We believe in the quick victory of the Armed Forces of Ukraine over the russian invaders and in the full restoration of Ukraine’s sovereignty. We help the defenders of Ukraine every day and look forward to important news from the front for all Ukrainians. That is why we have already begun to think about the post-war future. What will happen to wildlife in Ukraine after its victory and liberation from russian invaders, and how will we feel about these changes?
During any hostilities, countless living organisms are always killed, the fate of which no one cares about under martial law. Often, aggressor states deliberately destroy natural ecosystems in order to gain tactical advantages (arrange fire positions, clear horizons of visual obstacles, destroy camouflage elements for the enemy, create a smokescreen) or significantly worsen the living conditions of the local population. The actions of the aggressor are usually enough to turn large areas into ruins and fires.
In the short term, the impact of hostilities on biodiversity is always devastating. In addition, the beginning of any war terminates the activities of nature protection conducted by public authorities and public organizations. So while the war continues, there is no protection of nature or adequate monitoring of changes in the environment. And research and decisions based on the results of wars at the state or interstate levels have traditionally focused on the end results of the war for wildlife (detection of contaminated areas, damage calculations, reparations, restoration of notable changes to the layman – such as deforestation), rather than the environmental, social and economic processes that will cause long-term transformation of biodiversity.
The Ukrainian Nature Conservation Group is involved in collecting data on environmental crimes committed by russian troops during the invasion of Ukraine. The Ukrainian government needs such information to address its priorities in the near future. However, we have also launched a long-term study that will allow us to trace over time the changes in the nature of Ukraine that have occurred due to russia’s war against Ukraine. This research will inevitably continue for many years, accompanying the changes that will take place in natural ecosystems. So far, it can be assumed that different processes will take place simultaneously and there will be both recovery and further irreversible degradation, depending on which processes were launched by hostilities.
Today it is too early to talk about the nature of Ukraine after the liberation of the entire territory of our state from invaders. However, we can already name a large number of variables that will determine the future transformation of nature. The most significant consequences of the war for nature will be related to long-term social, institutional and economic changes, rather than the tactical aspects of hostilities.
Of course, the first thing that comes to mind is not social change, but pictures of war. Ammunition explosions, broken equipment, fires and turned into a “lunar landscape” territories. Such impacts rapidly destroy the natural appearance of any ecosystem, destroying most visually visible animals and plants. Some influences will be stretched in time. It is now difficult to assess how nature will react to the mass of abandoned destroyed military equipment scattered in forests, fields and swamps. How much and what pollutants will deliver thousands of pieces of broken equipment and exploded ammunition to the environment and how long will it last. It is impossible to calculate all this in full. First of all, because it is impossible to take any samples during the hostilities and accidents in uncontrolled territories and in combat zones. The same applies to pollutants released into the environment as a result of military destruction of industrial facilities and storage facilities for various chemicals.
However, damaged landscapes may remain in an unexpectedly beneficial state when no economic activity takes place that will allow nature to recover. Nature has an extremely great potential for recovery. Forests easily restore full-fledged ecosystems after fires, river floodplains cover vegetation with sandy alluvium after a large floodplain, and animals are rapidly inhabiting areas where their lives are not disturbed. The best example is the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, which 30 years ago was occupied by villages, fields and collective farms. And now it is the wildest and most unknown spot in Europe.
In cases with the outskirts of destroyed settlements or where demining is difficult for various reasons – after the end of the war there may be a truly beneficial period for nature without anthropogenic pressure. It will also apply to adjacent areas that have not been damaged but have the potential for biodiversity donors for areas that have been destroyed. The protected areas destroyed today may turn into zones that will be forced to have more restrictions on human habitation than any protected area. The longer the demining lasts, the harder it will be. Dangerous “surprises” of the Second World War are found in our time. Therefore, certain areas will be easier to give to nature than to spend precious time demining all threatening areas. By the way, even the interest in forestry will fall sharply in such areas, because wood with a large number of fragments and bullets is not only of no commercial value, but also dangerous for woodworking and logging equipment. Therefore, the interest of transnational companies in Ukrainian wood from some regions will fall. However, the loss of state interest in some forests and other areas will lead to an increase in uncontrolled use of nature by the local population.
About fortifications. Until the end of the war, both the defenders of Ukraine and the occupiers are actively building fortifications, heating and cooking near the fires. In all cases, wood from local ecosystems is used. It should be noted that heating and providing open fire at checkpoints in settlements usually means the use of wood from forest belts, as well as other artificial plantings near settlements. However, the construction of serious fortifications requires the use of quality wood from forests, so suffer and natural thickets of alien species, and industrial forests and protected areas.
The main factor that will lead to the weakening of anthropogenic pressure is, of course, the relocation of large numbers of Ukrainians from one region to another. The unprecedented rate of evacuation of people from the zone of occupation and hostilities removes most of the factors of anthropogenic pressure from the territory. Despite millions of human tragedies, this situation is helping to restore populations of all kinds, the spread of which has been hampered by economic activity. Of course, this statement should not be taken as an announcement of positive natural processes. First of all, aggressive alien species that are not wild and only displace aboriginal biodiversity will spread in depopulated areas. Before the war, some immunity of natural ecosystems prevented the spread of dangerous species in the wild, and intensive agriculture did not allow them to occupy agricultural land. The cessation of agricultural production will mean the creation of colossal epicenters of distribution of such alien species. The area of such zones, objectively, may be larger than the area of natural areas. Therefore, declining populations and weakening agriculture, industry and disturbances will indeed lead to the overgrowth of recently occupied areas, but this will not mean the restoration of natural ecosystems, but rather the unprecedented spread of alien species. Mutilated and abandoned settlements and natural landscapes, distorted by funnels and trenches, will form atypical for our country in recent decades, the types of settlements, the further development of which we do not yet know.
In some cases, ecosystems will be restored on the site of abandoned lands that people have not seen in a long time. This may be in areas that have undergone significant land reclamation in the past and have been maintained by hydraulic structures. What is artificially drained may become flooded again, and what is irrigated will return to arid conditions.
When predicting change, one should also think about where people are moving, fleeing the war zone. No administrative territory is ready for a large number of refugees. These are usually more prosperous and safe regions, where increasing population leads to increased pressure on natural ecosystems (from water consumption to littering and deforestation) and increased use of natural resources. The overall standard of living of prosperous regions is declining due to the redistribution of resources and eventually social tensions. After the war, not everyone will return to rebuild the housing and infrastructure of the destroyed cities. Therefore, after the peak load on ecosystems caused by the rapid influx of migrants to prosperous regions, the restoration of the previous state of resettlement will be only partial. The very fact of the influx of migrants will already mean a long-term burden on the ecosystems of remote regions from hostilities, and thus significantly increase the area of influence. This area will also increase due to the loss of agricultural areas in the occupied, mined or simply war-damaged regions, the lack of which will be compensated by additional development of natural areas.
Such tendencies are already being felt in Ukraine. The loss of 32% of arable land at the stage of sowing caused legislative changes and initiatives of the Ministry of Agrarian Policy to allocate additional land for agriculture in safe regions. In addition, in the hustle and bustle of making quick decisions, Ukrainian parliamentarians make decisions that are harmful to nature. You could even say destructive. Legislative changes have already effectively abolished the environmental impact assessment procedure. It is obvious that subsoil use, construction, logging and all other types of economic activities that should be carried out by the environmental impact assessment procedure are possible only in the territory controlled by Ukraine. Thus, in response to damage and enemy occupation of agricultural land in some regions, the state responds by destroying natural landscapes in safe regions. In addition, in the case of seizure of mineral deposits in the east and south of the state, uncontrolled mining is allowed in prosperous regions, including areas under special protection of the state in the west. It is clear that now the increased use of nature can reduce the impact of economic destruction. But tomorrow it will mean the loss of biodiversity and a significant reduction in living standards in all regions of the country, and consequently economic losses.
The administrations of national parks in the western regions of the country also report a significant increase of cases of violations in protected areas: littering, setting fires, etc. Or the example of the Chornobyl Radiation and Ecological Reserve, which has long been a home for a large number of russian servicemen who used it as a large, human-free area where camps could be “safely” deployed (of course, everyone knows they didn’t take the radiation pollution of the territory into account).
Let’s be honest: most of the negative impacts on natural ecosystems are always exerted by locals. They are traditionally engaged in all kinds of crafts, work in forestries and in the field of mining (this also applies to illegal logging, poaching, etc.). At the same time, IDPs do not exercise such influence and are unlikely to be successfully accepted by local nature users, who often have a significant corruption or illegal component. In other words, migrants are unlikely to join the locals in traditional nature management, and thus expand the range of impacts on ecosystems rather than exacerbate existing impacts. In particular, the amount of litter will increase significantly in prosperous regions.
One of the traditional influences of the local population on biodiversity is hunting. Under conditions of armed occupation and population decline, the impact of this factor will not disappear, but will change. Hunting can be virtually ruled out, given that occupation means disarming locals. However, the humanitarian crisis will lead to an increase in the number of cases of obtaining animals with tools and methods that are considered prohibited in peacetime and are classified as poaching. It should be noted that the first blow to biodiversity will fall in 2022 on the breeding season, which will obviously lead to a reduction in the number of large species in the short term. In the following years, without anthropogenic pressure, we can predict a significant increase in the number of many species of large animals. Incidentally, terrestrial animals, and especially mammals, will play a role in demining the area, as they will die on streamers and other anti-personnel munitions, thereby reducing the risk to humans. And the more animals left in the abandoned areas, the safer they will be for humans.
The risk of illegal animal fishing (excluding fishing) by migrants can be virtually eliminated. However, the level of nature management in general may increase in safe areas due to the general crisis and employment problems. Wildlife products are also important for the economy and the operational financing of war. Therefore, any business activity that will develop the economy will be actively supported (again, without passing the environmental impact assessment procedure).
All of the above and many other nuances we have not mentioned turn the prediction of changes in nature into a formula “with a thousand variables.” However, the direct destruction of natural ecosystems as a result of hostilities is only the part of the problem. The destruction of housing and industrial facilities in fact in a quarter of Ukraine means in the future large-scale restoration work. The support of the Western states and the readiness of the Ukrainians themselves to restore the state even better than it was, are for nature only the beginning of the problems. Will it be possible to rebuild the cities where they were without attracting new territories? Where to put millions of tons of concrete and brick fragments? What to do with the garbage that has turned to the all the property of several million of Ukrainians? And finally: what will be left of the nature of Ukraine if sand, rubble, wood and cement (chalk) are extracted from it to rebuild a QUARTER of the country!?
Of course, the outlined problems do not exhaust all the detrimental effects of russian armed aggression on the nature of Ukraine, and we are not yet aware of some of the problems, but they will have to be solved in any case. And the quality of life of many future generations of Ukrainians will depend on whether they are resolved correctly, in a friendly way to nature. It has been proven that without the preservation of nature, no state can prosper, and unjustified exploitation of natural resources, even in order to overcome the economic and social crisis, can in fact result in severe economic losses and deepening crisis. In order to find the right solutions based on economic, environmental, scientific and legal points of view, we need a qualitative and comprehensive assessment of all the devastating effects on Ukraine’s nature as a result of hostilities, with the involvement of a wide range of specialists. And we need to start such an assessment right now.