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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Fund Defends Russia's Wild Side

Russia's endangered bison will get some fresh blood next week when three of their Finnish cousins from the Helsinki Zoo will be shipped into central Russia. The Finnish bovines will join a recently revived, free-ranging herd in the Oksky Nature Reserve f part of a save the bison project launched by the World Wide Fund for Nature in 1996.

If all goes according to plan, the 34-head herd will multiply to 200 bison roaming the Oryol, Kaluga and Bryansk regions by the year 2001, fund officials say.

The 20th century has been a topsy-turvy period for Russian bison. In 1937 the European bison nearly became extinct f with only 12 creatures counted throughout the continent. However, under special conservation programs spearheaded by scientists in Russia and abroad, the bison bounced back. In the 1980s there were some 2,000 of the animals in Russia alone. However, ethnic wars and unchecked poaching took their toll in the 1990s, depleting the population to 206.

The save the bison project is only one of 80 conservation efforts launched by the Moscow chapter of the international World Wide Fund for Nature, which is also known as WWF. Since the office was founded five years ago, it has grown from a staff of five, with only $200,000, to a team of 30, administering a $4.5 million annual budget. Some of the fund's resources are donated by Russian companies, but most of the money is funneled in from abroad, from government agencies or other WWF national organizations.

In addition to promoting the sustainable use of natural resources and protecting Russia's rare and disappearing species, the WWF also tries to put conservation issues on Russia's radar screen.

"In Russia, environmental questions are not a priority. Most of the people are trying to solve another problem f how to survive through the economic crisis," said Katya Pal, press officer at the WWF Russian Program Office. "Besides, there is so much nature in Russia that people here just don't appreciate it."

Indeed, Russia's territory is so vast that 211,800 square kilometers f an area five times the size of Switzerland f has been carved out by the WWF as protected reserves. The fund has established 22 national parks and protected areas that stretch from the Taimyr peninsula in the far north to southern Astrakhan and Sakhalin island in the Far East.

The largest of these is Taimyr's 42,000 square kilometer Great Arctic Reserve, home to a vast array of animals, including sandpipers, polar foxes, bears and the world's biggest free-ranging herd of reindeer, numbering some 700,000. In this remote territory, explorers also recently uncovered the frozen remains of a woolly mammoth f a now extinct creature that roamed the tundra 10,000 years ago.

"This is the last reserve of untouched nature in Russia," said Viktor Nikiforov, director of WWF's regional programs. "That is why it is important to preserve its beauty."

The WWF's efforts to save the endangered Amur tiger have also had impressive results. These majestic animals are particularly vulnerable to poaching, as their bones and other body parts command a high price in China, where they are used to produce various medicines. Fifty years ago only 80 tigers were left in the Russian Far East, but now f thanks to protection programs f there are an estimated 450.

The WWF's anti-poaching brigades are partially responsible for the tiger's revival. The program hampers illegal hunting by tracking each of the animals through the use of a special collar.

In addition to protecting rare animals, the WWF is also seeking ways to provide people with an incentive to preserve the environment.

Take the WWF's timber project, for example. The fund has set up three model timber enterprises throughout Russia, which, as Pal said, "combine man's interests with nature's needs."