Translation: Jennifer Castner
A bomb struck the center of Kyiv on the morning of 10 October. For the first time the targets were not the Ukrainian capital’s infrastructure but rather its cultural heritage. Taras Shevchenko Park and the City Gardens park located on the sloping bank of the Dnipro River were attacked. There was no military gain for shelling these targets and, as a result, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe recognized Russia as a terrorist state in a matter of days.
Perhaps historians will recall this interpretation of that day’s events in the war’s chronicles. The international press, however, has not noted the extent of the damage done by this shelling to Ukraine’s biological sciences. There is a greater need now more than ever to study the war’s consequences for Ukraine’s environment.
The two missiles that detonated in Shevchenko Park and a nearby intersection in the heart of Kyyiv simultaneously damaged a majority of Kyiv’s scientific facilities that are home to biologists and the majority of their research archives. This includes the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine (NASU), Institute of Zoology, Institute of Botany, National Science and Natural History Museum (NASU), National Herbarium of Ukraine, the Antarctic Center, and the Nature Museum of Taras Shevchenko Kyiv National University and its two educational buildings. In addition, two historical libraries, two art museums, the historical site of the Central Rada (Ukraine’s governing body in 1917), and the Ministry of Education and Science of Ukraine archive were damaged.
Figure 1. Site of the 10 October bombing at the intersection of Volodymyrska Street and Taras Shevchenko Boulevard in Kyiv. Source: Wikipedia.
Figure 2. Premises of the research department at Taras Shevchenko Kyiv National University following the 10 October missile attack. Source: Хмарочос.
No scientists were injured. However, instead of continuing their research, many instead had to make repairs, install new windows, and move collections, libraries, and archives to more secure buildings.
Two days later, the I.I. Schmalhausen Institute of Zoology hosted a seminar discussing “Zoological research during and after the war,” bringing together scientists from many institutes and universities and the first opportunity to discuss biological sciences during wartime. UWEC experts also took part in the seminar and discussed ways to assemble a comprehensive picture of the situation facing Ukrainian biologists, determine the future of Ukraine’s biological science, and highlight its current importance for Ukraine.
Biological sciences in Ukraine today
At a time when large-scale environmental destruction is happening, biologists are a critical resource for assessing environmental losses and damage from the disappearance or reduction of ecosystem services and propose measures for the management and restoration of damaged areas.
That said, the biological sciences in Ukraine were already struggling. Compensation for research staff in institutes, universities, and reserves is among the lowest paid professions in Ukraine. The salary of many scientists is very close to the legal minimum and does not exceed $200 per month. In recent years, there have also been repeated staff cuts at scientific institutions.
War’s impact on Ukraine’s scientific community
Since 2014, the war’s impact on Ukraine’s research community was largely limited to certain facilities located in occupied regions being forced to move to other parts of Ukraine. But with Russia’s full-scale invasion of the country, the situation has changed.
The war has forced the largest movement of Ukraine’s population, both domestically and abroad. All told, over 18 million Ukrainians left their homes. Of those, 11 million left Ukraine entirely (according to United Nations data) and almost seven million are internally displaced. Ukraine’s total population totals approximately 44 million people.
The scientific community is also affected by this migration. According to the results of a July 2022 survey of Ukrainian researchers, 38.1% of scholars remain in Ukraine but are no longer in their home communities due to the war. 14.7% of scholars have left the country.
A large number of researchers departed Ukraine for western Europe. These moves are eased by prior international travel experience, supportive acquaintances and colleagues, foreign language fluency, and a variety of support programs, fellowships, and job opportunities. New legislation exempted scientists from conscription into Ukraine’s armed forces. As a result, many Ukrainian biologists found new work in other European nations over the last eight months. It’s also noteworthy that promising early-career researchers left, a population for whom integration in foreign spaces comes more readily.
Many male researchers at universities, protected areas, and NASU institutions volunteered to fight in Ukraine’s armed forces.
All of these factors have resulted in a sort of scientific “ice age”: work is on hold at a number of facilities or their divisions, facilities, and resources are lost, and long-range studies are halted.
A pause on research?
The loss of the entire field research season in 2022 (because of fleeing staff, minefields, and occupied territories) interrupted multi-year research activities.
All of Ukraine’s strict reserves and national parks conduct annual monitoring work in the framework of the “Nature Census” program. There are more than a few separate monitoring programs, the continuation of which became simply impossible this year.
One of these programs is the annual bird census of migratory species in August and during overwintering in December. This research has been taking place simultaneously each year over decades at 30-40 sites along Ukraine’s Azov-Black Sea coastline. This region is one of the most attractive locations for aquatic, wetland, and marine bird species in Europe. Colonies with the largest populations of a number of species gather here each spring. In late summer, these species gather in large migratory groupings and then set out to winter in Africa. In the winter months, the largest winter concentrations of birds from northern European regions gather here.
Dozens of ornithologists work simultaneously during a coordinated annual time period to study birds’ seasonal use of this area. The results of these studies are published in two specialized journals: Branta and Bulletin for Regional Environmental Monitoring. In 2022, however, these studies were impossible: the majority of territories were under occupation, most scientists fled to safer places, and the research center for ornithological monitoring in southern Ukraine – Melitopol University – was captured by the invaders. Currently, the activists of Ukrainian Nature Conservation Group are trying to preserve as much data previously collected by scientists in the region as possible. This applies to both published data and the personal observations of individual authors.
We know that the war is impacting nature, but due to the suspension of monitoring work, we cannot analyze the consequences.
Meanwhile, it has been known since 2014 that military activity is incompatible with nesting bird colonies. When the Donetsk region was partially occupied in 2014, the area seized included part of Meotida National Nature Park – Krivaya Kosa. It was here that the only known large colony of Sandwich tern (Thalasseus sandvicensis) was found.
In 2015, the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) filmed a propaganda video about the “DPR Navy.” In the video, a group of men sail along the coast in rubber boats and throw grenades overboard. The video’s absurdity aside, the filming process itself had an incredibly negative effect. After all, the filming occurred in the exact location of the tern colony. The entire colony abandoned their only known breeding site and disappeared. A few years later, a colony one-tenth the size appeared near the city of Mariupol, where in 2022 some of the largest hostilities seen in the last century occurred. No researcher remains there to study the consequences of these events for birds.
The same may have happened in 2022 for most bird colonies along the Azov-Black Sea coast and on the Dnipro delta. It is likely that birds have abandoned the areas they preferred for nesting over centuries, moving instead to other regions. Those locations may be wetlands in the Danube Delta in Romania, near Astrakhan Nature Reserve in the Russian Federation, or wetlands in North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula.
Were the birds able to establish new colonies and did they successfully produce offspring? Will their instincts send them to southern Ukraine again in future years? How much of the population will survive to that time? We have no answers to those questions.
A nesting community of several species of raptors with their largest populations in forests in the Siversky Donets River valley, also abandoned their familiar region. One of the longest-lasting battles took place here in areas around Severodonetsk, Lysychansk, Rubizhne, Lyman, Izyum, Kreminna, Svyatohirsk, Schastia, and, as a result, as many as 20,000 hectares of forests burned to the ground. We also know nothing about the fate of the rare birds of prey species including White-tailed eagle, Ruddy shelduck, Great gray shrike, Black kite, Lesser spotted eagle, Steppe buzzard, Booted eagle, Eurasian eagle owl, and Marsh owl that left this dangerous territory.
What are the chances of restoring “lost knowledge”?
Today, many Ukrainian biologists work in Europe, often dealing with subjects outside their usual expertise, studying unfamiliar places outside Ukraine. Others are on the front lines serving in Ukraine’s armed forces instead of fulfilling their professional roles.
It is also challenging to prepare a new generation of young biologists to follow in the footsteps of older colleagues. The start of a full-scale war was preceded by two years of the Covid-19 pandemic, resulting in a switch by most universities to distance-learning, reduced hours, and the cancellation or redesign of field and work practices. Such circumstances, of course, affected the quality of education in this period.
In 2022, leadership of one of Ukraine’s main educational institutions – Taras Shevchenko Kyiv National University – decided not to recruit students for their zoology master’s degree program. At the same time, reductions in available jobs for biologists and the general psychological crisis resulted in biologists, including some of this university’s best biological sciences graduates, deciding on contract service in the army as the only available option even before the start of the full-scale invasion.
The challenges of continuing research work remotely and maintaining connections in every sense are now also more acute, given the large-scale damage to Ukraine’s energy sector. Sometimes the challenges are as simple as the difficulty of conducting online meetings with colleagues who have gone abroad.
In summary, Ukrainian biological sciences are not currently well positioned for leading studies on the consequences of the Russian war for the environment.
Nature reserves on the front lines
Scientists working in nature reserves and national parks face particular challenges. The majority of them are traditionally concentrated in nature reserves linked to Ukraine’s National Academy of Sciences: Black Sea Biosphere Reserve, Ukrainian Steppe Nature Reserve, Luhansk Nature Reserve, Mikhailivska Tsilyna Nature Reserve, and the globally recognized Askania-Nova Biosphere Reserve. It is these environmental institutions that have traditionally been at the heart of natural science monitoring in southern and eastern Ukraine. Their lands could potentially become high priority field research sites for assessing wildlife losses resulting from military operations. Unfortunately, most of the employees of these reserves have become forced migrants, and even if they have not left the temporarily occupied territory, they cannot conduct research. Even conventional research sites have become inaccessible to most biologists.
Also inaccessible are data collected at nature reserves and stored in their archives in the form of field diaries, herbariums, and collections over the last one hundred years. This is also true for the immovable collections stored in universities and museums in occupied cities.
Scholars have taken the most possible measures to protect research collections and data, but their status will only be known when those locations are no longer occupied.
The threat also remains for scientific collections in occupied cities. For example, throughout the war, employees of V. N. Karazin Natural History Museum at Kharkiv National University have taken research archives into their bomb shelter (over seven months already!). The premises of Ukraine’s National Herbarium in Kyiv were also damaged, as we mentioned at the beginning of the article.
Helping the scientific community and how the scientific community help
Ukrainian Nature Conservation Group launched a campaign to help scientists from affected regions to rescue their biodiversity data through publishing. However, these efforts are insufficient, and there are as yet no plans to increase support for biologists or to increase recruitment of biologists at universities.
Participants in a “Zoological Research During and After Wartime” round table have appealed to the leadership of Taras Shevchenko Kyiv National University to renew and even increase the number of masters level biologists that it graduates in response to the anticipated demand for this profession to evaluate the war’s consequences.
At a time when many researchers are internally displaced or are unable to conduct research, many of them have begun to actively help amateurs using iNaturalist to document and identify species finds. Several special topic groups have also arisen in iNaturalist: Observations during the war in Ukraine, Zoology in Ukraine during the war 2022, and Independence Day of Ukraine 2022. Taras Shevchenko Kyiv National University even began using citizen science practices in the learning process.
Although the publication of unpublished earlier data and citizen science support cannot compensate for the absence of monitoring and full-fledged research studies, they allow scientists to “stay in shape” until the war ends and they can renew their efforts on relevant topics.
Main image credit: https://www.1lurer.am