Kamchatka - Dream or Reality?The remote peninsula of Kamchatka in the Russian Far East, which juts out between the North Pacific and the Sea of Okhotsk, boasts some of the world's most unusual scenery. Kamchatka is one of the most highly active volcanic zones on the planet, and its wild coastlines, stark volcanic mountains, thermal springs and geysers, thick coniferous forests and spectacular mountain lakes are turning parts of the region into a major tourist destination - to the potential detriment of its wildlife. Other threats include forest fires and prospecting for minerals - particularly for gold.
In 1999, in a bid to save Kamchatka's unique ecology, its Governor pledged to increase protected areas, to just under a third of the region's total territory. The aim was to create several nature parks. One of these, known as Klyuchevskoy, would be in the centre of the peninsula and contain some of the largest volcanoes in Eurasia as well as the spectacular Valley of the Geysers and part of the rugged Kamchatka Bay coastline - home to a stunning range of sea birds. Another park, Golubye Ozera (meaning Blue Lakes), would protect a unique series of four mountain lakes. Both would safeguard habitat for rare animals such as brown bear and bighorn sheep.
The two parks were duly created in the autumn of 1999. Within a year, basic ecotourism infrastructure had been set up in the Blue Lakes park, thanks in part to 25 local school children who took part in a WWF-organized environmental camp and helped design and lay out nature trails through the park. WWF aims to maintain a permanent camp in the park, so that children can come every summer to learn about the region's wildlife and the importance of conserving it. Ecotourism is also being developed in the Nalychevo nature park - WWF support here has included publication of books on the Birds of Nalychevo and the Valley of the Geysers.
Schoolteachers and children in Kamchatka have also joined a WWF supporters' network that operates in Sakha (Yakutia) and Chukotka, as well as Kamchatka. The idea is that children take home their new-found environmental awareness and pass it on to other members of their families. There are now WWF clubs in nine towns and villages in Kamchatka, with members receiving regular updates on conservation issues via a "Rangers for the Living Planet" news bulletin. In November 2000, WWF club members from 21 schools in Kamchatka got together at a conservation festival - presenting their own ideas as to how to set about conserving WWF's Global 200 Ecoregions, taking part in an environmental quiz and giving musical performances. The winning team got to go the Blue Lakes summer camp in summer 2001.
Meanwhile, WWF embarked on procedures to have the volcanoes of Klyuchevskoy included in the UNESCO World Heritage List. A series of natural parks have been established in Kamchatka, among them Nalychevo and Bystrinsky. Nalychevo, which lies on the upper reaches of the Nalychevo river, contains several hundred thermal and cold mineral springs. Bystrinksy is essentially mountainous, with huge tracts of coniferous forest that are home to mink, beavers, and elk as well as the bears and bighorn sheep.
Kamchatka is still sparsely populated, but WWF and its partners are working to ensure that those people who do live here continue to benefit from the peninsula's natural resources. Ecotourism is one way they can profit. Others include traditional activities such as controlled hunting of bears and bighorn sheep, strictly limited trapping of fur animals, and gathering mushrooms and berries. Local people continue to raise reindeer in Bystrinksy, where a new WWF network of radio stations enables villagers to report incursions by poachers and to communicate in emergencies. This is a vital new development as people live far apart in Kamchatka and roads are few. The radio network has already saved the lives of two villagers - one of whom had been injured by a bear - who were able to call out a helicopter to transport them to the nearest hospital.
Initiatives like this, which serve conservation purposes as well as providing a social service, are bound to encourage local support. WWF was quite overwhelmed, nonetheless, when the administration of Nalychevo named a 1,950-metre peak after the organization in recognition of its work in the region and its support to the park. As if this were not accolade enough, they then went on to name a second peak in the park after WWF's President Emeritus, HRH The Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, whose visit to Kamchatka in 1997 inspired many environmental projects in the region. The next move was to call a river after Viktor Nikiforov, Director of regional programmes at the WWF Russian programme office.
"It is gratifying," says Nikiforov, "to have one's work appreciated. But I do feel rather personally responsible for the future of that river now it bears my name!"