The Birds That Fly Over Both Sides of Donbas’ Contact Line
12 April, 2018

More than 250 types of birds – including the 50 that are listed in Ukraine’s Red Book of endangered animals – as well as mammals, insects, birds and dozens of rare plant species. Meotyda National Park, located in the war-torn Donbas region, is a unique nature complex for Ukraine and a national treasure. It stretches over 20 hectares of steppe, coastline and the Azov sea water.

However, its nature is not the only exceptional thing about Meotyda today. Since the start of the war in Donbas in 2014, half of the area, near currently occupied Novoazovsk, ended up in the territory not controlled by the Ukrainian government. The other half, near Mariupol, is officially part of Ukraine’s military actions zone.  

For the past four years, Meotyda employees have tried to protect the nature despite the proximity to the military action. They have learnt how to live and work alongside the military and border checkpoints. They are also fighting against the state’s bureaucratic system, which thinks that “it’s not the time for ecological problems when there’s a war going on in the country.”

The territory of the Meotyda National Park on the Azov coast in the Donetsk region. Photo credit: Anastasia Vlasova/Hromadske

“It’s not the best time for plants right now,” Oleksandr Bronskov tells us upon our team’s arrival. He has been working at the national park since it was founded. Today he is the head of the department of scientific work, but birds are his real passion.

“At least there are heaps of birds on the coast, they are nesting or resting on their way to warm countries. I have been trying for several years to track one species of geese, but I haven’t managed to. Maybe we will with you today.”The territory of the Meotyda National Park on the Azov coast in the Donetsk region. Photo credit: Anastasia Vlasova/Hromadske

The landscape has changed somewhat, in comparison to what we saw in the YouTube video in preparation for the trip. It is cold; we see a steppe, fog, sharp winds and mist. But the air smells like the sea and it’s easy to breathe in the fresh air. The birds fly across the horizon, the car passes by partridges on the road ahead, the trees are crimson red.

“I’ve known I wanted to be an ornithologist since the sixth grade,” Bronskov tells us. “What are my favourite species? Now we have no time, or money, to study them. We do everything at our own expense. Our colleagues use their own vehicles to drive around the park and the fuel comes out of our salaries as well. We even have a ‘free’ office.”

Oleksandr Bronskov has been working at the National Park ever since it first opened. Photo: Anastasia Vlasova/Hromadske

Before 2014, Meotyda’s administration was located in Novoazovsk, which is now controlled by the self-proclaimed “Donetsk People’s Republic.” They then had to move from their base in a rush, they did not even have time to gather all their documents and scientific work, they could only take their accounts. The territory of the national park – Kryva Kosa and the surrounding area – is now on the contact line.

“The most famous seagull colony in the ornithological world, plant complexes, steppe areas all remain there,” Bronskov says. “It all happened quickly, the militants gained control, they started to let everyone in, poachers appeared straight away, the birds flew away. The video that’s going round the internet at the moment, the advertisement for the “Novorossiya sea fleet” – that’s our Meotyda.”

Meotyda’s office in the village of Urzuf, outside Mariupol. The park now has 30 employees in total. Photo: Anastasia Vlasova/Hromadske

Their office is now located in the village of Urzuf, outside Mariupol and near Azov batallion’s base. The local council gave the settlers the abandoned Urzuf clinic building. The scientists made some repairs, volunteers helped with the furniture, they brought their old computers from home.

Meotyda’s office in the village of Urzuf, outside Mariupol. The park now has 30 employees in total. Photo: Anastasia Vlasova/Hromadske

“We even print out our annual reports and letters about the national park at the expense of volunteers and patrons. However, this year we bought several fire extinguishers. There are often fires in the summer, this is the steppe. We have to act quickly ourselves, while we call the fire service,” says the acting director of Meotyda Nadia Dolhova.

Dolhova tells us that she only started working at the park in 2014. We joke that she can now call herself an ecological “crisis manager.” Since that time, the Meotyda staff has had an almost complete changeover. Today it has a total of 30 employees. This happened because it was difficult for them to travel to the new office in uncontrolled territories. Most of the staff from Novoazovsk have quit. However, some people have continued to work in the “occupied” parts of Meotyda. And they unofficially maintain links with their colleagues there.   

Meotyda’s acting director Nadia Dolhova. Photo: Anastasia Vlasova/ Hromadske

“Of course we do not exchange documents or data, but we call them sometimes. We need to know what is going on there,” Dolhova explains. “It’s not their fault that that’s how it all turned out. They cannot leave. And they don’t stop working because who will look after the birds?”

The birds will not understand that there is “some kind of border now and that’s why they can’t fly any further,” Dolhova continues. She says now there is a conservation organization who stop the poachers from coming in. So the birds have started to return.

The territory of the Meotyda National Park in the Donetsk region. Photo: Anastasia Vlasova/ Hromadske

“This year the only pair of Dalmatian pelicans – a very rare species of bird – produced young. Isn’t this what happiness is?” she gushes.

The director of the park has established links with the soldiers and border guards, just at checkpoints located in the national park. We ask if these new neighbors ever interfere:

“We have already learnt how to communicate with them,” she reassures us. “At first, there were problems with the “Azov” battalion, but now we even organize events together. We also live in harmony with the border guards. The only bad thing is that, when there’s a change in management, we have to get to know them all over again and explain who we are and what we are doing here.”

“They are border guards, after all, they cannot accept the fact they are stationed on our territory, we don’t go and visit them, but we have also established ground rules.”

The ornithologists at Meotyda say that, because of the border guards, the bird population has even increased as they do not always allow civilians and tourists in. Although, off camera, the park employees sometimes complain about the border guards – their dogs eat the eggs and chicks in the bushes.

Dolhova also recalls how once she went with the park workers on a joint patrol and stumbled upon two girls in bathing suits.

“We asked them: “What are you doing here, did you not see the barbed wire?” And they said “We did, that’s where we squeezed through.” “Did you not see the sign that entry is forbidden?” And they said they did. “So how did you get in?” “Just like that, straight through,” they replied.”

In the three years of military action, the Ukrainian Security Service has inspected the Meotyda employees twice. The director says that they were checking for “separatism.”

The territory of the Meotyda National Park in the Donetsk region. Photo: Anastasia Vlasova/ Hromadske

“They called us all in for interrogation, asking who we’re talking to in the occupied territories, how we pay our wages and where we are getting the money. But they found nothing suspicious. I agreed to everything, I went to the interrogations, because if it got aggressive, it would only be worse,” Dolhova recalls.

Oleksandr Bronskov is a displaced person from Donetsk, but he straight away refuses to talk about it. At least once a week, he tries to get to the coast to look at the birds. Through his binoculars, from no less than a kilometre away, he can easily identify the species of bird by looking at this shape of its beak, the lines on its talons and its feathers.

“The main thing we need is to find money for documents, for the land development project, so that we can get written confirmation that the territory of Meotyda is protected,” he tells us sighing. “At the moment, we don’t have any of these papers, we cannot go to court. And someone could, for example, build a new holiday home, or cut the grass and, at the same time cut down the rare plants. We have written letters to the regional administration, the Ministry of Ecology and Natural Resources, but they only have the same answer: there’s no money, the country is at war, it’s not going to nature now.”   

What’s more, Meotyda employees say that the national park land could be given to former soldiers who served in Ukraine’s government-controlled military actions:

“This is a very delicate issue. Of course, we are only ‘for’ our defenders to receive land. But it should not be allocated at the expense of nature. Why not allocate state reserves or fields, when everything here will be destroyed, the land will stop producing life.”

The national park has potential for tourism and recreation, the director says. “This does not belong to anyone,” she says pointing at a recreational facility that we drive by.  

“To be more precise, the owner is somewhere in the ‘Donetsk People’s Republic’ and it has been ‘nationalised’ because of tax-dodging. We could host conferences here, in the summer there could be summer camps for children and other educational activities.”

She says many children are interested in nature, there’s just little opportunity to explore it.

“But who will give it to us? You see that lawn? We could build a campsite here. No everyone likes noisey holidays. Tents for hire, entertainment. We even have registered tourist routes, and they’ve been ready for a long time, we just needs funds for it all.”

Lighthouse on the Bilosarayska Kosa peninsula. Part of the Meotyda National Park, Donetsk region. Photo: Anastasia Vlasova

International organisations have offered the park’s scientists support, but, according to the law, Meotyda can only receive financing from one source, therefore, it can only rely on help from the state. However, at the moment, the state is not interested.

“Some people think that, right now, the most important thing is defending the country. Yes, of course defense is important, but if we give up on nature, if we don’t take care of it, then there will be nothing left when the war is over, there will simply be nowhere to live.”

International experience shows that recovering natural resources that have been lost to war is impossible if not done on time. For example, during the 1991 Persian war, there was a massive oil spill. Around 400 kilometres of coastline are still contaminated to this day, sea routes of fish and mammals has been permanently destroyed. In the 1994 Rwandan war, part of the Akagera national park was opened up to resettle refugees. As a result, rare local species of animals became extinct.

/By Anna Tokhmakhchi, Yevhen Spirin and Anastasia Vlasova

/Translated by Sofia Fedeczko