The Search for European Mink in Almany

The Search for European Mink in Almany

Last month, three biologists working with the Polesia – Wilderness without borders project set off into the vast Almany Mires. Their mission: to search for a particularly elusive species – the critically endangered European mink (Mustela lutreola). The species has not been sighted in Belarus for 20 years. Some suspect them to have been completely wiped out in the country, but if there is one place where these creatures could still be clinging to survival, it is the Almany Mires Nature Reserve.

The Almany Mires are still a rather poorly explored area. The reserve was expanded by 10,000 hectares in March this year – securing Europe’s largest intact transition mire and crucial habitat for globally threatened wildlife. The largely impassable and remote swamp could be acting as a refuge for the European mink.

The team heads into the Almany Mires Nature Reserve. Photo credit: Evgeny Gostyukhin

What has led to this species’ disappearance from Belarus? In the 1930s, seven thousand American mink were brought to Europe, to the former USSR for the development of the fur trade. The American mink settled into its new landscape very well and soon began to outcompete the native European mink. Several decades later local hunters stopped seeing European mink. It remains unclear whether the species has now become extinct in the country.

Dmitry Shamovich , a zoologist and expert from the Polesia – Wilderness without borders project, set up 25 camera traps along the Stviga River and its tributaries in the hope that a European mink would be detected. Since minks are semi-aquatic animals, the camera traps were set up right next to the river and on drainage canals.

Riparian forest in the Almany Mires Nature Reserve. Photo credit: Evgeny Gostyukhin

Dmitry explains that the European mink are not very mobile and usually do not venture further than a kilometre from watercourses. Some camera traps were also installed in the water, on metal and birch pegs, while others were fixed on trees on the river bank. Several weeks later the team returned to the Stviga by boat to collect and check the cameras.

Viktar Fenchuk , an APB-Birdlife Belarus specialist and program coordinator of the Frankfurt Zoological Society in Belarus. Photo credit: Evgeny Gostyukhin

On the shore, Viktar Fenchuk , an APB-Birdlife Belarus specialist and program coordinator of the Frankfurt Zoological Society in Belarus, explained:

“Stviga is the main water course of the Almany Mires Nature Reserve. Among the tributaries of the river there are many reclamation canals, which, although they are in a dilapidated state, still discharge water from the swamp, draining it.”

The project aims to strengthen the conservation status of the reserve. Wildlife is almost untouched here; there are very few places like this left in Europe. In addition, project specialists also monitor drained areas in the region and plan to block drainage channels and restore parts of the mire in the future.

Sadly, the first expedition in search of European mink ended without detection of the critically endangered species. The team will return in winter to again survey the Stviga and other parts of Almany, in the hope that the mink will still be found.

Article written by Zanne Labuschagne, communications coordinator at FZS. 

The project “Polesia – Wilderness Without Borders” is part of the Endangered Landscapes Programme and is funded by Arcadia – a charitable fund of Lisbet Rausing and Peter Baldwin. The project is coordinated by Frankfurt Zoological Society (FZS) and implemented in collaboration with APB-Birdlife Belarus, the Ukrainian Society for the Protection of Birds (USPB) and the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO).

The Next Generation of Protected Areas in Polesia

The Next Generation of Protected Areas in Polesia

On the European Day of Parks we look to the ‘next generation’ of protected areas across the continent.

In central Polesia, one million hectares is already protected. This network of protected areas includes three national parks and several nature reserves and sanctuaries. In both Belarus and Ukraine, the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone – established after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986 – is largely uninhabited by people. This area now provides a refuge for many species, in particular large mammals like moose, lynx, wolf and bear. Nevertheless, many of the landscape’s most valuable areas for nature remain unprotected, while existing protected areas are often up against shortfalls in budget and capacity for effective management.

The ‘Polesia – Wilderness without borders project’, with funding from the Endangered Landscapes Programme and Arcadia – a charitable fund of Lisbet Rausing and Peter Baldwin, works to protect biodiversity and re-establish connectivity between habitats for migrating wildlife in Polesia. This is achieved through support to protected areas; the establishment of new protected areas; or through the enlargement of existing ones, on 100,000 hectares of currently unprotected wilderness. These efforts bore fruit with a 10,000 ha expansion of the Almany Mires Reserve in Belarus in 2021. Almany now spans 104,000 ha (roughly the size of Hong Kong) – securing Europe’s largest intact transition mire.

Our approach to protected area expansion is driven by science. In close partnership with protected area authorities and national scientific bodies, we plan and implement large-scale, rigorous surveys across Polesia. This work includes mapping high conservation value forests, and field camps to identify key sites for biodiversity. Camera traps are also used to survey large mammals to better understand their abundance, population dynamics and connectivity across the landscape. The project further aims to increase international awareness of the core area of Polesia by nominating it for recognition as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and Biosphere Reserve and through the establishment of cross-border Ramsar sites.

Dr. Tatiana (Tania) Kuzmenko, from the Ukrainian Society for the Protection of Birds (USPB, BirdLife Ukraine), is the regional coordinator of the ‘Polesia – Wilderness without borders’ project in Ukraine. She plays a key role in overseeing protected area expansions and nominations across the project area. We speak to Tania about her work and exciting upcoming developments for the protected areas of this part of Polesia.

Watch a short video explaining Dr Tatiana Kuzmenko’s work to expand protected areas and promote transboundary collaboration:

What does your work as regional coordinator entail? 

Tania: In my role as the regional coordinator I develop a basis for the expansion and improved management of protected areas. I oversee project implementation by field research experts; organise biodiversity monitoring to collect data that guides the expansion of the protected area network; support the creation of a conservation network (protection for nests and breeding sites in forestry zones); and submit nominations for the creation of new Emerald Network sites.

Polesia already has quite a developed protected area network – why do you feel the area needs more and bigger protected areas? 

Tania: Polesia is a unique region, in particular in Ukraine, in terms of conservation of wild natural areas. It is one of the most valuable natural landscapes in our country. The region mitigates global climate change through the many benefits of its well conserved rivers, wetlands, mires and forests. Currently, a significant number of valuable and unique natural territories are outside of the Emerald Network of Areas of Special Conservation Interest and others lie beyond the boundaries of protected areas. These natural landscapes are threatened with disappearing due to threats such as clear-cut, industrial logging and amber mining. Therefore, it is very important to take these areas under the protected area ‘umbrella’ as soon as possible to give them legal protection. After this first step, we need to continue our efforts to ensure that parks on the map are also adequately protected on-the-ground.

How do you go about deciding how and where protected areas should be expanded? 

Tania: We have identified high conservation value areas for biodiversity, in particular outside the existing protected area and Emerald Site networks. These high conservation value areas are mapped and analyzed, allowing us to identify selected areas of significant conservation value that need to be included in the protected area network. In particular, we look for the nesting sites of rare species – thus far we have identified 119 breeding sites of Common Crane and 50 of rare owl species, amongst others, which require improved protection. To detect these species, and to better understand the space they require to thrive, we conduct special surveys, using tools including acoustic monitoring and camera trapping. So far nomination forms for 13 new proposed Emerald Network sites have been submitted to the Bern Convention committee for approval; while we are also expecting a presidential decree on the creation of the new Pushcha Radzyvila National Park (24,000 hectares).

Dr Tatiana Kuzmenko and colleagues remove nets to detect bats and collect data on species presence in the area. Photo credit: Daniel Rosengren/FZS

What are the most exciting results that are on the horizon for the project’s work on protected area expansion in Ukraine?  

Tania: For me this would be the initiative of local communities to create the Slovechansko-Ovrutskiy Kriazh National Park in Polesia. The creation of this protected area is a grassroots initiative from the local people themselves, who want to have this national park and develop tourism in the area. This desire is manifested in concrete actions – restoration efforts have been launched by individual communities using their own resources, and the development of future tourist routes is already underway. There is no park yet, but people are already considering building the park office. USPB, as part of the ‘Polesia – Wilderness without borders project’, have been asked by local communities to support this process by preparing a package of documents to submit to the relevant authorities for the creation of this park.

What do you see as the ‘next generation’ of parks in the Ukrainian part of Polesia? 

Tania: My hope is that in the future the national parks and nature reserves of Polesia will rise to a higher level of management, with ecotourism expanded and developed in a nature-friendly way, so that these areas will be comparable to standards elsewhere in Europe. I believe that this vision is achievable, in particular thanks to the support of our project. Protected area staff are gaining experience in modern research methods like acoustic monitoring, camera trapping, the latest techniques for processing and analysis of large datasets, and the use of Geospatial Information Systems. Existing protected areas in Ukraine are currently in difficult financial conditions, the project ‘Polesia – Wilderness without borders’ has provided equipment to enhance nature conservation activities. By being involved in such an international project, protected area staff are gaining valuable experience in effective park management.

Article written by Zanne Labuschagne, communications coordinator at FZS. 

The project “Polesia – Wilderness Without Borders” is part of the Endangered Landscapes Programme and is funded by Arcadia – a charitable fund of Lisbet Rausing and Peter Baldwin. The project is coordinated by Frankfurt Zoological Society (FZS) and implemented in collaboration with APB-Birdlife Belarus, the Ukrainian Society for the Protection of Birds (USPB) and the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO).

Protecting migratory birds and their habitat in Polesia

Protecting migratory birds and their habitat in Polesia

by Zanne Labuschagne

As the season begins to turn in the vast wetlands, mires and forests of Polesia, the southward movement of several key migratory bird species has begun. Polesia is one of Europe’s largest intact wetland areas and as such is one of its most important sites for migratory birds, and in particular waders and waterfowl. Each year, in the spring, hundreds of thousands of Eurasian widgeons and ruffs as well as over 20,000 black-tailed godwits temporarily congregate in the area.

In order to effectively protect the rich abundance of life found in Polesia we need a better understanding of where biodiversity is concentrated, and the threats facing the area’s wildlife. This growing database of information is guiding our conservation actions and driving informed decisions; helping to identify areas in need of improved protection status or where to expand and better link protected areas. Behind this growing knowledge of the area is a dedicated team of experts, working tirelessly in often challenging conditions to help protect Polesia.

Pavel Pinchuk ringing a Ruff. © Daniel Rosengren

Turov Ringing Station, a hub for the study of migratory birds

Over 20 years ago, at the heart of Polesia, Pavel Pinchuk founded the Turov Ringing Station on the banks of the Pripyat River. An ornithologist with APB-Birldife Belarus, and a passionate naturalist, over the past two decades he has spent most of his days ringing, counting and studying the area’s birds.

Observations from Turov by Pavel and ornithologists from the Institute of Zoology (of the National Academy of Sciences of Belarus) have brought to light shifts in bird abundance and diversity in the area, information that is helping to identify ranges and threats requiring urgent conservation action. The work carried out at Turov is also helping us better understand the resource needs of species that have shown population declines. Each year a group of volunteers head to Turov to assist with ringing activities, a great example of local communities taking ownership for the protection of Polesia.

Space for Great Snipes

It was at Turov that the first tagging of Great Snipes in Belarus took place last year, providing a rare window into the fascinating migration of this threatened species. Beautifully marked with dappled stripes, Great Snipes are stocky waders that spend the warmer months in Polesia where they congregate in leks to breed. Thanks to Pavel’s efforts these important sites are now protected up to 300 meters from their centre to reduce disturbance to the breeding birds, but the latest data suggest that protecting only the breeding sites might not be enough.

Since 2019 over a hundred Great Snipes have been ringed in the area and transmitters were fitted on eleven of these by the Turov Ringing Station team providing important information on their migration patterns. Previous studies have shown that snipes will fly up to 6000 kilometres without stopping, reaching speeds up to 165 kilometres an hour. Soon after Pavel’s work at Turov was launched, a Great Snipe ringed in Polesia was detected in Gabon on Africa’s west coast – 6000 kilometres away from the site where it was originally identified. As Pavel points out, “to survive this remarkable journey requires preparation – places rich in food and with a minimum of disturbance to build up strength for their flight”. Our team is working hard to ensure that such areas exist and are preserved in Polesia.

Great Snipe near Turov. © Daniel Rosengren
The Pripyat River and floodplains. © Daniel Rosengren

Weaker spring floods, dropping bird numbers

Polesia is not immune to the detrimental changes that are affecting biodiversity across the globe – the past few years saw smaller than usual springtime floods with this year’s water level on average two meters lower than normal. Drier years allowed large tracts of the floodplain to burn in April last year, including one of the two known Great Snipe leks in the area. The Turov team believe that these factors might be the cause of decreasing Great Snipe numbers seen over the past few years.

Threatened Great Snipes are also being placed at risk by sport hunting when they are confused with Common Snipe, which is a game bird. Alongside Pavel’s scientific research from Turov the Wild Polesia team have also submitted recommendations to the Ministry of Forestry in Belarus to change the terms of Common Snipe hunting to avoid areas and seasons when they might be confused with their rarer cousins. In addition, historical threats like alterations to the water regime in Polesia have caused important habitat for species like snipes to be altered or destroyed. The Wild Polesia team also plans to restore over 6000 hectares of mires, which will bring large tracts of important habitat back to life.

Zanne Labuschagne is a communications coordinator at FZS. 

The project “Polesia – Wilderness Without Borders” is part of the Endangered Landscapes Programme and is funded by Arcadia – a charitable fund of Lisbet Rausing and Peter Baldwin. The project is coordinated by Frankfurt Zoological Society (FZS) and implemented in collaboration with APB-Birdlife Belarus, the Ukrainian Society for the Protection of Birds (USPB) and the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO).