by Oleksii Vasyliuk
Translated by Nick Müller
Falz-Fein Askania Nova Biosphere Reserve announced the establishment of de facto control over its administration by the occupying authorities. Simply put, the reserve’s administration has been captured by the invaders.
Some readers may be surprised by this news, since the southern part of Kherson Oblast, where the reserve is located, was captured by Russian troops in the first months of the invasion. Despite that, until March 2023 the reserve remained the last Ukrainian state organization operating as an “island of Ukraine” within the occupied territory. Prior to March, its employees went to work in a building flying the Ukrainian flag and received a Ukrainian salary.
Askania Nova Reserve has always been special. The very first reserve created in Ukraine, it was established on the privately-held lands of European landowner Friedrich Falz-Fein in 1898. In 1919, it was also the first land to receive legal status as a reserve in Ukraine.
Askania Nova survived two world wars and the almost complete elimination of its employees during the repressions in the 1930s. In particular, Vladimir Stanchinsky, one of the founders of Soviet ecology and director of the reserve, was subject to repression and died in prison. The reserve was repeatedly plundered and destroyed. But both before these challenging events and after them to the present day, Askania Nova remains the most famous nature reserve both in Ukraine and throughout Eastern Europe. Now, these protected lands have attained the status of UNESCO Biosphere Reserve and are on a provisional (“shadow”) list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites (the only natural site from Ukraine on that list). Additionally, Askania Nova is the largest area of virgin steppes, preserved without ever being cultivated, in Ukraine.
Askania Nova as an ecological experiment
The reserve’s tourism appeal consists of herds of ungulates gathered on different continents, living in semi-free conditions on several thousands of hectares of protected steppes. It is likely that some of the animals are not even aware that they live in captivity thanks to the vast size of the Askanian enclosures. More than 1500 ungulates living here are descendants of animals brought to the Black Sea steppes under Friedrich Falz-Fein.
Ongoing for over 120 years, Falz-Fein’s concept behind the experiment in the reserve was to learn how to breed rare ungulates in protected areas, so that in the event of their extinction in nature, he could restore their populations. This incredibly progressive 19th century goal required acclimatization of the animals to captivity.
So, many generations of non-American bison, non-African zebras, non-Kazakh saigas, and non-Mongolian Przewalski’s horses have lived in the reserve. These Askanian zebras, bison, saigas, horses, and other animal species have adapted to both the climate and Ukrainian steppe landscapes over a long period of time. Askania also has a century-old arboretum containing many tree species from all over the world and maintained by constant irrigation using artesian waters. Those artesian waters also feed lakes in the reserve – waters used by birds during migration.
2022 military invasion and the reserve
The captive breeding operation did not cease even during Kherson’s occupation, supported by thousands of benefactors who sent donations from the United States, Canada, Germany, Poland, Britain, and many other countries to help the animals and employees of Askania Nova. And that is quite apart from the support of the Ukrainian people, who are most aware of the ramifications of Askania’s potential loss.
Over the past year, all urgent needs and current expenses for feed, fuel, medications, equipment, creature comforts, spare parts and items necessary for current nature conservation work, materials for maintaining animal enclosures and premises, and maintenance of the zoo and arboretum have been met.
It must be acknowledged that the presence of Russian troops in the reserve’s immediate vicinity could not pass without lasting damage. Askania Nova has been facing the occupation’s consequences since the invasion began. According to Ukrainian media, the invaders removed two cars from the reserve, a tractor with a trailer, research equipment, and firearms that belonged to the state conservation fund enforcement service. They also blocked access to part of the arboretum, began to drive heavy equipment through protected steppe areas, and dug trenches.
The invaders caused three fires on the territory of Askania Nova, burning almost 1,400 hectares in 2022. Military aircraft constantly overfly the protected area at low altitudes, causing panic among the wild animals, sometimes even resulting in their death. Despite this, life in the reserve continued.
Complete occupation of Askania Nova: adding tourism
On 20 March 2023, visitors arrived at the reserve without prior warning or official introduction: First Deputy Head of Russia’s Presidential Administration Sergey Kiriyenko, collaborator and “acting Governor” of Kherson Oblast Volodymyr Saldo, and D. V. Meshcheryakov, a previously unknown person appointed to serve as the reserve’s “director” by the “Kherson Oblast” Ministry of Natural Resources and Ecology. It has not yet been established where this functionary came from, but he clearly has nothing to do with protected areas work. In his welcoming speech, the new “director” allegedly promised to develop tourism in nature conservation areas in every possible way.
“Apparently, Meshcheryakov is unaware that Askania Nova is an environmental research institution of international importance and not an entertainment facility. Our reserve begins with the steppe and ends with the steppe. Despite many problems, its employees continue to care for the protected area’s thousands of hectares. Yes, before the occupation, excursions happened here, but only to the extent that it was safe for nature. So, only people who are very far from all of this can seriously talk about tourism,” anonymously commented residents who had witnessed the arrival of Askania Nova’s new “overseer”.
According to open source information from the “Extract from the Unified State Register of Legal Entities of the Russian Federation”, D.V. Meshcheryakov D.V. (TIN 910403459172) registered “Askania Nova Biosphere ReserveState Autonomous Institution” (omitting Falz-Fein’s name) on 7 March 2023.
This changed everything, given that it is unacceptable to support, including by charitable contributions, an organization created by the occupiers in any form, since such activity can be directly equated with financing the occupying power.
Alongside the impossibility of using charitable donations to support the reserve’s operations until Kherson’s left bank is fully liberated, a new need arose for the material support of workers refusing to cooperate with the occupation administration. As a result, Askania’s actual administration (currently located on Ukraine-controlled territory) will direct all financial support received in the near future to help employees forced to temporarily leave the institution. Such aid is no less important, given that the reserve’s post-liberation restoration will depend on these people.
Prospects for Askania Nova’s near future
Further preservation of Falz-Fein Askania Nova Biosphere Reserve as an environmental research institution of international importance (UNESCO Man and the Biosphere Program designated in 1985) cannot be ensured by the Ukrainian administration and the reserve is under direct threat. Communication with the reserve has been almost entirely lost and, most likely, these events will lead to a mass layoff of employees who are unwilling to cooperate with the occupying authorities. Meanwhile, staff continue to partially perform functional duties and provide the necessary care for wildlife.
The appointment of an “overseer” at the reserve resembles seizure for the purpose of thievery, not protection. There are fears that the Russian invaders are preparing to remove animals from the reserve. In early November 2022 prior to Kherson’s liberation, the invaders plundered the local zoo, and in December they took animals to Crimea from a mini-zoo located at a station run by young naturalists associated with Kakhovka City Council on the left bank of Kherson. This cannot, of course, be compared to the scale of the larger Askania Nova reserve’s wildlife.
While leaving Askania in 1943, German invaders stole the library and museum. However, the animals have remained to this day. Today, there is a risk of losing Askania Nova’s main value – herds of rare ungulates living free-range in the steppe.
Main image: Askania Nova, spring steppe. Source: Wikimedia