, that is, I study animals — those who are covered with wool. Well, I, of course, sympathize with them all. I love bears, despite all their ferocity. The bear is beautiful and incredibly strong. I saw it tear open a can with just two claws, and its strength amazes me. I especially like daring and desperate animals. For example, weasel. It’s very small, while attacking animals almost 10 times its size. This is such a fire, such a movement! Or the shrew — a relative of the hedgehog, the smallest mammal on Earth. It weighs only 1,3 grams. In addition, it is also partially blind, but at the same time it attacks everyone — it does not care what size the animal is, it just tries to bite it. For a long time, I did not understand how it manages to win in unequal battles. It turned out that its saliva causes paralysis in the enemy.

Who are you more comfortable with — people or animals?

Since childhood, I spent a lot of time in the forest, and I always wanted to be close to animals — to watch them. I understand animals perfectly, they are quite predictable if you study them. I am fascinated by the way their world works — it is honest, not invented. There is no meanness and lies in it, if this is not included in the hunting strategy, for instance. Yes, in nature everything is very tough — either you hunt or you run away. If an animal is sick, then either its body will cope with it itself, or not. The animal cannot help itself. But this is the law of survival. People play with this law by artificially regulating natural processes. Of course, we primarily think about human life, but we need to take into account our influence on people as a biological species.

And animals do not worry about the future, they are entirely in the present. The danger for them is the actual presence of a predator. But if it is not there and today the animal has everything one ever needs — shelter, food, and the sun — it just rejoices. Not like we do, of course, we have human emotions. But at this moment it seems the behavior of animals resembles children’s frolic.

Are there animals on Lake Baikal that cannot be found anywhere else in the world?

Baikal gave birth to many so-called endemics — species that live only in a certain area. These are mainly plants, but there are also animals. For example, the Baikal seal, which, fortunately, is now not under threat. A narrow-localized endemic is the Olkhon vole. These animals have lived for thousands of years in houses made of stone slabs of Lake Baikal and do not go anywhere. There are not many of them, but due to the tourists, their number is getting even smaller.

Many unknowingly make pyramids out of stones there, thereby destroying vole dwellings. An animal that has lost its home becomes very vulnerable to predators. The number of voles is sharply decreasing. Now we are breeding them, and we have already returned to nature more than 40 voles.

How will the disappearance of such a seemingly insignificant animal as the Olkhon vole affect the ecosystem?

There is an opinion that rare species simply did not manage to adapt and it is not worth restoring their populations. But all species are very closely related to each other, especially endemic ones. The loss of one from the ecosystem affects the other, and so on along the food chain. Each species has a similar specimen that can replace it — other animals will come to replace the same vole. But due to the disappearance of the species, the ecosystem will inevitably become simpler and, as a result, less resistant to external influences. It’s like clockwork — it has a lot of small, seemingly insignificant parts, but if one of them is pulled out, something will go wrong. The vole, for example, is needed to spread the seeds of plants. In addition, vole excrements turn into Shilajit (mumijo) over time.

When we think about the forest, we usually think of bears, moose, and hares. But in fact, the forest is mostly inhabited by those whom we do not notice at all — invertebrates and mouse-like. They form the main biomass that feeds everyone else. This is the foundation of the entire pyramid.

And finally, there’s a question from my childhood. I spent a lot of time by the lake in Karelia, and I had a dream — to evaporate it for a day and see what was there at the bottom. What would we see at the bottom of Lake Baikal?

Seamounts, canyons, valleys, and even plateaus — the whole mountain system. Once the ridges were on the surface, but due to the movement of the earth’s crust, they gradually subsided and went underwater. Elsewhere, there will be eight kilometers of silt, formed by rock sediments.

P.S. The reserve where Svetlana works is always waiting for volunteers with a big heart and a thoughtful approach to this business. Volunteers not only work on the territory of the reserve but also go on real expeditions. You can find more details on the website.

Interviewed by Liza Zhiradkova

Editor: Alina Kazakova

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