Sakha-Yakutia - The Biggest Gift of AllIn September 1996, at the launch of WWF's Living Planet Campaign, the President of the vast but remote Russian Republic of Sakha announced his intention to protect an area of virgin Siberian (or taiga) forest and tundra twice the size of Germany. This was the first WWF Gift to the Earth, and the biggest. So far, WWF Gifts to the Earth cover 160 million hectares worldwide: the Sakha Gift alone covers 70 million hectares - more than 20 per cent of the republic's territory.
Those 70 million hectares include some of the world's most extraordinary and unforgettable scenery: huge forested tracts and seemingly endless tundra, massive mountain ranges and vast expanses of icy Arctic Ocean - almost half the republic falls inside the Arctic Circle. Much of the territory is covered by permafrost, and for seven months of the year, Sakha's many rivers and lakes freeze over, as temperatures plummet to levels of cold unknown anywhere else on the planet, dropping as low as -72 degrees centigrade. In summer, when the mercury can rise to around 30 degrees, a stunning array of plants bursts into flower and birds break into song.
Sakha is one of Earth's most inaccessible places, with many areas reachable only by helicopter. Consequently, much of it remains undeveloped. Noting that Sakha's unspoilt forest and tundra "are the priceless heritage not only of my republic, and of Russia, but of the whole world," the President pledged to safeguard the future for the home of more than 60 different mammals including polar bear, brown bear, moose and lynx. The areas covered by the Gift also provide habitat for long-distance reindeer migrations - a rare occurrence now that so much of natural habitat around the Arctic Circle has been fragmented.
The republic lies on the East Atlantic Flyway - a key bird migration route. Scientists have spotted 280 different birds here: geese, falcons, and the increasingly rare Siberian white crane. As many as 2,000 of these graceful and elegant birds stop here each year, to nest and spend the summer in the Arctic section of the Sakha tundra.
The republic's human population is tiny (1 million), but immensely varied. Sakha is home to no fewer than 80 ethnic groups, most of whom depend on the taiga and tundra for their survival - supporting themselves through hunting, breeding reindeer, and fishing. Indeed, the people of Sakha are proving to be a vital conservation force. It is rare to find a place where everyone, from the President to hunters and fishermen, shares the same commitment to protecting their lands from uncontrolled mineral extraction (notably gold, silver, and diamond mining: Sakha produces some 98 per cent of Russia's diamonds), and from an alarming upswell in wildlife poaching.
It was this extraordinarily high level of local enthusiasm for conservation that most impressed WWF's Director, Claude Martin, when he visited the republic in 1998. Initial amazement gave way to comprehension as Martin spent more time talking to his hosts: throughout history - and particularly throughout recent history - the people of Sakha had been forced to give up ownership of their lands so that others could exploit their rich mineral resources. Totally deprived of any control over what was happening to their surroundings, they saw none of the profits generated by this exploitation, and were simply left with a degraded environment to live in.
"No wonder," said Martin on his return, "the entire Yakutian population ... has such strong ties to their land. It nourished them against all odds of history. The natural resources of Sakha's vast wilderness remain the only life insurance the Yakutian people have."
The Sakha Gift consists of several different reserves, each designated to protect a different area and habitat. The basic conservation plan is to set aside a series of totally protected areas (for example along river banks which are among the most fragile of all habitats), alongside nature reserves in which a limited range of activities is permitted. These include traditional landuse practices as well as new low-impact development initiatives such as ecotourism - viewing the spectacular birdlife of the Lena Delta, for example, and visiting Berelkh, where many mammoths have been dug out of the permafrost.
Key to the success of this plan is the involvement of local people. Throughout the world, many local communities are happy to cooperate with conservation schemes, aware that this will be to their long-term benefit. In Sakha, however, people are coming up with their own initiatives - volunteering ideas and launching activities such as forest and river clean-ups and creating public parks, as well as organising a huge tree-planting ceremony, a World Environment Day rally, and a "Make a Gift to the Earth" concert and rock festival.
The Sakha Gift is the single most significant contribution to WWF's effort to establish a network of protected areas in the Russian Arctic. The total arctic area protected has doubled since 1993. But, as Viktor Nikiforov of WWF's Russia Programme points out, more reserves are still required: "The economy of the region is still developing in an unrestrained fashion, especially in areas of oil and gas exploitation. More prospective mineral deposits are discovered every year." Nikiforov believes that it is vital to establish protected areas in regions where biodiversity is highest before the extracting companies arrive. With this in mind, and encouraged by the success of the Sakha experience, WWF is working to have new protected areas created and to improve the management of existing protected areas throughout the Arctic region.