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The Project results


A survey of the desman in its key areas of habitation


The project's main activities consisted of surveys of the Russian desman conducted over a two-year period throughout practically all its areas of habitation. The most recent previous survey of the Russian desman had taken place in 1985, but had covered fewer such areas. Undertakings on a comparable scale had taken place only in the 1970s, i.e., almost 30 years ago. Therefore, data on the present status of the desman and the measures needed to protect it in the light of the change in socio-economic conditions was inadequate.

Two surveys were carried out, one in autumn 2000 and one in autumn 2001. They were organised by the Biodiversity Conservation Centre, in collaboration with the Department for the Protection and Development of Hunting Resources, at the Russian Ministry of Agriculture, and the All-Russian Scientific Research Institute, at the Russian Ministry for the Protection of the Environment and Natural Resources [now the Ministry of Natural Resources -A. G.], and with the direct participation of regional authorities concerned with the conservation, monitoring and management of game animals, as well as a number of other organisations.

The survey covered around 30,000 km of the banks of rivers, lakes and artificial reservoirs. A uniform methodology, involving counting the number of inhabited desman dens in a 1-km stretch of bank of the water body being surveyed, was used. Analysis of the primary evidence showed that muskrats were found in almost every area where the desman lives. Therefore, a corrected ratio was used: 0.6 animals to 1 den (c.f. Kudryashov, 1976).

Analysis of the survey evidence showed that at present the desman population is most stable in Ryazan, Kursk and Kurgan provinces. The position of the species has improved a little in Volgograd and Nizhny Novgorod provinces. In Russia as a whole, however, the desman population has fallen by around 25%, or 10,000 individuals, since 1985, and now totals around 30,000 (see Table 1). Compared to the 1970s, its numbers have halved.

 

Table 1. The desman population in Russia, in 1000s of individuals

/

Administrative area (province unless followed by *)

1985

2000 - 2001

1

Astrakhan.

(Single figures)

(Single figures)

2

Republic of Bashkortostan

(Single figures)

(Single figures)

3

Bryansk

Single figures

(Single figures)

4

Vladimir

8,0

3,0

5

Volgograd

1,5

2,5

6

Vologda

(Single figures)

(Single figures)

7

Voronezh

5,0

2,0

8

Ivanovo

1,0

0,2

9

Kaluga

0,2

0,1

10

Kirovsk

(Single figures)

(Single figures)

11

Kostroma

0,1

0,3

12

Kurgan

2,0

2,0

13

Kursk

2,0

3,5

14

Lipetsk

2,0

1,0

15

Republic of Mari El*

None found

None found

16

Republic of Mordovia

1,0

0,5

17

Moscow

(Single figures)

0,05

18

Nizhny Novgorod

0,5

1,5

19

Novosibirsk

(Single figures)

(Single figures)

20

Orenburg

0,5

0,2

21

Orel

..

0,02

22

Penza

0,5

0,2

23

Rostov

0,2

0,1

24

Ryazan

7,0

6,0

25

Samara

(Single figures)

(Single figures)

26

Saratov

1,0

0,1

27

Smolensk

0,3

0,4

28

Tambov

5,0

3,0

29

Tver

(Single figures)

(Single figures)

30

Tomsk

0,1

(Single figures)

31

Ulyanovsk

0,1

(Single figures)

32

Chelyabinsk

0,3

0,1

33

Chuvash republic

(Single figures)

0,1

34

Yaroslavl

0,7

0,3

 

TOTAL

39

27

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The main threats to the species

The main threat to the Russian desman population today is the widespread use of fixed fishing nets in the animal's areas of habitation. The scale of the spread of these items of equipment, which are used by poachers, is evinced by the fact that on the Moscow-Vladimir section alone of the Nizhny Novgorod highway there are no less than 50 'outlets' freely selling these nets. The easy availability and cheapness, added to the high durability and long life, of modern fixed nets allow poachers to leave the tackle in the water often for days, sometimes even months, checking them only occasionally. Given that the desman dies within, on average, 5-10 minutes when trapped in a net, it is clear what damage this illegal fishing method is doing to the Russian desman population throughout its areas of habitation.

In addition, the scale of illegal fishing can be vast. With some water bodies in Kostroma Province, for instance, the density of offenders is as high as 2 berths for every 25m2 of bank. The main causes of this widespread activity are reduced social protection, especially in rural areas, and reduced monitoring by fish protection agencies.

The second most important factor is now so-called 'electric landing nets' (or electric rods). These items of equipment, also used by poachers, have become widespread over the last 10-15 years. They consist of an accumulator, the current from which is transmitted through wires into the water and 'stuns' fish within a radius of several metres; the latter are gathered up in a landing net, whence the name of the piece of tackle. 'Electric landing nets', as a rule, do not do any direct harm to the animals, but they are a serious enough cause for concern. Furthermore, they almost totally wipe out not only the fish but also the aquatic invertebrates in the water, thus depriving the desman of its main source of food. The animals are forced to leave their territory, and this also has a negative effect on the status of the species' population.

A third highly important factor in the decrease in the species' numbers is the damage done to its habitat. It is true that during the second half of the twentieth century the pollution of and damage done to small rivers, plus the uncontrolled agricultural exploitation of flood plains, became widespread and contributed to the decline in the species' population. However, this process has abated somewhat in the last decade, and its influence on the decline in the Russian desman population is today secondary.

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Support for a specialised hunting reserve


At the 3rd All-Union Conference on Protecting and Re-establishing the Desman, held in 1974 at the Khopyor State Nature Reserve, the suggestion was made that, as an experiment, a state flood-plain hunting reserve be set up and used for both agriculture and, at the same time, the increased protection and utilisation of the game animals of the flood plains. Unfortunately, it was only after ten years that this suggestion was put into practice. In 1985, the Vladimir Province executive committee took the decision to convert the Seltso0 hunting reserve into a 17,000-hectare specialised experimental hunting reserve for the desman. The basic operating principle of this reserve lies in a combination of measures to protect rare animals combined with the utilisation of game animals.
The best confirmation of the favourable status of the Russian desman population within the specialised hunting reserve is the fact that its numbers there are now significantly higher than the average for Vladimir Province.

The following economic activities are prohibited in the Seltso hunting reserve:
Fishing with fixed nets;
Grazing livestock within a 100-metre zone around water bodies;
Felling trees (except for sanitation) and shrubs within a 100-metre zone around water bodies;
Using toxic chemicals and carrying out reclamation work without the consent of the State Hunting Inspectorate.

The present infrastructure and facilities, as well as the team of wardens, have helped make the hunting reserve's activities in managing the use of nature and protecting the desman effective. These factors are usually absent from provincial wildlife sanctuaries and other Specially Protected Natural Areas at various levels right up to federal wildlife sanctuaries, and this hinders them from giving enough protection to the populations of rare species. In our view, the practice of combining the protection of rare animals with the utilisation of game animals in specialised hunting reserve conditions should be introduced everywhere, and may play one of the key roles in saving the desman.

As part of the 'Save the Russian Desman!' project, the BCC analysed the basic operating principles of the Seltso specialised hunting reserve, as well as the difficulties to be overcome in its work protecting the desman. The hunting reserve was given material support to make its conservation functions more effective. This included producing 10 conservation notices, purchasing specialised gear for 10 employees of the reserve, and providing the reserve with equipment (2 pairs of binoculars and a boat, plus repairs to 3 motor vehicle units), as well as organising bioengineering measures to increase the water level of two desman-inhabited water bodies and providing 4 tonnes of fuel and lubricants operational work to protect the area.

The measures taken have had a positive effect on the status of the Russian desman population in the reserve. For instance, the provision of GSM equipment has made it possible to organise uninterrupted work for the hunting reserve's operations group throughout the spring; during this period 15 raids were carried out, 9 charge-sheets drawn up, and over 50 fixed nets removed.


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Raising public awareness of the problems to be overcome in protecting the russian desman


In the course of the project the BCC has endeavoured to increase the animal's popularity as much as possible, by regarding it as a symbol of Russian wildlife and a system of measures to protect it as an effective way of protecting the small rivers of European Russia. There is every reason for this:

1. The Russian desman is the only mammal the official name of which includes the word 'Russia';
2. The Russian desman is practically endemic to Russia (its population numbers in Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan are negligible);
3. The desman's habitat -the flood plains of small rivers- is typical of the Central Russian countryside;
4. The desman is an indicator of the status of small rivers and lakes.

At the same time, the Russian desman remains practically unknown, not only to Russians who have little to do with ecological problems, but even to nature conservation experts. The reasons for this include the animal's secretive lifestyle and the corresponding difficulties of studying it, lack of public awareness, etc.

This state of affairs does nothing to help the situation of the Russian desman, which is disappearing as a result of widespread illegal fishing with fixed nets, as well as the damage done to its habitat, allied to the total lack of knowledge and indifference of the public and competent bodies. It is for this reason that one of the project's main objectives was to raise awareness amongst the general public, the employees of relevant institutions, and experts of the problems to be overcome in protecting the Russian desman. The BCC considers solving this complex problem to be a key step in protecting the animal and hopes that the 'Save the Russian Desman!' project has managed to make a small contribution to this common cause.
In this context, the Centre has acted in several areas:

1. Making a film about the Russian desman and the problems to be overcome in protecting it, plus public showings of videos or excerpts from the film in various venues;
2. Preparing a series of publications in various media outlets, from ones focussing specifically on nature conservation to institutional ones to ones generally available, on the problems to be overcome in protecting the Russian desman;
3. Raising awareness amongst young naturalist societies of the problems to be overcome in protecting the desman;
4. Running a themed radio programme, 'Your Honour, Madame Nature', on the station Govorit Moskva ['Moscow Calling'] as well as other radio programmes;
5. Holding an exhibition of works devoted to the Russian desman by photographers and artists, in the State Darwin Museum.

The film about the Russian desman was shot by the Bryansky Les ['Bryansk Forest' (or even 'Bryanskwood' (?!) -A. G.] film studio, which specialises in making wildlife films. The film was conceived as a popular, visual account of the Russian desman, the problems to be overcome in protecting it, and ways of solving these problems. The film-makers have been fully up to the task and have come up with an informative, universally accessible production capable of interesting people from the most diverse sections of the population.

During the project, 10 articles were published, in various media outlets.

The programme 'Your Honour, Madame Nature', including a piece on the main features of the 'Save the Ru nenoaia oi?aaeaiey at was broadcast on the radio station Govorit Moskva, which has a wide audience across more than half the regions of Russia.

The presentation of the project at the State Darwin Museum aimed both to tell people about its results and to be of educational value. It helped young naturalists, business figures, and employees from the Russian Ministry for the Protection of the Environment and Natural Resources to learn about the project.

Tied in with the presentation was an exhibition of photographs and drawings devoted to the Russian desman, which ran for two weeks and was seen by a significant number of the Darwin Museum's visitors.

All these educational initiatives had an undoubtedly positive effect. This can be seen particularly in the donations given by people to help the running of the project, as well as by feedback from various people, including information on the status of the Russian desman population in various regions of Russia. We have used much of this in summarising the results of the desman surveys and analysing the main threats to the species.

The project has introduced school ecology societies to work on the Russian desman. The potential of children's societies is splendidly illustrated by the research carried out by Maksim Lukoyanov, a pupil at Middle School 3, Gorokhovets District, Vladimir Province, on 'The Russian Desman in Gorokhovets District: Population Figures and Conditions of Existence.'
Indirect confirmation of the growth of public interest in the Russian desman comes in the fact that at the moment '' ['vykhukhol'' 'desman'] is the keyword Internet users most often use to find the BCC's website.

At the same time, the Biodiversity Conservation Centre is aware that the results so far achieved are clearly insufficient for there to be an appreciable increase in public awareness of the problems to be overcome in protecting the Russian desman. Work on raising awareness of this issue will therefore continue. In particular, we plan:
To bring the results of the 'Save the Russian Desman!' project to a wide audience (the survey results; analysis of the causes of the deterioration in the status of the desman population; priority measures to protect it);
To have a video film on the project's work broadcast on one of the main TV channels, etc.

 

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