Aerial photos with a drone over the River Pripyat, Polesie, Belarus. © Viktar Malyshchyts

Guardians of Polesia

Guardians of Polesia

by Zanne Labuschagne

In Belarus and Ukraine local communities from Polesia are coming together to volunteer for the protection of the incredible wilderness they call home. 

Local ‘volunteer caretakers’ are donating their time to protect Polesia’s reserves and key wildlife areas. The ‘Polesia – Wilderness without borders’ Project (referred to as Wild Polesia hereafter), with support from the Endangered Landscapes Programme, now works with 12 volunteer caretaker teams from Ukraine and 47 volunteer caretakers from three groups in Belarus. The initiative is relatively new and as such the project continues to learn the best approach in each country and adapts accordingly. APB-Birdlife in Belarus and the Ukrainian Society for the Protection of Birds (USPB) in Ukraine are helping to guide this strategy at a national level.

Meet Anastasia 

Project partner APB-Birdlife Belarus now has 47 registered volunteer caretakers in Polesia. Organised into three groups, they primarily work in the Important Bird Areas (IBAs) of Almany Mires, Mid-Pripyat and Turov Meadows. In 2020, working hand-in-hand with the caretakers, the Wild Polesia Project team organised eight workshops and community meetings to promote nature conservation and take action.

Anastasia Blotskaya, who co-ordinates the activities of one of the three APB volunteer caretaker groups, held over 150 environmental education lessons in local schools in 2020. A physical education teacher by training, Anastasia developed an extra-curricular course for local schoolchildren called ‘ABC of Ornithology’, teaching them about birds, endangered species and the importance of nature. The course is now scheduled once a week with three groups from two primary schools in the area.

Turov has been home for Anastasia and her family for the past ten years – even in that short time she has seen many changes. Anastasia is particularly concerned about lower rainfall in recent years and the resulting drop in water levels in Polesia’s rivers and wetlands. Even her young son has noticed that snowfall has become less and less each winter. Touched by the magic of Polesia, she is now working to encourage its protection within her community;

“I would very much like people to understand that material things are not as important as what nature gives us – when you breathe clean air, hear the singing of birds, the murmur of water – that’s what is valuable”.

Over-harvesting of wild berries

During the warmer months the mires and forests of Polesia become carpeted with bilberry and cranberry bushes laden with fruit. The rich abundance of berries provides important food for wildlife, but also attracts large groups of berry pickers each season.  Wild berries are an important source of income for local people who pick and sell them in the summer months, but when done at scale and in the wrong places this activity becomes problematic.

Cranberries harvested in Almany. ©Elleni Vendras

One area of concern is the Almany Mires Nature Reserve in Belarus – one of Europe’s largest natural mires covering 100,000 hectares. Many species breed in the area, including the globally threatened Greater Spotted Eagle. Almany is heavily impacted by overharvesting of berries. Pickers build illegal roads to ease access to the area, allowing for more amenities to be brought to their temporary camps. After the harvest, the land is left trampled and scattered with large quantities of litter. The breeding eagles are particularly sensitive to human disturbance and the presence of berry pickers can result in adults moving elsewhere and abandoning their chicks.

The volunteer caretakers are playing a crucial role in tackling this threat to Polesia. This year, two expeditions were organised taking volunteers into the field where they identified illegal camps and cleaned up the litter left behind. Additionally, a training on using mapping tools, including a Geographic Information System (GIS), was held to allow the teams to build up a database of camp locations and the results of field work. With the help of regional coordinators, field experts, forestry employees and the caretakers, 60 illegal berry picker camps were identified and mapped in Almany Mires and Stary Zhaden Nature Reserves this year. A map containing the illegal camps is being constantly updated and transferred to the relevant state authorities.

Meadows are overgrown

The volunteers also clear overgrown meadows near Turov in Belarus. According to ornithologist Pavel Pinchuk, who has been monitoring birds from the Turov Ringing Station for over 20 years, wader numbers across Europe are showing worrying declines. One reason for this is the lack of breeding habitat for these species. Meadows along watercourses that the birds historically used as display sites or leks, and for nesting, have become overgrown and are turning to scrub and forest due to less frequent flooding. The overgrown vegetation and lower water levels also place crucial habitat at risk for wild fires. By clearing thick vegetation from the meadows and restoring the grassland that the waterfowl require to breed, the volunteers hope to reverse this trend in Polesia.

860 kms by bicycle in Ukraine

In Ukraine, a total of 12 volunteer caretaker groups have been established, working with local partner Ukrainian Society for the Protection of Birds (USPB). Eleven of these are made up of high school students and one is a group from Zhytomyr University. These environmental enthusiasts regularly come together to monitor and protect biodiversity in the unique wilderness they call home. Although the COVID-19 pandemic hindered activities, and fewer than hoped were possible, important progress was still made in Ukraine this year.

A river crossing during the bike tour.

During an 860-kilometre field trip, carried out on bicycles, eleven of the volunteer caretaker groups in Ukraine were visited. The two-week bike tour across the project area took place in July and included Wild Polesia community engagement officer, Dr Serhiy Panchenko, and a support team. During the tour the team assessed the potential for tourist bike trails in the area. Nature reserves and wildlife areas being overseen by the volunteer caretakers were also visited and inspected, and the team developed a new volunteer work plan, taking the management of many activities online due to the pandemic.

For the past six months the volunteers have also been identifying and developing ‘eco-trails’ to share the area’s natural and cultural heritage with visiting tourists. One 29-kilometre trail has already been identified in the Rivne region, while the team aims to finalise several others in the Ukrainian part of Polesia by mid-July 2021. Volunteers and young people from the local community will then be trained to guide visitors along the trails.

Across the globe young people are mobilising to fight for the protection of the planet they will inherit, theirs are some of the loudest voices advocating for climate action. The volunteer caretakers in Polesia have shown that they care for the future of their home and are willing to invest their time and effort in ensuring this important wilderness is protected.

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).

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).

Insect monitoring

What insects tell us about the state of Polesia's wetlands

by Adham Ashton-Butt and Corinna Van Cayzeele

Alongside our restoration of mires in the core of Polesia, we are monitoring insect communities to understand the impact of our activities on ecosystem health. Our field team has just retrieved the first samples of insects from Malaise traps installed last month.

Polesia is among the largest landscapes of natural wetlands in Europe. However, the biodiversity and stability of this ecosystem complex suffers from the draining of mires. Drainage channels that were dug for the so-called “reclamation” of land for agriculture during Soviet times continue to drain large parts of Polesia’s wetlands. The drained mires make the area less resilient to droughts and fires and eliminate important ecological processes and habitat. Part of our project, therefore, is the restoration of 6,000 hectares of drained mires in the core area of Polesia.

But how do we know where restoration is needed and whether it has the desired effects?

To ensure that our activities benefit all aspects of the ecosystem, we need sound ecological knowledge. More specifically, we need data on insects. Insects are excellent indicators of ecosystem health as they are very sensitive to environmental change and respond quickly to disturbances or restoration, due to their short lifecycles. Therefore, certain assemblages of insects can be associated with different habitats, or different states of ecosystem health.

They are also at the heart of food webs that sustain the ecosystem, providing sustenance for birds, bats and small land mammals. We are looking at numbers and composition of insects to better understand

  1. the importance of undisturbed habitats,
  2. the impact of drainage, wildfires and seasonal changes, and
  3. The effect of our restoration activities on mire ecosystems.

In May, our field team started installing Malaise traps (tent-like structures that capture insects) to sample flying insects. The traps are being installed in near-pristine mires, drained mires (from heavily drained to slightly drained), restoration sites and sites affected by fire. We expect to catch mostly Hymenoptera (bees and wasps), Diptera (flies and relatives), Lepidoptera (moths and butterflies), some Odonata (dragonflies and damselflies), Ephemeroptera (mayflies) and some small Coleoptera (beetles).

Malaise trap ©Alexey Semeniak

Last week, the ecologists started collecting the first samples that had been caught. And with this starts the tricky part: species identification. Having specialist taxonomists identify each individual would be very time consuming. Moreover, many insects, especially many flies, have not yet been classified to species level. Therefore, identifying large numbers of samples across broad taxonomic groups is very difficult, if not impossible.

Collecting the first samples ©Alexey Semeniak

We are largely resolving this problem by using DNA metabarcoding to identify insects. DNA will be extracted from insect samples, sequenced to reveal its genetic code and identified by comparing against freely available genetic libraries. Some species will still not be able to be identified to species as their genetic code has not been stored in DNA libraries. However, these species can still be differentiated from one another genetically and can be labelled as “Species A” or “Species B”. This way, the presence of these species can still be compared across samples and sites. The biomass of each sample will also be measured, in order to compare the abundance of insects present between sites.

Sampling will continue over the next four years. Over this period, we will be able to analyze the response of insects to changes while taking into account different weather conditions between seasons and years. For example, it may be that in “good” years with cold winters and large spring floods, insect communities do not differ much between natural and drained sites. However, in years of drought, they might change more in sites that are degraded, as those sites do not have the environmental buffers provided by a “healthier” ecosystem.

Besides monitoring the effect of restoration, this study will help predict the consequences for biodiversity if draining is not stopped. We may lose certain types of insects and, consequently, associated plants and larger animals that depend on them for food and pollination. We will know the results after these four years. In the meantime, we will start blocking drainage channels to rewet mires and adjust our activities according to our findings along the way.

Dr. Adham Ashton-Butt is a Senior Research Ecologist at the BTO. Corinna Van Cayzeele is a Communications Assistant 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).

Sunset at the Turov Meadows. © Elleni Vendras

Maksim-wolf: a beloved colleague and friend

Maksim-wolf: a beloved colleague and friend

by Elleni Vendras

To our great sadness, our fieldwork assistant and dear friend Maksim Belotsky passed away on Friday, May 22. Maksim was only 35 years old.

In our team we used to call him Maksim-wolf because of his fascination for wolves.

Maksim Belotsky during fieldwork. © Maksim Belotsky
Maksim Belotsky during fieldwork. © Maksim Belotsky

Maksim was an extremely motivated, passionate and engaged colleague. He started to work for APB-BirdLife Belarus back in 2018. The fact that at first, he was denied the job he had applied for did not demotivate him: He offered to become a volunteer for the organisation instead, or as he described it, “I try to help to the best of my humble powers”. Being himself native to Polesia, he followed the GPS-collared wolves through the mires and forests of this beautiful landscape in all weather conditions and at any time of day. He was truly in love with nature and most fascinated by wolves. In his free time, Maksim ran a blog (Instagram @info_wolf) about his numerous adventures following the wolves and not only that. He was a big fan of wildlife, outdoor activities and equipment, and what he called forest cuisine. By profession, Maksim was an IT-specialist.

In the project, Maksim was mainly responsible for wildlife monitoring with camera traps, acoustic soundrecorder monitoring, hydrological monitoring and of course for tracking wolves. The data from this wolf tracking was published on the website Maksim was very happy about every new task and challenge. He lived and worked “to the fullest” – there wasn’t anything that he would do half-heartedly. His big dream was that people would stop hunt wolves and other wildlife.


For a long time, Maksim was treated for pain in his shoulder, but finally, he was diagnosed with cancer. Our thoughts and deepest condolences are with his family and loved ones. We are eternally grateful that we have met Maksim with his contagious enthusiasm. He will always stay in our hearts.

… only a hike, only a route through the wild Polesian nature, taught me to appreciate and to celebrate the little things. And on the route this joy turns out to be sincere, occupying your whole world and all consciousness.

– Maksim Belotsky

Maksim Belotsky showing a wolf footprint. © Maksim Belotsky
Maksim Belotsky showing a wolf footprint. © Maksim Belotsky
Maksim Belotsky - we will always remember you. All film material was recorded by Maksim himself.
Elleni Vendras is a Project Coordinator at FZS.
Here you can read more about Maksim's wolf work and  his exciting adventures in his personal blog on Instagram.

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).

Return of Greater Spotted Eagles

All tagged Greater Spotted Eagles have returned to their breeding grounds in Polesia

by Adham Ashton-Butt

Last July, we satellite tagged the fifteenth Greater Spotted Eagle in Polesia. Since then, the eagles have spent the winter in Southern Europe or Africa before returning to their breeding grounds this spring and despite the chaos caused by COVID-19, data collection on their breeding ecology has begun. Luckily, social distancing is not too difficult in the remote mires of Polesia…

A young Greater Spotted Eagle. © Adham Ashton-Butt

Greater Spotted Eagles are classed as endangered in Europe, with less than one thousand pairs remaining (IUCN 2015). Twenty percent of Europe’s Greater Spotted Eagles breed in Ukraine and Belarus, the majority of those in Polesia (78% breed in Russia and just 2% in the rest of Europe). Compared to Western Europe, where Greater Spotted Eagles are virtually extinct, Polesia still has large areas of intact forest and wetlands; the preferred habitat for this charismatic species. Worryingly, even in Polesia, eagles are declining, with fewer pairs breeding in the region each year.

As part of the “Wilderness Without Borders” project, we at the BTO are working with Belarusian eagle expert Valery Dombrovski and colleagues from the Estonian University of Life Sciences to devise a conservation plan to halt Greater Spotted Eagle decline.

The first task is to find out the reasons behind this decline. Are adults dying prematurely or are chicks failing to reach maturity, and why? We hope to answer these questions using a two-pronged approach:

Firstly, adult eagles are fitted with lightweight GPS tags, allowing us to see what habitats the eagles use most, where they go during the winter, how many survive and where mortality occurs.

Secondly, we are placing camera traps at nests along a gradient of habitat disturbance. This ranges from breeding territories in natural habitats to ones in habitats that are highly modified through human activity, such as intensive agriculture. The camera traps will record type and regularity of the food adults bring to their chicks and what proportion of chicks leave the nest successfully. This information will reveal how well chicks develop during the breeding season and whether the habitat surrounding the nest site affects the food availability and survival of chicks.

Greater Spotted Eagles are migratory birds and are known to winter in Southern Europe and Africa. However, before this project, very little was known about their migratory route or if there are any distinct migratory patterns or differences between populations.

Click to meet the eagles and see where they have travelled!

Although it is too early to make any definitive conclusions, our early results suggest that it is problems on the breeding grounds in Polesia that are causing declines. Of the fifteen adult Greater Spotted Eagles tagged in 2017 (six) and 2019 (nine), all fifteen are still alive. However, none of the chicks from last year fledged and some adults did not even attempt to breed. This could have been because of food shortages or human disturbance near the nest. This year, with the help of extra funds from the British Ecological Society, we have placed cameras on twenty more nests. This is no mean feat, accessing a nest can involve a three-hour trek through a bog and a hair raising twenty metre climb up a tree, but it is key to understanding why chicks are not successfully fledging.

We will need to monitor tagged birds and their nests for a further three years before we are able to make robust conclusions about why Greater Spotted Eagles are declining. Only with this solid data, can we formulate an effective action plan to save this iconic wetland predator.

Dr. Adham Ashton-Butt is a Senior Research Ecologist at the BTO.
See where our tagged eagles have travelled here.

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).

Burnt areas and fires on Turov Meadows. © Maksim Belotsky

Fighting fires through wetland restoration

Fighting fires through wetland restoration

by Alina Lepeshkina, Corinna Van Cayzeele, Elleni Vendras, and Adam Gristwood

Following a devastating wildfire season in Polesia, action should upsurge to restore mires – an effective measure to stem even more frequent and destructive fires in the future.

This April, vast wildfires that raged across Polesia in Ukraine and Belarus made news worldwide. The restoration of important mire systems could help stem devastating increases in the frequency and intensity of the wildfires.

Burnt areas and fires on Turov Meadows. © Maksim Belotsky
Burnt areas and fires on Turov Meadows. © Maksim Belotsky

News that fires were tearing across the Chernobyl exclusion zone, situated in Polesia, captured international attention. The enormous fires were a harrowing reminder of the world’s largest nuclear disaster that happened decades earlier and lives on through radiation in the ground. But while the threat of radiation becoming airborne and spreading as a consequence of forest fires is thought to be minimal, the fires were an alarming demonstration of the threat that climate change is causing in the here and now.

Years of drought and drainage of wetlands by humans had created a perfect storm. Seasonal fires are not uncommon in the area and wildfires consuming forest, grass and bushland flare up roughly once every two years. But in recent years, fires have increased dramatically and seriously threaten the residents and wilderness of Polesia.

Polesia is often compared to the Amazon because of its expanse and rich biodiversity, a diverse landscape dominated by the vast meandering Pripyat and Dnieper rivers. But extensive spring floods have decreased year on year, while ‘land reclamation’ policies in past decades have drained areas of land crucial to blocking the spread of fires. The most serious and difficult to extinguish fires in the region occur in dry floodplains or on drained and disturbed peatlands. Untouched wetlands are far more resistant.

As climate change increases temperatures and droughts, wildfires are set to get worse in future unless there are positive changes in land management. Researchers from the area have proposed the restoration of key mires and peatlands as a powerful form of defense against future wildfire outbreaks. A fire raging over hundreds of hectares is difficult to extinguish by human firefighters alone. Apart from increasing and improving the direct protection for villages and their inhabitants, it is essential to apply an effective way to combat spring fires. Natural barriers will help to stop a large forest fire, explains Maxim Nemchinov from APB-BirdLife Belarus:

“When draining wetlands, violating the water regime with canals and dams, straightening and canalizing rivers,[people] deprive nature, and thereby themselves, of the most reliable defense line.”

The “Polesia – Wilderness Without Borders” project works towards the restoration of over 6000 hectares of previously drained mires. More initiatives to restore disturbed wetland could serve to reduce the threat of devastating fires in Polesia.

Alina Lepeshkina and Corinna Van Cayzeele are Communication Officers at APB-BirdLife and FZS, respectively.
Elleni Vendras is the Project Coordinator at FZS. Adam Gristwood is a freelance science writer.

Peatlands and CO2-emissions

Drained peatlands can accelerate and magnify fires. Once aflame, peat fires often burn for weeks and are difficult to extinguish. But damaged peatlands not only pose a special fire risk, they also release high amounts of carbon dioxide. Peatlands store more carbon than all other vegetation types in the world combined and damaged peatlands contribute significantly to global antropogenic CO2 emissions. Hence, restoring peatlands is not only an effective way to avert stem consequences of climate change, but also to address the larger problem.

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 the Ukrainian Society for the Protection of Birds (USPB), APB-Birdlife Belarus, and the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO).