Doing fieldwork in the remote wilderness of Russia isn’t for the faint of heart. There are long distances to travel on deeply rutted roads, bleak outpost towns with meager accommodations, and bears and wolves to contend with. Plus—in the case of visiting American scientists—the constant presence of an armed guard who wasn’t there to protect them from large carnivores.
“He was there in case we encountered illegal poachers,” explains forest and wildlife ecology (FWE) professor Volker Radeloff, who has been visiting Russia in a research capacity for a dozen years, most recently with his fellow FWE professor Anna Pidgeon.
According to the duo (who are married), the opportunity to visit two of Russia’s protected areas— the Kologrivksi Forest northeast of Moscow and the Caucasus Mountains in the south—is worth the trouble.
That’s because Russia offers a unique case study for conservation scientists interested in studying the impact of land use changes on wildlife populations. After the fall of the Soviet Union, citizens abandoned the state’s collectivized farms, leaving many of the agricultural fields to revert to a more natural state—and opening up new space for animals to live and roam.
“Their forests are regrowing and their wildlands are coming back, which is something we don’t see in many other places on the planet—especially at that magnitude,” says Radeloff.
Radeloff, an expert in using satellite imagery to monitor land use changes, can look at his remote sensing data and see that forests are expanding in Russia. But the images don’t tell Radeloff and Pidgeon much about what’s happening “on the ground” with local wildlife populations. For that, they need to partner with Russian scientists, working with them on their turf.
As an example, while satellite imagery can help identify promising habitat for the reintroduction of European bison into new areas within the Caucasus Mountains, many other factors will determine a herd’s ultimate success.
“We identified an area that looked like good habitat, but the local scientists made it quite clear that this would not work because of the human context,” says Radeloff. “They told us the bison would all be shot there within a week; they’d never survive. That’s the kind of information we need that we cannot learn remotely and that nobody is publishing about in scientific journals.”
That “human context” is a significant factor, even within the nation’s protected areas. Animals are hunted for food by locals and for trophies by affluent sportsmen. In the southern Caucasus Mountains, ibex, a type of wild goat, are killed for their horns, which are used as wineglasses during traditional Georgian wedding ceremonies. The Saiga antelope of the Kalmykia are likewise poached for their horns, which are sold on the Chinese medicine market. These forces must be factored in.
Trips to Russia also enable Radeloff and Pidgeon to develop important scientific relationships. They regularly host Russian conservation scientists in their Madison labs, giving visitors the opportunity to work on short projects that can aid their efforts back home in Russia.
“Both of us are interested in capacity building, particularly in countries where the resources or training may not be quite as comprehensive as it is here in the United States,” says Pidgeon. “These relationships lead to a cross-pollination that benefits both sides as we work to study and support wildlife populations in Russia.”