Earth's only untouched nature preserves threatenedWEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- Ninety-four nature preserves in Russia that are thought to be the only virgin preserves in the world are in danger from economic pressures, scientists say.
Researchers at Purdue University, in cooperation with Russian officials, have created a system of organizing scientific information from these preserves. They say that if scientists around the world are able to use the ecological studies and data from the 100-year-old preserves -- and if it is accessible over the Internet -- scientific organizations might invest research funds in Russia, and that would encourage the Russian government to continue the preserve program.
The preserves are probably the last undeveloped inhabitable places in the world, says Gene Rhodes, assistant professor of wildlife ecology at Purdue. "When you think about it, there are very few places in the world -- none that I can think of actually -- that have set aside areas in this manner," he says. "Without preserves like this, the world is in jeopardy of losing the biological information that has existed there for all of this time. We don't know what plants or animals might live there that might be useful to us in the future, but we are certain that if we allow these areas to be developed that we will lose some of those species."
According to Anna Sekerina, a Purdue graduate student who is deputy director for scientific research at the Denezhkin Kamen Federal Nature Preserve in Russia, the 94 such preserves in Russia make up 1.5 percent of Russia's large land mass. The preserves total 74 million acres, or about the size of Illinois and Iowa combined.
"The preserves in Russia are very different from what you have here," Sekerina says. "They're called 'zapovedniks.' That word is derived from a Biblical commandment and that's the word I prefer, because there really isn't an equivalent thing outside of Russia.
"The system originated before the Great October Socialist Revolution in 1905, so it's more than 100 years old, but it was fully established when all of the land became federal following the 1917 Revolution. When they were establishing the Soviet Union, there were some very smart scientists who were able to squeeze in the idea of the preserves into the overall structure of the country."
Sekerina says the original idea for the preserves came from the United States' national park system, but that the zapovedniks are different from U.S. national parks and national forests because no human activity is allowed inside them except scientific research. "There's no visiting, no managing, there's nothing allowed in there," Sekerina says. "It is unique in the world."
The Russian preserves are home to a variety of endangered and threatened species, including Siberian tigers, musk and roe deer, many varieties of cranes and other birds, and dozens of rare plants. "One thing the Russians are strong in is natural resources," Rhodes says. "One fifth of the world's total timber resources are in Siberia alone. The flora and fauna in that region are simply stunning."
Since 1945, Russian scientists have written reports about the ecology of the zapovedniks. These reports, called the "Chronicles of Nature," are virtually unused by the world's scientists, Rhodes says. "There are thousands of volumes of ecological data sitting on shelves in Moscow, and that's as far as it goes," Rhodes says.
Purdue provided seed money so that Sekerina and Rhodes could create a model data base that uses geographic information system technology and satellite imagery to be able to connect this data with specific points on the ground in these vast preserves. (The geographic information system uses a grid of former military satellites to electronically locate any spot on earth to within a few feet. It is now used by civilians such as scientists, businessmen, hikers and hunters.)
When Sekerina returns to Russia following her May graduation, she will begin entering into the model data base all of the years of data from her zapovednik, Denezhkin Kamen, in eastern Russia.
"We have all kinds of data," Sekerina says. "Depth of snow cover, bird counts, vegetation studies. Each year we do winter counts of mammals, except the bear, because the bear sleeps. All of this data can be spatially referenced. If the data isn't spatially referenced, it makes less sense."
With data accessible, Rhodes and Sekerina say they hope that scientists from around the world will use the voluminous ecological research. "The data base will ensure continuity, it will make sure that the studies are more uniform, and it will allow scientists to communicate better about what the studies show," she says.
Also, once the value of the information is recognized internationally, they say, the preserves will become even more of a point of pride with the Russian government, and funding for preserving the zapovednik could flow in from agencies around the world.
"The only way we can save these preserves is to bring in Western scientists and Western money," Rhodes says. "Without that, the Russian government will no doubt succumb to economic and social pressures and allow the preserves to be developed."
Sekerina says she believes that the data base can do this. "It will definitely help in many ways," she says. "The situation in Russia is difficult economically, and all the science there is very much depressed. It's very hard to justify the necessity of ecological studies in those economic conditions. But this monitoring has been long-term, which is unique. There is a need to explain what we are doing to the government officials."
Sources: Gene Rhodes, (765) 494-3601; e-mail
NOTE TO JOURNALISTS: After her graduation from Purdue in May, Anna Sekerina's address will be RUSSIA, 6244777, Sverdlovskaya Oblast, Severouralskiy Raion, Vsevolodo-Blagodatskoe, Zapovednik "Denezhkin Kamen" Telephone: 7-343-10-90246 or 7-343-10-90216; e-mail, email@example.com