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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Natural Loss At the Oka Nature Reserve, projects to save endangered cranes and bison are in jeopardy because of Russia's money squeeze.

Yury Markin opens the wooden door to the pen of a pearl-white Siberian crane. He steps in gingerly, with a quick glance to his left. Too late. The crane, frantic and flapping, descends on him, poking his pincer-like beak toward Markin's eyes, neck and arms.


Markin laughs. Reaching around the crane's body, he lifts it up and holds it upside down. The bird's rubbery neck swings helplessly. Its beak snips at Markin's boots.


"Cranes are very aggressive", he says, nodding his head toward another crane who stands on one leg in the comer of the pen. "That is his mate. When I came into his territory, he thought I had come to steal her".


The mating of Siberian cranes, a highly endangered species, is not a casual affair. Only 15 of the delicate white birds were sighted after their migration to their winter nesting place in northern Iran this year, and those birds are in constant danger from hunters. Markin, a field ornithologist, and other scientists at the Oka Nature Reserve's captive breeding center, have been working since 1979 to help increase the Siberian crane population.


They are now ready to release two cranes into the wild in western Siberia for the first time. But with Russia's tough economic times, this last-ditch effort to save the species is in danger. The reserve cannot afford the helicopter needed to transport the cranes to Siberia. Many of the scientists have not been paid in three months, and the reserve itself is struggling to stay in operation.


"It is just unbelievable that now, after so many years and so much hard work, we are ready to release the cranes, and suddenly there is this situation in our country", Markin says, sitting in his cabin on the reserve. "I spend so much time trying to get food, fixing the house. I have no time for research. It is like I am a farmer, not a scientist".


The Oka Nature Reserve is an 80, 000 square-hectare swath of protected forest and lowlands 400 kilometers southeast of Moscow in the Ryazanskaya region. Through its heart runs the narrow, clean Pra River, which empties into the larger Oka River at the eastern edge of the reserve. The Oka is now about 400 meters wide, but by the second week in April, the water will spill over the banks, submerge the surrounding grassy plains, and extend to a width of 25 kilometers. This is the most active time for the reserve's scientists, as the animal world wakes up after winter: Flocks of white-fronted geese will pass through on their migration, along with several species of wild ducks.


Since it opened in 1935, the reserve has been an important center for biological and zoological research. Considered the most prestigious of Russia's zapovedniki, or reserves, it attracts the best scientists, as well as ecologically minded tourists from all over the globe. The captive breeding center for cranes is one of two in the world -- the other is in the United States in Baraboo, Wisconsin -- and the reserve is the only site for captive breeding of the endangered European bison. The release of 40 bison into the wild has also been prevented by politic, as there is now a war in the Caucasus Mountains, the logical place for the bison to settle.


Breeding, however, is only part of the reserve's activities.


"We are not just a breeding center. We are a full nature reserve", says Dr. Svyatoslav Priklonsky, the reserve's director, as he unfurls a map of the reserve. A protected area, the Oka reserve is the site of research into all kinds of plant life and animals such as beavers and snakes.


Using a whittled stick, Priklonsky points out territory that was added to the reserve in 1989. The central section is restricted for scientific use only, but the northern and southern parts can be used for other things. Priklonsky is trying to figure out what.


"I know that you need money to get money", says Priklonsky, who has been posted at the reserve for 30 years. "Maybe the northern part would be good for logging, maybe for recreation and hunting".


The reserve has an annual budget of 10 million rubles, which is not even enough to pay the salaries of the reserve's workers, Priklonsky says. In addition to the science department, there are 64 rangers and other maintenance and support workers.


Although the budget has been increased over the past few years, it has not been able to keep up with the rate of inflation. The scientists have trouble finding and purchasing corn and grain for the animals and can no longer afford to pay a veterinarian. The annual journals produced by the reserve's researchers have been suspended because of the money squeeze, the nature museum has closed, and the scientist's living conditions have deteriorated. Markin, the ornithologist, plants potatoes and keeps geese for food. The other scientists keep livestock and grow vegetables, too.


Vsevolod Stepanitsky, head of the national parks section of the Russian Ministry of Environmental Protection, said that Russian geography has long made it necessary for field scientists to build settlements in remote places and work with the land. "But it is true that the researchers are now becoming peasants and less and less scientists", Stepanitsky says.


The difficulties in Russia's 80 reserves could be worse. In the former republics of the Soviet Union, many protected areas are in worse shape. Karagel Sevlich, a zapavednik that was established on the Armenian-Azerbaijani border to symbolize friendship, is now a battlefield. In Georgia, the reserves have been taken over by war, or have lost the Russian researchers who ran them. The Central Asian governments are indifferent to preservation and want to use the reserves for industrial purposes.


"The idea of nature reserves is a Russian one", Stepanitsky says. "Reserves were given to the republics by force. Local governments tended not to care about them very much".


Tatyana Kashentseva, the director of the captive breeding center for cranes, has worked at the reserve since 1976. As she makes her morning rounds, she prefers to talk about the crane's habits, rather than the center's problems.


"Imprinting is our main problem", Kashentseva says, referring to the way a baby crane cap identify with either humans or other cranes. "If the first thing a chick sees is a person, then it thinks it's a person, and it thinks it should mate with a human. These we cannot release into nature. For the cranes we release into nature, they must imprint with other cranes".


To feed the young birds, Kashentseva dresses in a white, hooded uniform, attaches long beak-shaped pincers to her sleeves and does a strange dance to put the cranes at ease. Entering the pen, she gets down on one knee and tosses bits of snow gently into the air. Then she stands, flaps her arms and takes two steps forward and one back, bobbing up and down all the time. Slowly, the young cranes approach, and Kashentseva gives them their breakfast, a mixture a bit like chicken feed.


The machine that mixes the food is broken, and the center can't afford to buy a new one, so Kashentseva has to prepare it by hand, which takes much longer.


Priklonsky is sensitive to the needs of the scientists, and wants to improve their conditions. But he is not sure how to do it.


"We need ideas, but we are scientists", he says. "We have never had to worry about getting money for survival".


Some of the projects already underway to earn money are hunting and fishing trips for Westerners, ecological tourism and agriculture.


For Markin, problems like that are a nuisance. When the spring floods come, he will have to spend all his time in the field, observing the migration of the white-fronted geese, the ducks and other birds that nest in spring.


His biggest worry is the cranes. Markin does not know whether or not they will be able to release them as planned.


"People in Moscow talk about democracy and freedom", Markin says. "It is different for them. To us, research is the most important. What good is freedom if we can't do our work? "