This report contains data that were gathered during fieldwork conducted in
the regions of Russia, Byelarus, Ukraine and Kazakhstan where the Russian
desman lives, between 1963 and 1993. Much of the information came from questionnaires
which were circulated to the regional hunting departments. Bibliographical
and hunting statistics data have also been extensively used.
Studies which provide information on the Russian desman distribution in the
countries concerned are the following:
Data on wildlife reserves was provided by hunting statistics and by the studies
of A.M.SHALYBKOV & K.V.STORCHEVOY (1985), G.V.KHAKHIN & A.A.IVANOV
Techniques of Russian desman census are presented in the works of L.P.BORODIN
(1963) and V.S.KUDRYASHOV (1976).
The studies by G.A.SKREBITSKY (1940), G.A.SHESTAKOV (1940), K.N.SHURYGINA
(1949), N.I.ASOSKOVA (1968), G.V.KHAKHIN & A.A.IVANOV (1990) describe
the feeding habits of the Russian desman.
The results of the reintroduction projects are set out in the studies by
L.P.BORODIN (1963), V.N.SERDYUK (1972, 1978), M.P.PAVLOV (1973), G.V.KHAKHIN
& A.A.IVANOV (1990).
The breeding in captivity problem has been discussed in a large number of
studies, such as L.V.SHAPOSHNIKOV (1933), V.P.KRASOVSKY (1954), I.I.BARABASH-NIKIFOROV
& O.A.LAKOMKINA (1971), P.N.ROMANOV, G.V.KHAKHIN & A.A.IVANOV (1982),
Measures that can be taken against killing of Russian desmans when fishing
or hunting Muskrats and other animals are outlined in the studies by G.A.SHESTAKOV
(1940), L.P.BORODIN (1963), G.V.KHAKHIN & A.A.IVANOV (1986).
Factors detrimental to the Russian desman are described by D.I.ASPISOV (1952),
L.P.BORODIN (1963), G.V.KHAKHIN (1974,1977), G.V.KHAKHIN & A.A.IVANOV
a. The Dnieper Basin
Until the end of the 1950 's the Russian desman was hunted in the Bryansk
Region: this activity was abolished because of a sharp decrease in its numbers.
By the end of 1980 's, the Russian desman occurred only in very small numbers
along the rivers Ostr and Iput. It is very rare in the area of the Dnieper
Through introductions in 1956, 1960 and 1961, the Russian desman is now also
present in the area of the rivers Seym and Svopa (in the Kursk Region). In
all these places, 609 individuals were released.
Actually, the total number of Russian desmans in the Dnieper Basin is now
more than 2000.
b. The Don Basin
In the Don Basin, the Russian desman settles along the left tributaries of
the middle part of the river. It is plentiful in the Voronezh river head (in
the Tambov Region). In the middle and lower reaches of the river Voronezh
and along its tributaries (in Lipetsk and Voronezh Regions) it is not frequent.
The Russian desman is quite plentiful in the bottom-lands of the rivers Bityug
and Khoper and in its tributaries (in Tambov, Saratov, Penza and Voronezh
Regions). It is found here in every type of habitat that suits it.
The lower reaches of the river Khoper (in the Volgograd Region) are less
densely inhabited. Here, Russian desmans live only in the bottom-lands of
the rivers Khoper and Buzuluk. In the lower part of the Don Basin, the Russian
desman is reported in the upper reaches of the river Kunaryuchya (MARCHENKO,
In the Don bottom-land, it is rare and occurs only in the middle part of
Current numbers for the whole of the Don Basin total about 12000 individuals.
c. The Volga Basin
In the upper reaches of the basin, the Russian desman occurs along the rivers
Ustye, Kotorosl (in the Yaroslavl Region) and Unzha (in the Kostroma Region).
Not more than 500 individuals live here, and there are only a few dozens of
them in the Unzha bottom-land.
The majority part of desmans are found along the river Oka, but they are
unevenly distributed. The Russian desman occurs essentially at the river Zhizdra
bottom-land and the river-mouths of its tributaries from the town of Kozelsk
till the Zhizdra river mouth (in the Kaluga Region). In the late 1970s, there
were more than 300 individuals. Further along the Oka river, in the Kaluga,
Tula and Moscow Regions, the Russian desman is absent. A few rare catches
have been recorded at the river Tsna (in the Moscow Region). In the middle
part of the Oka, it is plentiful (in the eastern part of the Ryazan Region).
The Russian desman is widespread along the Oka's tributaries. It is common
in the lower reaches of the river Moksha and along the river Tsna (in Tambov
and Ryazan Regions). It is to be found here in every type of habitat that
is suitable for it. In the middle part of the river Moksha (Mordovia) it occurs
in fewer numbers. In the lower Oka (in Gorky, Ivanov, Vladimir and Moscow
Regions), the Russian desman settles at the flood plains of the river Klyazma
and its tributaries. The Oka bottom-land (in Gorky and Vladimir Regions) is
less inhabited. Along the river Klyazma, the Russian desman occurs from the
eastern part of the Moscow Region, where only single findings have been recorded,
until the mouth of the river. The majority of the Klyazma population is found
along at the middle and lower reaches of the river.
In the middle part of the Volga Basin, the Russian desman occurs along the
river Sura in the Penza and Ulyanovsk Regions. In Mordovia, it has been recorded
at the river Alatyr (in the Ardatov Region). The total number of desmans in
the Sura Basin is not more than 300 individuals. In Tataria, the Russian desman
occurs in small numbers. It has been noted at the river Vyatka, in the Kirov
Region, where introductions were made in 1959, 1961 and 1977 (accordingly
93, 71 and 12 individuals). Within the boundaries of the Kuibyshev (now Samara)
and the Orenburg Regions, it occurs at the river Samara flood-plain.
In the Lower Volga, the Russian desman lives only in the Volga-Akhtuba bottom-land
(in the Astrakhan Region) with between 150-300 individuals. It is known to
be found in the Volga delta.
Currently, the total number of Russian desmans in the Volga Basin is estimated
to be 23000.
d. The Ural Basin
The Russian desman lives on the Ural flood-plain and the outfalls of some
of its tributaries (in rivers Ilek, Utva, Vyazovka, Kushum, Solyanka, Barbastau)
within the boundaries of the Orenburg and Uralsk Regions (BARABASH-NIKIFOROV,
1977). Its range stretches down the river Ural to the village of Kalmykovo
(the Uralsk Region).
e. The Transural area
A Russian desman introduction project was carried out at the border between
the Chelyabinsk and the Kustanai (Kazakhstan) Regions in 1961. 74 animals
were released along the river Uy. The operation has been successful, the animals
have settled along the rivers Uy and Tobol. In 1976, the Russian desman population
had increased to an estimated of 300 individuals (KUZMINYKH, 1977), and to
2500 in 1985.
In Tomsk and Novosibirsk Regions, where two releases were made in 1958 and
1968 (236 and 114 individuals respectively), animals have survived in very
The populations of the Russian desman in the Transural area now totals 2500
The Russian desman appeared in Belarus, along the river Oster (in Mogilyev
Region), in 1949, probably due to individuals coming from the Smolensk Region
(Russia) where it was reintroduced.
From 1955 to 1961, 580 animals were released along the rivers Sozh and Ptich
(in Mogilyev and Minsk Regions), but they have not survived (BORODIN, 1963).
Although it was considered extinct by DEZHKIN (1983), the Russian desman is
still found sometimes along the river Ptich in the Mogilyev Region.
Figure 1 - Distribution of the Russian desman in the Eastern Europe and Western
Distribution area in the end of 19th century, after OGNEV 1928;
Distribution area in the 1950s, after BORODIN, 1963;
Current distribution: one dot stands for 100 specimens;
specimens found occasionally;
In the past, the Russian desman occurred along the rivers Dnieper and Severski
Donets. By the beginning of the 20th century, it had disappeared from the
Dnieper area. The Severski Donets population (in Lugansk Region) numbered
500 individuals in the mid-1950s (BORODIN, 1963, SAKHNO, 1967) but by the
end of the 1960s it had vanished despite reintroduction attempts (BARABASH-NIKIFOROV
et.al. 1971). From 1929 to 1940, 366 animals were released in the Dnieper
and Severski Donets basins. According to PAVLOV (1973), this reintroduction
scheme failed, and by the late '60s, the Russian desman seemed to have disappeared
from the Ukraine. It reappeared in the river Seym bottom-land (in Sumy Region)
in the early 1970s, probably due to individuals coming from the Kursk Region.
According to SERDYUK (1978), a few dozens of the animals lived here in three
bottom-land lakes in autumn 1975. The population now seems to survive, due
to continuous recolonization from the Kursk Region.
In Kazakhstan, the Russian desman occurs in two areas: in the Uralsk Region,
at the river Ural flood-plain, and in the Kustanai Region. The second area
is a part of the Uy-Tobol population which resulted from the introduction
in 1961. The Russian desman used not to live here.
There are no data on the numbers of Russian desmans in the Kustanai Region,
but judging from the Chelyabinsk and Kurgan Regions population size, it may
be safely suggested that several hundreds of animals live here.
a. The Uralsk Region
ASPISOV (1952) and BORODIN (1963) have summarized all the data gathered on
the Russian desman distribution in the Uralsk Region between 1930 and 1950.
It has been observed in the middle part of the river Ural, from the northern
to the southern border of the Uralsk Region with the greatest density in the
area of the town of Chapaevo. BEKENOV (1970) has defined more exactly the
limits of the distribution area pointing out that Russian desmans occur toward
the South till the village of Kalmykovo and their density peaks at the river
Ural tributaries north of Uralsk-Sity. These data have been supported by BARABASH-NIKIFOROV
Observations from 1980 have shown that the distribution area of the Russian
desman stretches down the river Ural to the town of Chapaevo. From the Orenburg
Region border to the village of Skvorkino, it is found in every bottom-land
reservoir that is suitable for it to live in. Southward of Chapaevo the Russian
desman is rare.
Sightings have been recorded in the Kushum Canal, but this irrigation canal
can not be regarded as a good habitat because of considerable water-level
fluctuations. Further south, conditions are unfavourable for the Russian desman
though sightings are possible because some animals are swept down the Ural
by spring floods every year.
In the early 1980s, the estimated number of Russian desmans for the whole
of the Uralsk Region was between 1000 and 1500 individuals.
2. Introductions and reintroductions
Releases of Russian desmans, the purposes of which was species reintroduction
as well as establishment of new populations in the areas where it used not
to live, were started in the former Soviet Union in 1929. Altogether, 165
releases have been made in 30 republics and regions of the former USSR, and
10000 animals have been released.
Until 1941, reintroduction and introduction works were very wide in scope.
3411 individuals were released in 18 republics and regions in the European
part of the country. After World War II, these works slowed down, but in the
late '50s they were carried out very actively again. From 1957 till 1964,5022
animals were released (PAVLOV 1973). In succeeding years Russian desmans were
released in fewer amounts and, after the species was included in the USSR
Red Data Book in 1975, all activity in this field has practically stopped.
The results of the releases are summarised in Table 1.
We use the term "a successful release" to mean that this release
has resulted in the establishment of a new population in some area where the
species vanished or used not to live, and it being known that the population
still exist and is healthy. Examples are provided by releases in the Smolensk
Region where the current population is stable though its density is not high,
as well as in the Kursk and Chelyabinsk Regions where the numbers of Russian
desmans are increasing and the distribution area is expanding. Releases of
Russian desmans to the river Zhizdra bottom-land can also be regarded as successful
because the healthy population has been surviving here for more than 20 years
despite some unfavourable conditions (VORONIN 1969).
The term "conventionally-successful releases" implies that the
populations resulted from these releases existed for many years (15-20 or
more) but have not survived till now because of diverse reasons. Examples
of this are seen in Bashkiria (at the river Belaya), the Kuibyshev Region
(at the river Samarka) and in Tatarstan (at the river Ik). The release of
39 animals in the Buzuluk Nature Reserve (the Orenburg Region) was also regarded
as successful by many authors (PAVLOV et.al. 1973). According to BORODIN,
however, this release was made into the area where the Russian desman was
still present. One way or the other, from 1957 to 1959, i.e. in 23 years after
the release, 190 animals were caught here for further releases within the
region. Now, however, the Russian desman does not occur in this area.
Of special note are releases of Russian desmans in Western Siberia (in the
Tomsk and Novosibirsk Regions). The result of these has been only the existence
of a few individuals in some sites though, at first, a considerable increase
in numbers was observed here. It should be noted that an increase in numbers
during the first years after the release can not be regarded as a success
of any (re)introduction project as the situation is quite common to such undertakings
which may prove to be failures in the end.
The results of 78 releases remain unknown, because there were no observations
during the ensuing years or because releases were made in areas where the
Russian desman was still present, and often in great numbers. A large number
of releases ended in complete failure. It is known with assurance for 56 releases
(2881 animals) in 13 republics and regions of the former USSR. There are several
reasons for that. In some cases Russian desmans were released in areas with
unfavourable conditions for them. For example, 280 individuals were released
in lakes which are not situated in bottom-lands, such as Raifskoye lake (Tatarstan),
Zhuvintas and Anikshta lakes (Lithuania), Argazy and Shutovskoye lakes (the
Chelyabinsk Region), Tatarskoye lake (the Ryazan Region), etc. All attempts
to introduce the Russian desman in these lakes failed. A similar situation
held when Russian desmans were released in bottom-land lakes or rivers which,
however, were not quite adequate for their needs. Such releases took place
in the Moscow and Orenburg Regions, in Mari Republic (375 individuals) and
in Byelarus and the Ukraine (765 ones). In many release sites Russian desmans
did not survive because of carnivores (mink /Mustek vison) and competitors
(muskrat /Ondatra zibethicus) living there in large numbers.
Table 1 - Results of Russian desman reintroduction projects
Releases with unknown results
Gorky region (now Nizhni Novgorod)
Kirov (Vyatka) Region
Kuibyshev (Samara) Reg.
Mari Republic (now Mariy-El)
* - conventionally-successful releases
In other cases the reasons for the failure are attributed to economic activity
and poaching. For instance, Russian desmans released at the banks of the rivers
Lunka (the Yaroslavl Region) and Irpen (the Kiev Region) died out after the
areas had been drained for agricultural uses. SAKHNO (1967) indicates that
the same situation took place in a few other release sites in the Ukraine.
Reintroduction attempts made in some areas of the Kuibyshev, Dnepropetrovsk
and other regions ended in failure as illegal fishing with anchored nets was
a widespread activity there. According to BORODIN (1963), the Russian desman
population along the river Samara was almost wiped out by fishermen.
The reasonably large number of animals released is undoubtedly a prerequisite
to the success of a reintroduction project. All projects with few animals
released either failed or the results of them remain unknown.
In most cases, the failure was the result of the interaction between a variety
of factors, human activity playing the leading part.
From the above it might be assumed that despite the great number of attempts
good results have been few and far between. As a rule a considerable increase
in numbers was observed in the first years after the release. It was concluded
that the release was a success, and new groups of animals were being released
in the same place. But, very often, the opposite situation occurred during
the ensuing years and, in some cases, the Russian desman disappeared completely
from the release sites, after all. Only 12 out of 165 releases (7,3 %) can
be considered successful now.
Reintroductions and introductions of the Russian desman were not supported
by any grounding in theory and were conducted using trial-and-error, and this
has been the main reason why half-a-century of efforts have not been more
successful. Nonetheless, broad experience on catching, keeping in captivity,
transporting and releasing animals have been gained. This experience will
undoubtedly be of use for future reintroduction projects which should be preceded
by a thorough examination of habitats and be compatible with regional programs
of economic development.
In the past, the Russian desman was plentiful in Russia and was hunted on
a large scale for commercial purposes. For example, from 1817 to 1819 Russia
exported 325500 furs to China; and 100,000 furs were sold to the home market
at the Nizhni Novgorod Fair in 1836 (KAPLIN 1960). The great demand for Russian
desman furs resulted in a sharp decrease in numbers of the animal. From 1892
onwards some measures were taken to restrict the hunting but proved to be
ineffective. In 1920 hunting was abolished but that did not improve the situation
either. In 1923 and 1925, at least 9,200 Russian desmans were killed. In 1933
hunting was permitted and then abolished again from 1934 on. Between 1940
and 1956 only hunting under licence was permitted. BORODIN (1963) referred
to a total culling of 175858 animals for this period. The numbers of Russian
desmans continued to drop and from 1957 hunting was banned again. As large
scale fishing with nets was permitted over the major part of the Russian desman's
distribution area, the Russian Hunting Management Department allowed official
bodies in charge of fur purchases to buy furs of accidentally killed animals.
From 1957 onward the Russian desman appeared only as 'unintentionally killed'
in hunting statistics.
In 1975, the Russian desman was included in the USSR Red Data Book and became
a strictly protected species. It meant, however, that it was no longer included
in the list of game, and regional control hunting organizations were no longer
in charge of the census work. It was also excluded from the Fur Price List,
and fur-storing offices could no longer purchase Russian desman furs from
hunters and fishermen. Consequently, there is no way of monitoring the Russian
desman population, as census work is now conducted only by researchers in
rare regions. Elimination of the species from hunting statistics only creates
the illusion that it is well protected but, actually, it rules out the possibility
of obtaining the small amount of information which we used to have.
There have also been some changes for the better. Owing to including in the
Red Data Book, better protection has been afforded for the Russian desman.
The USSR Law on Conservation and Sustainable Use of Wildlife adopted in 1980
provides higher personal and collective responsibility for the direct killing
of animals included in the Red Data Book, as well as for the alteration of
their habitats. Studies on the "Red-book" species receive wide recognition
as one of the topical areas in current research and secure the financial backing
of the government.
4. Current threats
Russian desman numbers continue to drop. The estimation of current numbers
for the whole population is 40-50 thousand individuals, i.e. 30-40 % less
than they were in 1970.
The Russian desman's distribution area has generally changed: some populations
have vanished and some new ones have appeared due to releases made in the
areas where the species used not to occur.
Economic development and man's encroachment upon natural habitats are the
causes which affect the Russian desman as well as many other species. The
land privatization process, hydroelectric power station construction, fishing
with immovable fish-nets (anchored and fastened on the riverbanks), and grazing
are the main threats which lead to the decline of suitable bottom-land habitats
throughout the distribution area. Therefore, conservation of bottom-land habitats
is crucial for the future of the Russian desman. But for a real success in
a conservation and land management policy, it is extremely important to achieve
compatibility of economic development with the natural functioning of ecosystems.
Population distribution and development
The Russian desman population trend shows a progressive drop in numbers.
Human activity appears to have been the main factor affecting population and
distribution area developments.
In the Dnieper basin Russian desman numbers have halved within the last two
decades. In the Don and Volga basins the distribution area has split up and
the population has decreased two by thirds over the past thirty years. In
the Ural basin, the major area is situated on the border between Russia and
Kazakhstan, and the population is relatively stable. In Western Siberia, the
Russian desman population established by introduction shows an increase in
Russian desman numbers in the original distribution area of the species has
dropped, on the average, by two thirds, and add up to 40 000 individuals.
Destruction and alteration of the habitat
Destruction and reduction of the size of the habitats are caused by various
factors, and namely:
construction of hydroelectric power stations poses a threat to
the continued existence of the species in some regions where reservoirs
have been made (the Volga-Kama region, etc.);
draining of lands for agricultural uses leads in some cases to
the total destruction of the Russian desman populations;
water pollution from industrial sources often turns the small rivers
into gutters with no organisms living in.
Alteration and regression of the habitat are usually associated with:
grazing on the banks of rivers and reservoirs;
ploughing up bottom-lands;
reductions in areas of shrub vegetation.
These land-use changes lead sometimes to the complete disappearance of the
species in the region in question.
No precise data exist on deliberate killing.
Lots of Russian desmans are known to die in anchored fish-nets. The number
of deaths caused by fishing is sometimes so considerable that populations
become in danger of disappearance in the areas where this problem is particularly
Some of the Russian desman populations are adversely affected by the introduction
of the muskrat (Ondatra zibethicus). Russian desmans comprise up
to 25% of the animals killed in the traps set for muskrats. There is a need
in areas where the Russian desman is present, to change the forms of fishing
and catching muskrats so that they should not harm the animal.
5. Conservation measures
Protected natural areas are of primary importance in the conservation of
the Russian desman. On the territory of the former Soviet Union, there are
5 strict nature reserves -"zapovednik" * (four
in Russia and one in the Ukraine) and 80 "zakazniks"**
where the species is present. They occupy an area of 10 000 sq.km. (4 000
sq.mi.) which is not large when compared with the range of the species but
more than 30% of the whole population live there. In some regions, the Russian
desman has survived only in the "zakazniks".
The state of a Russian desman population can be improved by a number of means.
Among them there are:
the plantation of shrubs and the building of various shelters on the riverbanks
with poor vegetation;
rafts and hollow trunks of trees can be used in order to prevent the animals
being swept down by spring floods (Fig.2);
the replacement of muskrat kill traps by live traps. Figure 3 demonstrates
a round funnel submarine trap with wire screen sells of 45x45 mm.
when fishing in rivers where Russian desmans live, seines or nets with
sells of a large size (50x50 mm or bigger) should be used.
A combined program of conservation should be implemented to reverse the current
situation with the species. On the first stage: (1) a thorough examination
of appropriate habitats; (2) the establishment of wildlife reserves specifically
for the Russian desman; (3) the development of breeding-in-captivity techniques.
(4) research about numerical population tendencies, current distribution and
On the second stage: (1) to establish breeding centres; (2) to carry out
reintroduction projects; (3) monitoring and compiling the cadaster of the
Russian desman populations. These considerations are summarized pictorially
in Figure 4.
Introductions and reintroductions of the Russian desman that were
carried out from 1929 till 1977, have been much responsible for the current
distribution area of the species. Altogether, 10 000 animals have been released.
32 releases have been successful, 56 ones have ended in failure, and the results
of 78 remains unknown. The most successful project is considered to have been
the release of Russian desmans in Western Siberia, along the river Uy, which
has resulted in the establishment of a new healthy population.
The reasons for the failures are economic activity, poaching, an unfortunate
choice of release sites, and to not enough animals being released.
In the future, reintroduction projects must of necessity be preceded by the
inventory of habitats and be compatible with long-term regional programs of
The strategy for the Russian desman conservation involves research
into some aspects of the species' biology, the breeding-in-captivity problem,
and the set of conservation and reintroduction measures.
The following tasks of paramount importance are worth stressing in this context.
Conducting of an examination and inventory of habitats suitable for the
Compilation of the Russian desman cadaster.
Discovering and preservation of the major areas where the Russian desman
Selection of several areas which may serve as natural "genetic banks".
Development of techniques for breeding Russian desmans in captivity.
Preparation of legislation concerned rules of fishing with nets.
Figure 2. Rafts of logs and hollow trunks used in the Oksky
Nature Reserve to prevent
Russian desmans from being swept away by the floods
Figure 4. The scheme of activities on the Russian desman conservation
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After review the published and unpublished data on the status and conservation
of the Pyrenean desman (Galemys pyrenaicus) and Russian desman (Desmana
moschata), the following points should be stressed:
The DESMANINAE is a relict group of aquatic insectivores, a heritage of
the ancient European fauna, that are currently threatened;
The IUCN Red Data Book places these two species in the VULNERABLE
category, what which seems relatively consistent with the National status
attributed for each country;
The current distribution of these two species shows its endemic
characteristic: Galemys pyrenaicus, from the Iberian Peninsula and
the Pyrenean region, and Desmana moschata from the Eastern Europe;
Changes in the naturalness of their aquatic environments, namely in their
hydrobiological features, are responsible for the disappearance of these
species from a significant number of places; this stresses their bio-indicator
Biological knowledge of these two species is very scarce - priority
studies concern ecology, reproduction, genetic, physiology and behaviour.
with Galemys pyrenaicus,which was largely ignored in the past,
all the field methods on catching, handling, marking and surveying need
to be improved in order to obtain accurate population parameters;
with Desmana moschata, which was legally hunted in the past,
and for which data exist on population parameters, the major urgent needs
concern updating distribution and evaluating optimal habitats;
Only with a global conservation policy for the ecological aquatic units
- the river basins - will successful conservation of these species be achieved.
In this context, management and restoration should be performed taking desmans
Concerning international protection legislation:
Galemys pyrenaicus must be considered as priority species
of the annexe II of EC Habitats Directive;
Desmana moschata must be considered as strictly protected
species and included in the annexe II of Bern Convention.
We are grateful to Eladio Fernandez-Galiano for his efforts in making possible
the production of this report, to all colleagues that collaborated with information
and suggestions and to Dr Tom Tew for kindly reviewing the final English version.
* "zapovednik": a research reserve with the
protected territory completely excluded from any human activity except scientific
and, in some cases, environmental education programs.
** "zakazniks": a natural area set up to ensure
protection of one or more components of the natural complex within which specific
types of activity are regulated or not allowed.