Translated by Jennifer Castner
Over the two years of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the work of many environmental institutions would have been impossible without volunteer and humanitarian assistance. In this article we will examine how the employees of strict nature reserves and national parks continue to protect Ukraine’s protected areas during the war and in occupied territories thanks to the help of volunteers and community organizations.
From the first days of the war, volunteering and donations were one of the driving forces that enabled Ukrainians to save their country. From the first hours of the invasion, both Ukrainians and concerned people from all over the world organized many types of aid.
One focus of volunteering provided aid to national parks and nature reserves. A newly published study prepared by NGO in Ukraine (with support from ISAR) and devoted to analyzing assistance to protected areas formed the basis of this article.
Nature reserves, known in Ukrainian and Russian as zapovedniks, have the highest degree of environmental protection and include very restricted public access
Nature reserves and national parks in wartime
First and foremost, the full-scale invasion of Russian troops had an extremely negative impact on compliance with conservation measures in areas experiencing military operations and/or temporary occupation. Moreover, those same areas affected a significant number of large and high value protected areas.
The full-scale invasion also affected protected areas in regions at a distance from the combat zone, as they became centers for humanitarian aid operations, receiving displaced persons, or simply located near Ukraine’s western border.
Protected areas in the combat zone
According to official data from Ukraine’s Ministry of Environmental Protection and Natural Resources, military action has affected 900 protected areas totaling 1.24 million hectares in size, roughly one-third of all protected areas in Ukraine.
The lands most affected during the full-scale invasion include 44% of protected areas belonging to the strictest protection categories (biosphere and nature zapovedniks, national parks, regional landscape parks).
22 of the protected areas affected are government institutions managed by special administrations (three biosphere zapovedniks, four nature reserves, and 15 national parks). Some of these protected areas remain under the control of Ukraine (some of which were liberated), but eight zapovedniks and national parks remain under occupation.
Combat hostilities have also occurred near or directly within protected areas, naturally leading to significant damage. For example, battles for the villages of Bilohorivka and Bohorodychne, as well as the cities of Sviatohirsk and Lyman (Donetsk Oblast) occurred almost entirely within the borders of the Sviati Hory National Park. The combat that destroyed the villages of Zakitne and Ozerne (Donetsk region) took place in the Kreidova Flora (Cretaceous Flora) department of Ukrainian Steppe Nature Reserve.
The most valuable parts of these protected areas have enjoyed protected status since 1927 and had never previously been significantly damaged by human activity until the full-scale invasion in 2022.
Ukraine’s armed forces halted the advance of Russian troops in Kamianska Sich National Park on the right bank of Kherson Oblast, resulting in significant destruction and pollution.
Other examples include Velykyi Luh National Park, the territory of which was drained as a result of the explosion of Kakhovka hydropower plant’s (HPP) dam on 6 June 2023. Nyzhniodniprovsky (“Lower Dnipro”) National Nature Park was washed away by Kakhovka Reservoir waters in the first hours after that terrorist attack. Dead and living animals from this national park subsequently washed ashore along Odesa Oblast’s coastline in the Black Sea.
Protected areas under occupation
In 2023, Russia announced that it was incorporating occupied Ukrainian protected area institutions into its state system and subsequently appointed Russian “directors.” The forced leadership change that occurred in Askania-Nova Biosphere Reserve, which, until that time, was led by Ukrainian leadership in 2022, was the most striking example of successful assistance under military occupation.
- Askania Nova Biosphere Reserve captured by invaders
- Fires in Askania Nova: Consequences of military occupation of reserve
Ukrainian wartime policies for protected areas
In the first weeks of the full-scale invasion (February-March 2022), the main priorities were the safety of protected areas staff, continuing institutional work, preserving and removing documents, and documenting crimes against the environment.
Funding reductions posed a serious problem for protected areas managers. These reductions sometimes stemmed from the government’s desire to avoid sending public monies to occupied areas. In addition, financial resources held by protected areas in bank accounts prior to the full-scale invasion also became inaccessible to those found in occupied areas. Conservation institutions could not access accounts they held to receive ongoing charitable donations because the Ukraine’s Treasury Service was not servicing such financial transactions.
Reductions and delays in receiving government funding have increased humanitarian problems for both workers and protected area institutions in occupied territories.
Role of community organizations in financial and resource support for reserves
Even in the first months of the war, community organizations contributed significantly to organizing emergency assistance to protected areas. They were also experiencing the challenges of aid assistance during martial law for the first time. No one had previous experience in providing aid in a combat zone or occupied territories.
It was necessary to quickly find ways to help that would not require physical visits to affected institutions. One challenge was devising ways to deliver generators, animal fodder, medications, and food to an occupied area. It turned out that doing so was essentially not possible. As a result, the focus became providing financial support and assistance to protected areas staff who managed to leave occupied areas: finding housing and work and providing initial financial assistance after returning from occupied areas to areas controlled by Ukraine.
The vast majority of those wanting to help did not have their own means of transferring funds directly to protected area employees. As a result, for most, the solution was to transfer funds to trusted public organizations, with the goal of using those funds to help protected areas.
In most cases, assistance was provided through the accumulation of funds by public organizations and payment for services and goods to Ukrainian enterprises and entrepreneurs who also found themselves under occupation. For example, a commercial supplier of grain, fuel, or construction materials has warehouses of products remaining in occupied territories. Funds are transferred to an account in Ukraine, and feed, materials, or equipment are delivered to nature reserves from a warehouse located in the occupied territory.
Support for occupied Askania-Nova
The greatest public response during campaigns to support protected areas focused on F. E. Falz-Fein Askania-Nova Biosphere Reserve (hereinafter referred to as Askania-Nova Biosphere Reserve), a fully-occupied protected area.
From the first days of the Russian military invasion of Ukraine beginning 24 February 2022, Askania-Nova found itself in a temporarily occupied zone. Despite that, the protected area was able to continue operations throughout 2022.
Including its infrastructure, the contents of Askania-Nova Nature Reserve differ radically from other Ukrainian protected areas due to the combination of virgin steppe ecosystems with artificial ecosystems: a dendrological park and a zoo with semi-free-ranging wild ungulates. Housing a non-native zoo collection requires significant material costs and human resources. There is no option to pause care or rely on spontaneity.
Concentrated feed for animals became a critical problem. At the end of February (when the occupation began) the final stages of tender purchases of grains fell through.
Most of the reserve’s problems were resolved using charitable donations from Ukraine, European Union countries, and the United States. Ukrainian Nature Conservation Group (UNCG) played a mediating role by opening an account to collect charitable donations designated for affected protected areas.
Funds were also collected by the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria, Botanic Gardens Conservation International, and Ukraine’s UA ANIMALS, an organization also focused on helping Askania-Nova Nature Reserve.
When funds had been gathered for the reserve, the first priority was purchasing and organizing fodder and diesel fuel reserves. By maintaining equipment in working condition, the reserve cut swaths and firebreaks along the perimeter of the steppe to prevent a possible fire. These fire-prevention measures also enabled collection and distribution of baled hay (total 594 metric tons) – a resource critical for sustaining the zoo’s ungulate population in winter.
Anticipating problems with electricity, the necessary components for an ESD-75T stationary diesel power plant and an DE-55RS Zn mobile generator capable of producing 40 kW were purchased. This equipment is required to maintain a collection of animals housed in an arid steppe environment totaling 2,369.6 hectares in area as well as an irrigated arboretum (167.3 hectares in size) that is completely dependent on well-water.
Backup deep-well pumps, equipment, spare parts, and components necessary for repairs and the uninterrupted performance of various service machinery and technical support for the maintenance of biological collections were also purchased. A significant supply of building materials was used for routine repairs of enclosures, fences, canopies, feeding stations, decking, etc. Winter enclosures for ungulates were reinforced and insulated (numerous unused doorways blocked and sealed, functioning doors insulated, etc.). This not only improved safety for the animals, but also kept reserve workers occupied during the occupation.
At the end of March 2023, after 13 months of Russian occupation, the situation in the reserve changed dramatically as the occupying reserve administration established de facto control over the protected area. This ended the Ukrainian administration and employee’s ongoing work for the maintenance and life support of the reserve’s infrastructure and wildlife. Accordingly, financial support from charitable organizations and volunteers has been halted until the anticipated liberation of the left bank of the Dnipro River in Kherson Oblast from Russian occupation.
Support for unoccupied protected areas located in active combat zones
As for protected areas located in the active combat zone, but not occupied, public financial support primarily focused on meeting priority needs. For some protected areas, this means firefighting equipment, generators, fuel, and lubricants. For others, it takes the form of aid for employees and repairing destroyed buildings and infrastructure.
For such protected areas, the mechanism for providing aid was completely different, because it was possible to purchase goods in the Ukraine-controlled territory and directly transport them to zapovedniks and national parks. The main challenge lay in organizing safe delivery logistics, given the proximity of the front line.
Supporting protected areas in liberated areas
Challenges that arose after the liberation of protected areas simply added to those they had struggled with during the weeks and months of occupation.
Previously occupied institutions liberated by the end of 2023 include Chornobyl Radiation and Ecological Biosphere Reserve, Drevliansky Nature Reserve (partially), Desniansko-Starohutskyi National Nature Park, Sviati Hory National Nature Park (partially liberated), Kamianska Sich National Nature Park, Dvorichanskyi National Nature Park, and the Kreidova Flora (“Cretaceous Flora”) department of the Ukrainian Steppe Nature Reserve. Some of them have only been partially liberated.
For protected areas unlucky to be or have been on the front line, the challenges following liberation include active shelling and built fortifications. De-occupation revealed other problems, including understaffing, destruction and theft of the institution’s property, mining activity, destroyed protected area buildings (including employee housing), and other critical issues caused by the war.
After achieving the primary objective of resisting the invasion, the Ukrainian government’s next priority is development and restoration of liberated areas. The first priority in that category will be restoration of critical infrastructure, assistance to the local population, and creating safe living conditions.
It follows then that liberated protected areas are not prioritized for restoration, and in reality the state is using them to carry out tasks required by martial law. As a result, protected areas have become a place for recording crimes against the environment. Military occupation brought losses or destruction of their material and technical infrastructure, minefields, and constant shelling, all of which mean that protected areas are unable to provide their primary ecosystem services.
Organization of aid to Ukrainian protected areas
Ukraine’s Ministry of Natural Resources worked with Lithuania’s Ministry of Environment to provide 24 vehicles for Ukrainian protected areas for improved operations. An additional nine SUVs, two boats, and 300 sets of fire-fighting uniforms will as be provided. Given the challenges for distributing aid intended for both liberated and unaffected protected areas, only 30% received government assistance through or with government mediation.
Community organizations and foundations in Ukraine and abroad proved more effective in providing assistance to the affected areas. 70% of the assistance received from public organizations is logistical aid (firefighting equipment, generators, computer equipment), and 30% is humanitarian in nature (perishable food, personal hygiene items, and household items such as blankets and mattresses) for improving working conditions in protected areas.
Aid to war-affected, protected areas recently liberated from occupation has been an attractive option for foreign humanitarian organizations, which, due to legal restrictions, could not provide aid that could in any way be used for military purposes. When negotiating aid, such organizations were primarily interested in the liberated status of an institution along with evidence that the assistance they provided would not be used to achieve military goals.
Ukrainian community organizations did not face such restrictions and have helped protected areas in all conditions, including those located in occupied areas.
Protected areas’ needs are addressed on a case-by-case basis. For example, North American buffalo living in an enclosure were frightened by loud explosions. They broke through the enclosure and escaped from Yelanetska Steppe Nature Reserve. Employees managed to patch up the hole and return the bison, providing them with fodder and water. Acquiring materials for repairing the enclosure itself was carried out with charitable contributions.
Wartime aid for specialty protected areas: botanical gardens
The majority of Ukrainian botanical gardens and zoos are also categorized as protected areas. They are usually small in size, located in urban environments, and, as a rule, have good facilities, material resources (and often possess great scientific and historical value), collections, and financial resources. Their location in large cities renders them extremely vulnerable to military attacks and the resulting consequences (blackouts, for example). Keeping greenhouses warm is a critical need on days when urban power and heat outages occur.
Donors in Europe supported botanical gardens in need of certain equipment and funding for operations in times when there was insufficient visitor revenue. The collected funds were divided evenly between the costs of backup power generation and support for employees caring for botanical garden collections.
Peli Can Live charitable foundation created a campaign to support Hryshko National Botanical Garden’s greenhouse in Kyiv. Many citizens supported the campaign – 6,300 donors raised roughly three million hryvnia (over €73,000).
Wartime aid for specialty protected areas: zoos
The situation with zoos merits a separate discussion. Occupation of zoos in the cities of Berdiansk and Kherson, destructive shelling of zoos in Kharkiv and Mykolaiv, and the physical destruction of several private zoos in northern Ukraine were highly publicized both in Ukraine and around the world. Plentiful evidence of destruction and damage was documented.
Work with zoos is immediately multidimensional, given that most of them are interconnected in various associations and trade unions, share extensive connections among institutions within Ukraine and abroad, are experienced in transporting animals, and possess reserve operating funds.
European Association of Zoos and Aquariums (EAZA) created the EAZA Ukraine Zoos Emergency Fund (Fund) to raised €1.5 million in funding for zoos in Ukraine in the first days of the war. The Fund transferred funding to zoos in Ukraine and conducted due diligence to ensure funding went to support zoo resources. The Fund also made it possible to support zoos through a wide range of activities, including local and international supply of material supplies, logistical support, infrastructure maintenance, and the possible movement of animals to temporary housing sites in Ukraine or abroad.
Teams from zoos in Warsaw, Lodz, Gdansk, Wroclaw, Berlin, Prague, and Kosice invested extensive effort to facilitate delivering aid to Ukrainian zoos. The Berlin and Prague zoos contributed significantly to Mykolaiv Zoo, which was significantly damaged by shelling.
Two coordination centers were established in Poland – in Warsaw and Lodz – to provide animals with fodder, veterinary drugs, and special equipment. By the sixth day of the war, a group launched a Telegram channel named “Help Ukrainian animals in war”. Zoo departments across Ukraine joined, connecting with specialists to address high priority needs.
Area residents set up Ukrainian Zoo aid collection points in zoos in Berlin, Prague, Warsaw, Wroclaw, and Kosice. Uljana Kalazny and her colleagues at Lodz Zoo (Poland) coordinated shipments to Ukraine.
Donors and other support for protected areas
Overall over 212.9 million hryvnia have been donated to protected areas in Ukraine since the beginning of the full-scale invasion. It can be presumed that the overall scale of assistance to protected areas is significantly greater. Inexperience and wartime implementation challenges complicate the distribution of aid packages.
Community organizations from other countries made great efforts to assist. Foreign contributions came from countries that expressed the greatest support for Ukraine in the war’s early days: Poland, United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Czech Republic, and Germany. There is a lot that remains unknown about foreign community organization support for protected areas; rather than organize assistance through these new direct channels, they used pre-existing channels of cooperation between donor organizations and protected areas.
Only 10% of the protected areas studied received assistance from the state, while 70% received assistance from community organizations and charitable foundations registered in Ukraine and abroad. That assistance mainly focused on logistical and humanitarian needs (support for protected areas staff).
European government agencies also provided aid, including the Estonian Ministry of Climate, Lithuanian Ministry of the Environment, and Lithuanian Forest Service. A variety of protected areas benefitted from such assistance, including those liberated from occupation or partially damaged during hostilities.
Donors had their own parameters for aid, varying by activity and the charities’ priorities. Some donors focused specifically on humanitarian assistance. Some aid for Ukrainian national parks was conditional, including, for example a ban on the purchase of body armor and helmets.
The situation was different when it came to Ukrainian citizens as benefactors of protected areas. The low popularity of protected areas among ordinary Ukrainians, and even more limited awareness of Ukraine’s protected areas among citizens from other countries, significantly limited fundraising opportunities. Moreover, people not involved in nature conservation do not readily make the mental leap connecting protected areas and their flora and fauna with aid to protected area employees, although it is those protected area employees who make environmental protection measures possible by protecting, studying, and teaching others about protected areas.
Nevertheless, Ukrainian community organizations remain deeply involved. For example, UAnimals, a well-known Ukrainian non-profit organization single-handedly collected and donated nearly one million hryvnia to protected areas (nine national parks, two biosphere reserves, and one biological reserve) meet the specific needs of wild and captive animals. The organization also collected 31.5 million hryvnia to care for animals affected by the Russian terrorist attack on Kakhovka hydropower plant, including support for national parks.
Evolving needs and support
The tasks facing volunteers and donors have changed dynamically, as have their priorities. Early in the Russian invasion, the priority was support for Ukraine’s armed forces and territorial defense units, as well as aid for displaced people. Gradually, as demand for support of displaced people (in and out of Ukraine) declined and international aid for Ukraine’s military grew, opportunities to support protected areas increased.
Overall, the fundraising campaign for support of protected areas was very successful. Each of the thousands of donations to protected areas represented a conscious decision by individuals with hundreds of choices for dedicating their donations.
Generally speaking, Ukrainian donors are not systematic when it comes to charitable giving, instead reacting to acute problems. Few people intentionally maintain long-term support for an issue (although there are wonderful exceptions), but they will donate enthusiastically in the event of an acute event. Ukrainian charitable giving is strongly linked to emotional factors.
Financial support of protected areas has become an avenue of support in Ukraine. Money collected by community organizations in the first weeks of the full-scale invasion made it possible for some protected area employees to evacuate in time from areas quickly overrun by the invaders and allowed others to adapt to the conditions arising from temporary occupation and to preserve hope for restoring Ukrainian control.
Aid also made it possible to save documentation, research collections, and important property belonging to protected areas. And most importantly, to save people. In areas that have already been liberated, delivery of humanitarian supplies helped protected area staff to quickly resume ordinary life and return to work. Finally, these events have been a unique experience for both community organizations and donors themselves, experiences that merit close study in the future about lessons learned. It is quite possible that those lessons will soon be put to work helping other protected areas recover after their occupation ends.
Main image source: Revelator