September 22, 2023 opinion

Mass destruction of Ukrainian nature will have a huge impact on the future

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Sofia Radysh in London, United Kingdom

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The village of Demydiv, Ukraine, April 24, 2022

Picture by: manhhai | Flickr

The consequences of war have not only ruined lives and negatively impacted the mental health of Ukrainian civilians, but it will also result in long-term ecosphere damage.

One of the many crimes committed by the Russian army is ecocide – the mass destruction of nature by humans. Animals, habitats, and whole ecosystems have been destroyed over the course of the war.

One of the most recent atrocious events that will not only impact Ukraine’s future, but also the ecosystem of Eastern Europe, is the Kakhovka Dam destruction, which led to catastrophic consequences for the region.

Ecocide, though there have been calls to add it to the international criminal law, is not yet recognised as a war crime and has become a topic of increasing importance to some people, who feel mass destruction of whole ecosystems should not go unnoticed.

Legal experts from across the world have also shown interest in the matter and have drawn up a definition for ecocide for it to be used in the international criminal law.

Russia has committed several “deliberate” attacks against the environment in Ukraine, such as the burning of forests. Natural reserves have been damaged, polluted and some destroyed completely.

Kakhovka hydroelectric power station

The Kakhovka reservoir was the second largest in Ukraine with more than 40 towns depending on it. The Kakhovka Dam was destroyed by Russians on June 6, 2023, leading to extensive flooding.

Its destruction badly impacted around 17,000 people and more than 80 towns, leading to loss of life after people drowned. And for many of those that did survive, they lost everything including their houses.
The Kakhovka dam destruction also had huge consequences on wildlife. One of the major impacts has been seen on the fish population.

The Kakhovka reservoir was one of the biggest concentrations of fresh water in Ukraine containing more than 40 species of fish, some of which are commercially important. Most of the fish habitats have been destroyed, alongside the main body of water.

A lot of bird species will disappear from that area too, because they used the habitats around the Kakhovka reservoir for nesting. For example, some species preferred to use ‘kuchugury’ (elevated places) – isolated islands that meant they were safer away from humans and predators getting to them. But now access to them is easier.

For almost a hundred years, the Dnipro river flow in Ukraine has been regulated by dams built on it, and therefore the animals inhabiting the territories around lack effective mechanisms for escaping flooding.

The rapid rise in water levels in low-lying areas and islands leaves no chance of survival for most animals and bird species there. The impact on some populations experienced on June 6 greater than they have experienced in the last 100 years. 70% of Nordmann’s birch mouse (Sicista loriger) has been flooded which may lead to its extinction in the future. Other species populations have been majorly reduced as well.

The catastrophic decrease of water in the reservoir will also result in aquatic and riparian plants disappearing, which will lead to dangerous invasive species such as common ragweed (Ambrosia artemisiifolia) taking over the territories, and the reservoir could become the biggest hotspot for invasive species in the region.

The areas that were flooded below the dam have also been significantly impacted. The amount of fauna lost is hard to estimate, because this is the first catastrophic event of this scale in Ukraine, according to the Ukrainian Nature Conservation Group (UNCG).

Plant species have been impacted by the flooding and some of them significantly harmed, such as those that are endemics of Lower Dnipro Sands such as Centaurea breviceps, Jurinea laxa, Thymus borysthenicus, as well as the Bug-Dnipro endemic species Alyssum savranicum and others.

Ground water rising in sand ecosystems is detrimental for plants there. As well as plants in sands, some oak and birch forests are likely to perish. The flooding will additionally result in ground water levels rising throughout the Southern region of Ukraine, which is harmful for vegetation. Sandy biotopes will suffer the most from flooding, and water habitats will be affected as well due to water pollution.

The seas

Seas in Ukraine have been affected by Russian aggression even before the full scale invasion had begun.

The construction of the Kerch Bridge has significantly impacted the Black sea and Sea of Azov, because in the process of construction the Bakal’s’ka spit and lake on Tuzla island was destroyed for the purpose of obtaining sand.

The building of the Kerch Bridge also posed a big problem for the fauna of the seas, amongst which are marine mammals, such as dolphins. The Sea of Azov was essentially turned into a lake because of the construction, so the water could not move freely between the two seas. The biggest impact was on the harbour porpoise, because they use echolocation for communication and prey detection, so noise pollution created by the construction threatens their existence. The migration of dolphins was prevented by the construction as well, because of the build up of ice near the bridge. More than 2,000 dolphins have been dumped on the land over the past four years.

In spring of 2022 Russian warships were a constant presence in the Black sea as they were blockading Ukrainian ports. Apart from the direct military threat, they also had secret dangerous impact. The discharge of ballast water by the ships is not monitored, so both pollutants and invasive species from other sea basins can enter the sea environment this way.

Marine mammals started dying en masse. Their bodies started washing up on Turkish beaches for the first time in large numbers in the first months of the full scale invasion. From January to October 2022 experts from various countries recorded mass deaths of marine mammals, two-three times more than in previous years.

Russian warships not only create problems by moving around the sea and using radar, but also by disposing of old hardware, which may result in fuel spilling and further water pollution.

Fuel spills create an impenetrable film on top of the sea surface, which prevents the passage of oxygen. Oil spills are visible in satellite images and can be clearly seen as the result of sinking of vessels on territories of protected marine water.

Other than that, Russians have been attacking infrastructure all around Ukraine, including on the coast resulting in pollution with chemicals from those factories, waste landfills, warehouses, oil depots affected by the attacks.

The black sea is currently infested with hundreds of mines, which when detonating affect those on beaches and in the water.

This way of prevention of the grain being shipped also has major implications for everyday lives of citizens and animals. Mines are usually installed to explode when vessels come in contact with them, but they might come loose and drift in the sea currents. The detonation of such mines not only impacts those in contact with them, but also species that use echolocation and suffer when noise pollution is high.

Farming in Ukraine

The Ministry of Agriculture has reported that an estimated number of farm animals that died in the result of the Russian invasion in Ukraine in affected regions has come to 42,000 goats and sheep, 92,000 of cattle and 258,000 pigs.

The Chornobaivka poultry farm stated that while the territory was occupied, more than four million chickens and 700,000 premature birds died due to restricted employee access to provide care and frequent power outages.

There have also been killings on farms by the Russian military. In Chernihiv Oblast they have killed more than a 100 cows on a farm while in march near Gostomel, around 25 horses died in a fire.

Impact on farm animals by war includes more than just deaths due to the cruelty of Russian soldiers or death by shillings, but also constant stress and triggers that set off fear, such as high-pitched noise, metal clanking or banging, and changes in textures around the animal.

Such a checklist of things that can scare animals was discussed in Temple Grandin’s book ‘Animals in translation’ for peaceful times, but unfortunately all these triggers doubled and tripled in the number of occurrences during the war.

In an environment when constant danger and triggers are present, social transmission of stress occurs constantly and leads to chronic stress, which can cause permanent problems with physical and mental health in animals. Being constantly socialised with chronically stressed individuals, does not help farm animals in any way. I suspect that it is one of the most under looked problems that the war has caused.

While stress is bad for the animal itself, it is also bad for the industry. Cows and other animals, when stressed release a hormone called adrenaline, as a basis for the ‘fight or flight’ reaction. Adrenaline released uses up glycogen which leads to less lactic acid being produced after the animal is slaughtered. This causes the meat to be rough and tasteless and have higher levels of pH, and will expire quicker, leading to lowered sales with further implications on the economy.

Natural reserves

In an interview with Harbingers, UAnimals shared how the war is impacting the biosphere of Eastern Europe on a “huge scale.”

Soil is polluted, and a huge number of territories with forests have been burned down, with animals dying and whole species facing extinction. UAnimals shared that the whole ecosystem of Ukraine will be impacted and it is “hard to predict” what the possible consequences will be, but “it is clear that levels of pollution will go up, therefore putting at stake the health of nature”.

According to the Ministry of Environment, 600 species of animals and 800 species are threatened with extinction due to the aggression of the Russian Federation. Among them are European bison and lynx, brown bear, black stock, and barn owls. As of now, UAnimals report that there is no exact estimate on the number of years that will need to be spent on restoration of territories that were affected by russian aggression. They can only say that some unique protected areas have been completely destroyed with their flora and fauna, to the point of impossible restoration.

The nature reserve ‘Derevlyanskyi’ located in Zhytomyr Oblast has been affected by the full scale invasion in a number of ways, but mostly by forest fires and mining of the territories. In the first year, the reserve saw 22 fires which is more than seen in all its previous years. The total area burned is 2,000 hectares. The reserve is supposed to protect and study nature, but those functions cannot be performed for the time being, because all of these events have led to a major migration of animals to Belarus, which will have long standing consequences.

Askania-Nova – one of the biggest nature reserves in Europe and the very first in Ukraine, was taken over by occupants in the first few months of invasion.

The reserve’s initial administration has been simply held hostage. The reserve’s mission intended by its creator was to breed and care for animals in half-captive conditions, and the animals roaming free is one of the many reasons this reserve was the most popular in Ukraine and Eastern Europe.

Now, three fires have already been recorded there in 2022 and the person Russians appointed as the new director does not have the needed experience and possibly the education to care for the reserve. Allowing military aircrafts to fly at low altitudes above the reserve causes stress, anxiety, and panic amongst the wild animals.

Read also:

How Russians are ‘liberating’ animals in Ukraine? Now they stole a tiger cub from a zoo in Mariupol

Ukrainian ecologists were fearing that the Russians might steal the animals from Askania-Nova, as they have done so with other animals around Ukraine who were also in conservation territories, such as zoos, where they have famously stolen a raccoon, a llama, and later a tiger cub.

Of course, the size of a zoo cannot be compared to the size of Askania-Nova, which houses more than 1,500 ungulates, so the total number of animals is vastly higher.

I think that the impact on nature and animals should not be side-lined. The things that are happening now could have a major impact on whole ecosystems, not only in Ukraine, but in Europe as well.

International law protecting nature from ecocide should be implemented, because if not, then some of its consequences will be too late to resolve.

Written by:

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Sofia Radysh

Science Section Editor

Animal welfare correspondent

Kyiv, Ukraine | London, United Kingdom

Born in 2005, Sofia lived in Kyiv, but now, because of the war, is a refugee in London. She is interested in animal welfare and how current events and social media impact the lives of our four-legged friends, and writes about this in Harbingers’ Magazine.

In 2022, she took over from Isaac Kadas as the second editor-in-chief of Harbingers’ Magazine.

In her free time, she does dog training and film-making. She likes getting out of her comfort zone and trying new things out.

Sofia speaks Ukrainian, English, Russian and a bit of German.

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