A Living Gift for a Living planet - Altai, RussiaIn 1997, the government of the southwest Siberian republic of Altai made a Gift to the Earth: two massive protected areas - Belukha Natural Park and Kuyum Ethnonatural Park, covering a total of 192,000 hectares. Both parks fall within the Altai-Sayan ecoregion (one of WWF's Global 200), a vast mountainous area that lies across the borders of Russia, China, Mongolia, and Kazakhstan, where Siberian forests meet Central Asian and Mongolian steppes.
The republic's decision to create the two parks is a major contribution to WWF's efforts to conserve this ecoregion, the third most important in Russia after the Caucasus and the Far East. The Altai-Sayan contains the world's largest unbroken stretches of Siberian pine and "black taiga" forests and is home to a rich variety of mammals and birds as well as numerous endemic plants and mosses. Key species include the endangered Argali mountain sheep (the world's largest sheep) and snow leopard, the Altai ular, the golden eagle, and the bar goose. Half the flora of Siberia is to be found in Altai - ranging from flowers such as edelweiss and tulip to valuable sources of medicines and foods - pine nuts, berries, and ferns. And two of the world's largest rivers (the Ob' and Yenisey) rise here, comprising a watershed that covers more than 5.5 million square kilometers and which sustains an area the size of Europe.
The Altai-Sayan is one of the last remaining places on the planet to be unscathed by human development. Local communities have traditionally supported themselves in ways that have had little impact on their surroundings, but change is finally on its way.
Following recent political and economic shifts in China and the former Soviet Union, new versions of old trade routes are planned. As well as facilitating cross-border commerce, these will open up new development opportunities in areas like the Altai-Sayan. Timber exploitation and hunting are two obvious threats. Meanwhile, gold mining has increased significantly in recent years, notably in southern Siberia and Mongolia. As well as the damage wrought by mining infrastructure, the processes used are polluting the water supply, poisoning fish and other aquatic species. Proposed gas and oil pipelines between Russia and China will cross Ukok plateau - Unesco World Heritage site - another potential source of environmental damage. A more unusual threat: the area is littered with toxic debris left over from space launches from Kazakhstan.
In a race to ensure that development does not occur at the expense of the Altai-Sayan's unique biodiversity, WWF is working to establish a network of core protected areas. Liaison with authorities in Russia, China, Mongolia, and Kazakhstan is proving fruitful: regional governors in Russia, Mongolia, and Kazakhstan have increased the territory covered by protected areas, in some cases by as much as 20 per cent. Among these protected areas are the Altai republic's Gifts of Belukha and Kuyum.
Species conservation is another priority: WWF has targeted two "flagship" species - the snow leopard and Argali sheep. Both are threatened by habitat fragmentation, increased poaching and illegal trade in body parts. WWF has focused on raising awareness of the threats, developing a conservation strategy, and promoting law enforcement. The project is also introducing an insurance scheme currently operating elsewhere in Russia that compensates farmers for loss of livestock to snow leopards.
In addition, the organization has been working to identify and demonstrate the potential for sustainable development. It is obviously vital for local communities to be able to support themselves, and WWF is doing its utmost to help them devise revenue-earning activities that do not degrade their natural surroundings. One notable success here has been the reconstruction of irrigation channels for pasture, and the reintroduction of the practice of making hay for storage for winter feed. These activities have enhanced livestock production and at the same time reduced pressures on natural resources in the protected areas. Other development possibilities include sustainable timber production (Russia's first FSC-certified timber comes from the Altai-Sayan ecoregion) and ecotourism. The region's stunningly beautiful mountains and lakes are already something of a tourist draw - pilgrims who believe in Mount Belukha's mystical powers flock here every year, while other visitors gather on the banks of Lake Teletskoye to marvel at the lake's clear, cool waters and the cedar groves that surround them.
Raising public awareness of Altai's ecological importance is proving another potent conservation tool. Thanks to extensive media coverage and numerous discussions and workshops, the authorities are now reviewing plans to construct a road and gas pipeline from Russia through the Altai Republic. The road and pipeline were slated to cut through the Ukok World Heritage Site, but, alerted to the threat this would pose to the natural environment, the regional government and assembly are now looking into alternative possibilities.
Support from regional leaders is proving invaluable: leaders from Russia, Mongolia and Kazakhstan in 1999 jointly agreed an "Altai-Sayan Millennium Initiative", which was subsequently discussed at the Conference of the Parties of the UN Convention on Biodiversity. International support is also positive: two GEF projects worth up to US$16 million have been approved - one for Mongolia and one for Russia and Kazakhstan - so long as other donors can be found to match this funding.
WWF has always maintained that successful conservation depends on building partnerships and fostering a spirit of generosity. Nowhere is this proving truer than in the Altai Sayan.