Guardian of the birds
2014-08-26 | Text: Alexey Kirillov | Photo ©: Archive of Rinur Bekmansurov | 7344

A famous short story of Ray Bradbury “A Sound of Thunder” appeared in 1952. The author tells us how the death of a single butterfly in the remote past has radically changed the entire evolutionary process and, eventually, not in the best way has changed the world in the very distant future.

Perhaps the writer’s imagination was far from reality, but what if it will be the death of not only a single butterfly, but of dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of species of animals? Won’t it be too painful for mankind in about 20-30 years?

According to the World Wildlife Fund, for every hour that passes, 3 animal species, and no fewer species of plants, disappear forever from the face of the earth. In 1961, when this fund had only just been created, mankind used up two thirds of the annual natural production of environmental resources, and most countries had good ecological reserves. Today it is the opposite – this index has exceeded one and a half times. In 2013, the “ecological debt day” fell on August 20. This means that by this day, within less than 8 months from the beginning of the year, humanity consumed all of the environmental resources that can be naturally reproduced in a year. So, the remaining part of the year 2013 we will be living by consuming the natural resources and services “on credit”. Therefore, the preservation of wildlife is not even a social duty of man, but is a basic and vital necessity. Meanwhile, environmental activity is not always a matter of huge costs and carrying out complex actions. Even the enthusiasm of one particular person can lead to very serious changes.

Our interviewee – Rinur Bekmansurov, the head of the Nature Museum of The National Park “Lower Kama” in Yelabuga. The ornithologist, the coordinator of the banding program of the Russian network of observation and protection of the birds of prey, the project manager on “Birds and Electrical Power Lines” problems and on observation and protection of the white-tailed eagle and the imperial eagle in Tatarstan, member of the project on monitoring the Saker falcon, eagles observation and the “Birds and Electrical Power Lines” program in the Republics of Khakassia, Tyva and Altai.

 

– Rinur Hadiyarovich, you work on the protection of birds of prey. Tell us, what role do they play in the ecosystem, and what can we face after their extinction?

The birds, which are naturally carnivorous, are at the top of the ecological pyramid. Their meals are debilitated, diseased or other animals less adapted to the conditions of survival, as well as their dead bodies. That is why birds of prey are the nurses of the ecosystem and take part in natural selection, and they make some progress in evolutionary development. Nature is arranged to contain two components: the predators and their prey. They live and develop in parallel but as a whole, and the extinction of one component will definitively lead to a change in the other part, and not for the better.

You can simulate a variety of consequences of the extinction of birds of prey – that are both the increase of population of rodents, which are often the vectors of many diseases and epidemics (the majority of birds of prey feed on rodents), and the excessive development of the populations of some other animals, including birds. Even now we have a large number of crows and other members of the raven family – for example, there are thousands of crows and hooded crows in the cities of our country. And large birds of prey are able to control their population.

Those are the initial stages and the simplest examples of simulation, but what might happen in the ecosystem in the future without the large birds of prey, is not easy to imagine. I hope that it will not come to the need for a human being to adopt the role of a bird of prey, ensuring the persistence of life around them.

But it is always easier for me to answer in that way: the birds appeared much earlier in the nature then humans did, and therefore mankind has no right to deprive them of their lives and habitats. As for the country with a double-headed eagle on the national coat of arms, the preservation and restoration of the population of birds of prey is also a question of state prestige for us, I think. Not to mention the fact that these beautiful birds can bring much pleasure to nature lovers just from watching them.

Until the 1960s, birds of prey were considered to be harmful in the Soviet Union, and the hunters were given extra ammunition for every foot of a killed bird of prey they produced. And this went on until its significance for the whole ecosystem was recognized. It’s fair to say, that the same policy existed all over Europe. They came to their senses at the moment when almost all the birds of prey were exterminated. Immediately programs were implemented to target the recovery of their population with a lot of funding. And if we compare European ornithology with ours, then we can find out that many more people deal with birds in Europe. There are many observers who do not even work as professional ornithologists – for them it is just a hobby. They receive a task, for example, to monitor a nest, and then to report about it. In fact, all the nesting sites in Western Europe countries are controlled, on each of them the bird banding is operated annually. No way is a tree with a nest hacked down – that would be a real catastrophe! And we strive to adopt the same attitude to such protection.

– What problems do the birds of prey face around here, and why is their population still decreasing?

One of the biggest problems in the death of birds is the overhead electrical power lines. The most common 6-10 kV networks on the reinforced concrete poles, where pin insulators are used in the wire fastening construction, are also the most dangerous for birds. The bulk of the birds are killed on them. We call these lines the “ETL-killers”, because in Russia they create a massive death toll. In Tatarstan alone, according to our calculations, there are about 40,000 kilometers of such lines which are dangerous for birds.

– But the 6-10 kV lines have always existed, almost from the beginning of electric power…

Yes, but first they were on wooden poles, and three ungrounded metal hooks were simply screwed into the pole. Since the 60’s or 70’s, it was the intensive replacement of wooden poles with reinforced concrete ones where the metallic driving stud – the cross-arm – is grounded. And over the past decades, the rapid increase in the length of 6-10 kV lines, built from scratch according to the innovative construction techniques, began. In Tatarstan, this breakthrough happened because of the development of the oil industry. Probably, half of the sites dangerous for birds are as a result of the oil workers.

Many birds, including the birds of prey, often use the power transmission towers as roosting sites. A bird sitting on the bare wire or on the grounded driving stud – cross-arm, does not die. But as soon as the bird joins the current-carrying wire and the grounded cross-arm by means of its body, a short circuit occurs, and the bird is electrocuted.

 



– Technology has moved on. In one respect, the ecological consequences haven’t been weighed up at the stage of projecting the engineering systems. On the other hand, we cannot ban these lines and break them up. What type of solution do you see here?

In fact, there are several tried-and-tested methods. The easiest one has been implemented in Ulyanovsk and Nizhny Novgorod – they have created a high-volume output of plastic bird guard devices for different versions of wire binding. These devices are special hoods with corrugated hoses made of plastic. Three of these bird protective coverings are installed on each support. They cover the top of the insulator and the pigtail wire, which is most dangerous for birds, for over one meter. These devices protect not only the birds, but also the attaching points from bird droppings.

This is the easiest way, but not everybody follows it. Here we are faced with a misunderstanding. The grid companies tell us: “We will overrun ourselves: if the insulation cracks and the line become disconnected, then because of your hoods we will not be able to see the condition of the equipment.” That’s wrong – they haven’t even tried, and they are already coming to conclusions. In fact, these hoods cover the upper part of the insulator, and its entire “skirt” is still visible, which does not prevent the examination of its condition from the ground. If during the maintenance of the lines it is necessary to climb to the top of the support to check the condition of wire attachments and the insulator itself, you can check it without removing the bird protective covering and by simply lifting its hood by hand. There is some worry about the operational lifetime of the plastic bird protective coverings, although they can be used for 40 years, and that’s quite a long time. In some places, the bird protective coverings have already worked for 10 years, and still continue to be used. The problem turns up as a result of incorrect installation. We often check the work of erectors and see that sometimes the erecting works are carried out with errors. For example, they save on U-bolts and the wind pulls the isolating corrugated hoses and bares the wires. Sometimes it happens that the electrical network purchase and install the bird protective coverings which are inappropriate for the cross-arm construction – so they do not fit at all. In this case, the money spent is wasted. But, with a correctly fitted model of the bird protective covering the device works for a long time. Moreover, today it is the cheapest solution for the “Birds and Electrical Power Lines” problem.

Another method of protection is a return to wooden poles. Today the modified wooden poles, which last for many years, are produced. Power engineers say that wooden poles are even more accessible in severe winter conditions of freezing rain, while the concrete poles break like matchsticks.

The third effective method is the use of suspended structures. Instead of pin insulators for attaching the wires suspended insulators are used, the strings of which point downwards, whereby the trolley wire is sufficiently far from the grounded cross-arm. This construction is also more convenient in freezing rain conditions in forest areas. In case of a break in the wire, everything doesn’t need to be shut down to effect repair. On the lines with suspended insulators, the angle and anchor poles are still dangerous, but there the birds can be protected from the wires with plastic bird protective coverings. We have approved this method, and it is now beginning to be used everywhere.

For example, “Tatneft” is modifying its power lines to the suspended ones.

Finally, the self-supporting insulated wire 3 and 4 are the most expensive but they are also the most reliable way to protect the birds from electrocution.



– Why have the oil companies started to upgrade their lines? Is this the result of your interaction with them, or they have some other reason?

I do not think we have influenced “Tatneft” that much, although the legal proceedings over the deaths of birds had begun with “Tatneft”. We still haven’t come into contact with them, but it seems to me that “Tatneft” have seen the problem and chosen the best way to solve it. They know that, as mandated by the law of Russian Federation, the constructions with pin insulators should not be used without special bird protective coverings – this requirement is very precisely laid out in court. And maybe they chose another way for themselves – suspended structures, which are more convenient in use and less dangerous for birds.

– Is the interaction with the Tatarstan Grid Company established?

When we started the project on solving the “Birds and Electrical Power Lines” problem in Tatarstan, I wasn’t fully confident that we could put the work into motion. But, as a result, we managed to organize a productive relationship with the Grid Company.

The Grid Company strictly controls all levels of criticism. After we conducted a series of speeches and publications, I was called by the press officer of the Grid Company, – a good man, by the way – and he resented why I had been writing the way I had. The Grid Company is promoting itself as an eco-enterprise, which strives towards environmental conservation. And we say: “Sorry, you do nothing for the environment. We have collected the evidence and today we can write you out a definite sum for damages compensation for the Russian Federation”.

And they proposed to get together and discuss everything round the table. I invited the ornithologists from other regions, who had been dealing with this problem for several years, including the head of the “Birds and Electrical Power Lines” project of Russian Bird Conservation Union A.V. Saltykov and the head of the “Birds and Electrical Power Lines” project of Russian Network of the Birds of Prey Observation and Conservation – I.V. Karyakina to this meeting. We thought that we would be listened to for about 20 minutes and then we would be given the brushoff. But actually the meeting lasted for about 3 hours. We were all surprised that the Grid Company came to the meeting with such a sense of responsibility.

– How many bird protective coverings are installed by the Grid Company today?

Only a few, but it’s obvious that this has set the wheels in motion. At some sites, as an experiment, the plastic bird protective coverings are being tested. And it works well. In addition, the Grid Company adopted its internal document on bird protection, where they spelt out all the methods of protection. Among them are both the use of fully insulated wires, and the use of plastic bird protective coverings.

We pointed out the mistakes to them immediately, especially when they began to use the bird scaring devices instead of the bird protective coverings. Those are the so-called “hedgehogs standards” – they are much cheaper, but they do not work properly. They are made to scare the birds away from the facades of buildings, architectural monuments, so they do not pollute the cornices and balconies with excrement, but these devices are not designed for electrical installations.

Last year, in the Spassky district of Tatarstan, there was a high concentration of nesting red-listed species of birds such as imperial eagles, white-tailed eagles, greater spotted eagles and others, so a pilot project with the use of these devices was launched. Through the results of these studies, we have proved that for birds which are too large, the “hedgehogs” are not the obstacles. The birds can easily perch on them, and, nestle among the needles before finding a more comfortable place for landing on a metal cross-arm of a pinnacle so unfortunately the birds are more likely to switch the contacts on with their bodies and die. Such “hedgehogs” cannot be called bird protective coverings, and really they shouldn’t be used on electric installations.

Grid Company also began to use the fully insulated wires. As I have already said, it’s very effective, but expensive protection.

By the way, recently on the road from Yelabuga in the direction of Naberezhnye Chelny a new gas station was built, and a new line was run to it. I immediately called the representative of the Kazan Grid Company, and said: “A new power line with pin insulators which is dangerous for birds skirts the National Park “Lower Kama”, with no bird protective coverings in spite of all our agreements.” In three days, surprisingly, the whole line was equipped with plastic bird protective coverings.

– Does this mean that the interaction runs constructively?

Yes. For example, last year I made a plan for bird protection on 6-10 kV high-voltage lines for Bugulma power grids according to the characteristics of eagle nesting sites in the south-east of Tatarstan. Also last year in the fall, in Agryz, there even was a case, when I advocated against the Grid Company in court. That time the Prosecution Service ordered them to install the bird protective coverings at all the sites of Agryz district that are dangerous for birds. But it’s obvious, that this is big money. I suggested another idea. The “Russian Bird Conservation Union” has a program, which sets out the step by step plan for power line’s modernization in all the regions of Russia. Of primary importance – the protection of birds on power lines in the nesting sites of rare birds near conservation areas, as well as where the mass death of birds is detected. Later – all the rest of the power lines. This plan we have is like a guide for action. So, I suggested equipping the two transmission lines first with the bird protective coverings, which skirt the territory of the State Nature Sanctuary “Kichketan” in the Agryz district, and only then move on. I was listened to, the court accepted my point of view, and the Prosecution Service agreed with that decision. At the same time, we are very glad that finally the prosecutor’s office itself drew attention to the problem. If in every region of Tatarstan and elsewhere in Russia, of course, the environmental prosecutor’s office independently monitored the legality of the use of 6-10 kV high-voltage lines with pin insulators without special bird protective coverings, then the “Birds and Electrical Power Lines” problem wouldn’t have existed. And in the meantime, the use of such transmission lines is contrary to the current laws of the Russian Federation. In response to your question, I would like to express the hope that in the future the commitments on staged modernization of the dangerous for birds power lines will be carried out to the full extent according to the accepted schedule, and are adopted by the Grid Company so our interaction with them will continue productively, rather than within the court proceedings.

– And when were the birds deaths due to power lines noticed in Russia for the first time?

A very long time ago, the Russian natural scientist, A.N. Formosov, wrote about it back in 1930s. In 1980 the essay “Birds on wires” by V. Peskov received a wide response.

In the 80s, Tatarstan became one of the first sites for studying this problem – Andrey Vladimirovich Saltykov, being a student of the Biology Department of the Kazan University, began to look into this matter. During the summer field practical training, he went around a number of places to check power lines in Sarmanovsk, Leningorsk and Bugulminsk areas, gathering dead birds. He found out how many birds were killed in a season, their species make up etc. The results of those studies were the Candidate’s dissertation and his lifework – today, A.V. Saltykov is the head of the “Birds and Electrical Power Lines” project of the Russian Bird Conservation Union. In fact, he coordinates the bird’s protection program all over Russia.

30 years have passed since the beginning of Saltykov’s research. But, in the intervening years the number of power lines that are dangerous for birds has increased at least three times, and they continue to collect their “harvest of death”. For the first time in our country the bird protective coverings were used in Ulyanovsk and Nizhny Novgorod regions, Altai-Sayansk region, Mari-El and Chuvashia. In this respect, Tatarstan lagged behind, but now, I hope, will make up for lost time.

– How long ago did you began to deal with this problem?

In Tatarstan I began to promote this project two years ago. Most of the citizens, by the way, haven’t ever heard anything about this problem. Even I, being engaged in environmental conservation, found out about it by chance, when in 2008 I went to the Altai expedition to study birds of prey as a member of team of ornithologists of the Russian network of observation and protection of birds of prey.

I was terrified – under the transmission lines we harvested the bodies of golden eagles, imperial eagles and tawny eagles – the rarest birds. This is a massive problem to the natural environment! Under Russian law, the cost of one eagle in our country is estimated at 100,000 rubles. That time I found out that we can judicially present the cost as damages to nature to the owners of power lines that prove to be dangerous for birds.

In Russian legislation all the requirements have been developed a long time ago, back in the 90s. But, as in many other things, we have a law, but it works very poorly, because this problem is almost not handled by the organizations that should deal with it – the environmental prosecutor’s office, the Federal Service for Supervision of Natural Resource Usage and others. It is good though that this problem is handled by the ordinary people of our country, the ornithologists. Because of their aspirations, a number of court proceedings on the deaths of birds on various transmission lines were won, and a wave of modernization works began to be carried out on the power lines that were dangerous for birds.


– Tell us more about your expeditions, what were your goals?

In my first expeditions I mainly learned – how to identify the birds of prey in nature, how to find their nests, to work on the nests with the chicks, to ring them, and many other things. I was very lucky because I immediately got into serious expeditions to the Altai-Sayan region, where I did my practical training under the guidance of an experienced ornithologist and field worker Igor Karyakin. It was a very good school, which now helps me to arrange independent expeditions on the territory of Tatarstan. Thus we, a group of ornithologists, united by common goals and aspirations in the Russian network of observation and protection of the birds of prey, always plan and coordinate our actions, regardless of the regions in which each of us is working. The objective of my field research on large birds of prey in Tatarstan is the monitoring of breeding and the identification of environmental factors that affect the lives of eagles, to fully understand the whole picture of life of them – the factors of successful breeding, diet, and anthropogenic influence. Such a large-scale work in Tatarstan has not previously been carried out.

The population dynamics are also important to be able to forecast for the future and to draw conclusions about the necessary measures for the protection of these species. I engage my friends in the expeditions, and this year I went with my wife and son. The photographers of animals from Nizhnekamsk are always willing to join up and help greatly with their upstaged photo-shoots in nature.

 

– What other difficulties, besides the power lines, do the birds of prey encounter?

The next important question is the preservation of the habitats of birds of prey and their food base. Suppose the basis of the diet of the solar eagle (imperial eagle) is a gopher. The arithmetic is simple: if the gopher colonies remain – the imperial eagle will exist. The poor results can be observed in Chuvashia, Mordovia. The gophers petered out there at all, and the last breeding pairs of imperial eagles were on the way out over the following years – trying to live off rooks, crows and hedgehogs. In the pre-Volga region, in Tatarstan, the same thing happened. Thank God, the gopher still remains in Predkamye and Zakamye regions, and eagles thrive out there. But here the population of gophers has visibly decreased too.

– Why is this happening?

The gophers inhabit the agricultural landscapes, and there can be several reasons for their extinction, including the use of chemicals in agriculture and the changes in environmental management. So, the gophers form colonies mainly in pastures where cattle grazing regularly takes place. The nesting sites of imperial eagles are also located close to these colonies. As soon as the grazing stops, the pasture becomes overgrown with weeds and shrubs, and the gopher’s colony dies off. The first years the eagles will be living in extreme conditions, and then they will become extinct too, which is what we can have seen in some places.

– Demonstrative fact – a change in the way of human functioning affects the whole ecosystem. And it seems that nothing wrong has been done – we have just moved from one system of management in agriculture to another. But here are the unexpected consequences.

Yes, that’s right. The conversion into a big farm with the indoors fattening of cattle can greatly influence the life of the eagle. I travel a lot all over Tatarstan, and every time I rejoice when I see the villages, where traditional livestock farming continues. But when I see the ruined village – it disappoints me so much. How can we talk about sustainable development when we have such an imbalance – people leave the countryside and are concentrated in the cities.

A serious problem for birds is the use of chemicals in agriculture. The birds of prey get chemical poisoning by eating the rodents, and some falcons are poisoned through insects that are included in their diet. The use of toxic chemicals within the Republic of Tatarstan has been drastically reduced in the last decades, which has a positive impact on the lives of birds of prey, but for now, I’m afraid, it is beginning to gather momentum again. Even this year, in connection with the alleged locust plague... Although, travelling all over Tatarstan, I haven’t seen a single locust. Thank God, the forests of Tatarstan are no more polluted with DDT – in the 20th century it was the norm.

As for the habitats, today, in Tatarstan for example, we observe that some of the birds of prey, including the imperial eagles can nest in a variety of settings, such as near human settlements, farms, oil installations, and even on the power lines. The imperial eagle, for example, is well adapted to a life with man. In the Zakamye region these eagles usually nest near the villages, farms and roads. This year at the border of the Tukayevsky and Sarmanovsky regions, we installed a video camera on one of the nests to videotape the process of the life of the chicks. So, this nest is five meters away from the oil workers road, on which utility vehicles constantly pass, and the birds are used to it. And there are a lot of such nests, which are located close to mankind and to the industrial areas. That is, some species are able to adapt to our presence, and being undisturbed, they can live right in plain sight of man.



But certain conditions are needed for nesting – the trees, first of all. And a site with a nest can easily be cut down in our country. The year before, we detected such a situation, and because of this there was a conflict with the Ministry of Forestry. We have been proving to them, that logging has been done at the nesting site of the Red Book species, and thereby, the “Wildlife protection” law was violated.

– But in this case there are no dead birds, so how to prove the contravention?

We are currently compiling a database of eagles nesting sites. According to the Red Book of the Republic of Tatarstan, only 40 couples of imperial eagles are nesting in our country. But according to our research, there are more of them – more than 100. My mission is to identify areas of eagles nesting, to compile a database and notify about these areas the Ministry of Forestry, which is responsible for the maintenance of the Red Book of Tatarstan, so that they know where the rare birds are nesting. I understand that we are not able to preserve the entire area of the forest, but we can make the nesting tree and a few trees around remained intact. That will be enough for the eagle.

– Maybe it is not so much a problem of the ministry – the bureaucracy, working with documents, but of personal choice of a specific person – a forester, who decides about the deforestation right on the spot?

Yes, and of a forester too. He should be the first to bear this fact with understanding and try to keep the nesting site. But it is very difficult to change the consciousness of the foresters straight away. We can wait for years and during this time lose all the birds. Many times we have talked to experienced foresters. Previously, they had limited sections – about 500 hectares. Therefore, each forester knew thoroughly what nests they had and where. Some of them still remember and report it to us. Most of them have always been worried about the preservation of these nests. But now the section for one forester has become much larger, and the foresters, I think, are not concerned with the birds. There are those who do not care at all. That is why the guide-line to preserve the nesting areas from being cut down should come from the supreme body. The positive examples of this are, for instance, in the Ulyanovsk region. The Minister of Forestry is sympathetic to the issue. The group of ornithologists in the Ulyanovsk region are working on the same issues that we do, and they have found a mutual understanding with their Ministry – at the panel discussion they decided that if there is an eagle’s nest of in the area and a schedule for logging, then it will be protected from being cut down by creation of special protection areas in the forest. I think, that we will come to this, at any rate, and the Ministry of Forestry for the Republic of Tatarstan is willing to solve this problem and even this year it offered to work with us on the development of a database of the nesting sites of large birds of prey.

– So, how important is to ensure diversity of birds of prey in the territory of the republic? After all, if we talk about the logic of sustainable development, one of its major theses is that sustainable development with no external support is possible only if it is to attend to the entire cross-section of species.

Yes, the natural ecosystem will be sustainable only if a mass of different components exist. The more complex the ecosystem is, the more sustainable it is. It is hard to go back to the days when people lived by the law of the ecosystem. I think that it is very difficult in today’s world to create a completely sustainable development – it will always be with some reservations. But we can provide some basic things. If we cannot reject power then we can at least ensure it is securely delivered. That problem is possible to be solved by humanity.

But talking on the subject of species diversity, I would like to discuss the following: all of these species appeared on Earth much earlier than people did and they succeeded in living in peace and developing. And we do not give them even a chance for life in general. They are a part of nature, and we have no right to decide whether to clean up this part or not. Why don’t we provide an eagle, which not only does us no harm, but on the contrary, is very useful, with a normal life alongside ours?

For example, there is an island, Sokolsky, to the front of Nizhnekamsk, on which I found three nesting areas for the white-tailed Eagle this year. One of them had successfully nested, and I ringed the chicks. This island is nested by eagles on both sides with a whole complex of sites, stretching along the coast, as long as they do not interfere with normal eagle life. But recently, we learned that the whole island will turn into a symbolic Britain. I looked at the project on the Internet – everything is planned out: golf courses, houses. But nothing was said about the fact that there are at least three pairs of eagles nesting there, and how developers are going to make sure that the white-tailed eagles continues to live and nest there. They are even not aware of their existence. We are in danger of losing at least three more pairs. But the plan can be redesigned so these breeding areas remain intact.

– And the recreation system of the island will benefit...

Of course! It does not interfere with person’s rest and relaxation. I used to watch winter eagles sitting next to fishermen – waiting to be given a fish. Fishermen do not begrudge the eagle’s presence and will often throw them a fish or two. So for the eagle it is a profitable relationship. Generally eagles eat fish. Why do they need to be destroyed? It’s a beautiful bird, part of our nature.

By and large, islands on the Volga and Kama rivers are currently reserves for breeding white-tailed eagles. These islands are nature reserves for not only eagles, but also other animals. Therefore, we do not want to turn these islands into landfills for business.

This year in Tatarstan I ran into hooliganistic, barbaric shooting of large birds of prey. In February on the island of Ivanovo we found a new nest for the white-tailed Eagle, which had never been known before. In the State Register of Protected Areas of the Republic of Tatarstan, the island was listed as a natural monument of the Republic of Tatarstan. On the first of June, we arrived at the nest to go up and to ring the chicks. But instead of that, we found murdered female and male birds next to the nest. And they were killed for fun – not for stuffing or eating! I was told about similar cases by local hunters. For example, one of the hunters told me about a nest in Mendeleev’s district, where white tailed eagles bred, and about some hunters who shot the birds and took them to be stuffed and mounted.


By the Volga-Kama Preserve area this summer a wounded white-tailed eagle was picked up – with his beak totally shot off. In the wild such a bird would die. And in April, we found an old nest of cemetery eagles. And the locals knew about it for a long time – the eagles nest on the rural Muslim cemetery. In July, we went there to ring chicks and found a dead bird. I do not know how the eagle interfered with people.

There is one very nasty tale. In the 1980’s, on the territory of Tatarstan, a pair of sakers had bred – they are one of the largest species of falcons. It covered the whole Bugulminskoye – Belebei hill. The saker falcon nesting area was known of even in the Volga-Kama Reservation. Those species were completely destroyed by hunters. In the countries of the Arabian Peninsula, this bird is in a high demand and they are often smuggled out to over there. Often hunters or poachers are foreign people, for example, Syrians come to Russia under the guise of being students but with the intention of catching birds. As a result, the number of saker falcons in Russia has dropped drastically. Currently, the existence of the saker is under the threat in Altai-Sayan region. Monitoring studies have revealed that many areas where previously saker falcons nested successfully, today the nests are empty as a result of bird poaching. So one of the projects that our group is engaged in is the Russian network of research and protection of birds of prey which is also for the protection of the saker falcon.

A member of our group, the director of the NGO “Sibecocenter” Elvira Nicolenko, has developed an entire program for cooperation with border customs officials. Through her work group, falcons were at least periodically detained and returned to their native countryside.

– Is there an opportunity to make up the number of birds at the expense of the neighboring regions later on?

For some species, throughout their habitat there are quite stable conditions for existence, so that type is quite capable of surviving but may need resettling if required. But if that species is under a permanent environmental pressure, this will lead to the death of the population in most parts of that area, so what kind of a resettlement can there be? From now on, with a reduction of saker falcon in the area, we cannot even dream about their repopulating the expanse of Tatarstan. The Steppe eagle is also in a very difficult situation – its number has diminished throughout the whole area.

Going back to the territory of Tatarstan, I cannot mention the golden eagle. Nowadays it is also an extremely rare bird. Making up the population of this species at the expense of the neighboring regions will not be enough even with the special programs – golden eagles have a special biology and behavior.

Theoretically, the same birds, especially young ones, are capable of dispersal, but we do not yet know how far they are able to fly away from their homes in search of new nesting sites. Probably, many will seek to return to a place where they were born. Although this theory still needs to be confirmed. Thus, we developed a program in Russia concerning color marking of birds of prey – to put special colored rings on chicks in the nest. It helps to understand the lives of birds better, to study their life, keep track of migration routes and settlement. I am also very interested in the question: where the bird born in Tatarstan will find a mate and settle for a many, many years? After all, large birds of prey choose a place to live where there is food and a substrate on which to nest.

– Do I understand right that birds of prey have not been ringed in Russia yet?

The Russian Centre of ringing has existed for more than 100 years, and, of course, birds of prey have been ringed in Russia. But they were ringed with a simple aluminum ring and to hold the information you needed to find the bird or its corpse. But it turned out that most people just do not know where to send the information. Before the internet the ring was sent for free by the mail, and it had to provide an address in the form of the words “Bird Ringing Centre” on the envelope. Now this system does not work, and fewer people send rings in an envelope. Therefore, almost all the information about the rings is lost. Over the past 10 years over 5,000 birds of prey were marked with the Russian aluminum rings, but the feedback information is usually lost. Can you imagine – the whole ten year’s work was in vain, with a virtually zero effect. In addition, the entire database of ringed birds in the Russian center banding is still kept on paper, and getting the information about a ringed bird takes time. This is extremely inconvenient.

Thus, we developed a different, a much more modern program of marking birds. Colored rings can be seen on the live bird, you can take a picture and send the information to a specially created website www.rrrcn.ru and in a matter of minutes to get information about which area, at what time and by whom that bird was ringed, and to discover the age.

 


– How did your work on the color ringing? How did you come up with this idea?

Two years ago I ringed a white-tailed eagle in the Volga-Kama Reserved area. By happy coincidence, at this time the reserve hosted a delegation of supporters of the World Wildlife Fund. They were young people who do a lot of traveling, take pictures, know and appreciate the natural environment. They became interested in my work and at the same time were surprised that we continue to work in the old way, when the whole world is using colored rings to ring the birds. One of the supporters of WWF – Yuri Lebedev – offered to help me organize a program of color ringing of birds of prey. With this idea and support of members of the Russian network of study and conservation of birds of prey we began to work to find manufacturers of colored rings and color schemes to harmonize with European coordinators color labeling. It was not at all easy, especially with a choice of colors. There are not a lot of colors and most of them are used by European countries. So we had to use double colors to differentiate from the color schemes of other countries. For example, the rings of the Volga-Ural region – one half of the ring is white, and the other – is green, the Altai-Sayan region halves of white and orange. With sponsorship money we bought the rings and tried them.

– Have any results already been obtained?

Surprisingly, the results appeared in the first months after the start of the project. One of the white-tailed eagles from Tatarstan flew to Ukraine. A golden eagle on its way to Africa was wounded in Iraq. A Steppe Eagle in Kazakhstan was photographed in Oman, and an eagle from Orenburg region photographed in the Yemen. An owl with a colored ring of the Altai Mountains flew from its birthplace for 50 km and was killed on a power line. It is thanks to the internet where we were able to get feedback even from abroad.

It should be noted that the Russian Ringing Center does not like our activities.

– How did they elevate their position?

They called us pirates, because we created a separate center for ringing, although no law of the Russian Federation says that there must be only one. We tried to meet them, offering them to create the same virtual database and combine it with our own. But it failed. However, the foreigners love our work – they work in a similar way where everything is computerized.

– Will you continue with the same spirit?

Yes. I think that in the end, all the interested parties of the development of ringing will support us, because the way that it is now running the Russian Ringing Center is not producing good work. Look, the Far East is using Japanese rings, and the North-West is using European ones. We think that this is wrong and therefore we would like to have a unified system in Russia for the simpler exchange of information. Data of the ring must reach the destination without getting lost along the way; otherwise there is no point in ringing. But that requires not only our desire.

– Why do you have to deal with problems of birds of prey? This is difficult. Was it your personal choice?

Yes, exactly. When I was in a team of Russian ornithologists network study and conservation of birds of prey, I began to work with them on expeditions, practice, learning to climb trees with climbing gear, to ring the birds, then I gradually began to understand how many problems there were in this area, including Tatarstan. I felt sorry for the native republic, and decided to work here.

But what power does one person have? It seems to be very little. We shoot scenes and gave them to the television, published in newspapers, post photos and videos on the web – sites of the Russian network of study and protection of birds of prey and of the National Park “Lower Kama”. We work by conducting outreach programs, working with businesses and government agencies. And all that has had an effect! People began to pay more attention to the problems of birds and nature conservation in general, they became interested in that matter. When my friend, Renat Rakhmatulin, shot the story of eagles that died in the hands of poachers and posted it on YouTube, the next day we received a lot of calls, even from correspondents from Moscow. Later, the story was shown on the local TV channels.

During that summer I got a lot of calls. People found injured birds, picked them up, but had no idea what to do. Firstly I tried to treat them so now they call me a vet – though I am not happy to become an authority in this matter. Now I refuse to take birds, I have no money to keep them. But people still call, asking for advice on what to do with the found birds, and say thank you for the important work we do.

– Is your work for the protection of birds carried out within the national park?

Most of the work in the field of raptors is held outside the territory of the national park, but its authority supports this initiative. I believe that we should not limit our studies within specific narrow areas. The thing is that if we do not deal with the protection of nature on the whole territory of Russia, we will not be able to maintain a natural environment in Tatarstan, nor in a national park.

– It turns out that the protection of birds is your personal project. Then what tasks do you do when working for the National Park “Lower Kama”?

I am working as a head of the Museum of Nature, leading some research work on birds, doing regional studies, preparing some information materials. I have a variety of tasks.

– Is Museum of Nature created by you?

The museum was created collectively, but someone always has to drive a steam locomotive – in this case it was me. The building formerly housed the administration of the National Park “Lower Kama”, and after their move, we started the exposition. The museum had some projects, but they were poorly written, with no means to launch them. So we had to do a lot on our own. We collected and continue to collect many of the exhibits, such as geological and paleontological data. Something we managed to obtain from other museums. Parts of the scarecrows were made with grant funds resources. Much has been made at the expense of the federal budget, as well as through the sponsorship donations.

– Do you work with children?

Yes, from kindergarten onwards. Our employees develop special thematic classes and perform them in the classroom of the museum. Students and whole classes are regular visitors. We also interact with their parents, but less frequently.

In summer we do not have high attendance, but from September to May we take at least two groups, which is about 60 people for every day. For our small town it is not bad at all. We hold free tours, participate in the city’s social programs.

Too bad that we do not work on Saturday and Sunday as the other museums do – children with parents would probably come more often at the weekend. But we have no full list of staff as in conventional museums, and thus it is not easy to completely organize the work of the museum.

 

– What is the reason?

Our National Park belongs to the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment of the Russian Federation. It turns out that the museum department, the Ministry of Culture, has no connection. Now, in many national parks and reserves they have their own museums, but in a slightly different format – it’s often just a couple of rooms. And we had a full image for a city museum. I can’t be here all the time as I spend much of my time on the road. I had a challenge to create this museum. We started the museum but it must be further developed. We need to work with communities to attract a stream of people.

Now I would be happy to pass on the museum to another person who will always be here, but I can’t find anyone – the salary is too small.

My main task is to protect birds in Tatarstan, because someone has to do it. There are few ornithologists in Tatarstan – you can count them on the fingers of one hand. We have a lot of problems and they must be addressed. If no one helps, everything will go back to the way it was.

– At the conclusion of our conversation... Maybe there is still something that I did not ask, but you want to talk about it...

An important point that I’d like to convey is that I am convinced that in order to protect nature, some specific types of animals or plant, it is not necessary to create additional special reserves and wildlife sanctuaries. Instead you have to correctly build wildlife farms. There is nothing complicated about equipping nature with protection, or tree felling that leaves the habitat of rare species in safety. Just returning to traditional grazing, we have had a hand in the conservation of rare species of birds. Even if you have herds of cattle close to an eagle’s nest in springtime, the eagle will not fly away but instead remain. Each of us can run the economy so that wild animals can feel safe close to us.

In Soviet times, a vocational school that produced tractor and machine operators, trained us in the rules of ecology – how to properly plow, harvest, cut the grass. But increasingly, I see that knowledge is not applied in practice. Yes, in Tatarstan there are advanced imported harvesters, environmental education takes place, but not at the combine harvester. And this is simple – the harvest has to go from the center to the edges, and not from the edges to the center as it is now. In the first case, all the animals of the field scattered in different directions, while the second – they run to the center and eventually falls under the harvesters blades. The animals should be allowed to get away and not be driven in to the centre of a field. These simple, elementary rules are not respected anywhere. In 2011, the year I went to the Altai – just at a time when the whole country was harvesting grain, and everywhere, for thousands of miles, I saw this depressing picture.

And garbage? I travel a lot through Tatarstan and you can see almost every village on the edge of a ravine, covered with different stuff. Household rubbish litters the woods near the town and the coastal rivers during outdoor recreation. Where does this fit? Who thinks about the responsibility of ourselves and for the future of our children? What about the understanding that we are destroying with our own hands the world in which we live? We are launching some mega-projects; we have spent a lot of money on them. But sustainable development begins with the most basic of things. And these are those basic elements that we are lacking.


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