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 *)
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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 'âûõóõîëü' ['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.