Changes in Russian law threaten world famous nature reserves

Posted on 24 June 2016

​World Heritage sites and critical nature reserves in Russia will face new and expansive threats following a vote on Friday to reduce environmental protections across the country.
World Heritage sites and critical nature reserves in Russia will face new and expansive threats following a vote on Friday to reduce environmental protections across the country.
The Russian parliament vote weakens protections for natural areas and favors the expansion of private ski resorts over caring for the environment. The legal changes on environmental protection, the first in almost five decades, allow a variety of infrastructure – from hotels to ski trails – to be built on some of the world’s most famous nature reserves.
Weakening protection for Russia’s 103 reserves will also impact some of Earth’s most iconic and endangered animals, including the snow leopard and Amur tiger as well as the Western Caucasus World Heritage site that is home to a breeding center for the Persian leopard.
“Russia's downgrading of the environment puts recreation and private business interests over the protection of natural areas of international significance,” said Igor Chestin, CEO of WWF-Russia.
According to WWF-Russia, the push for the legal amendments was driven primarily by plans to expand ski resorts in the Sochi site that hosted the 2014 Olympics. Russia plans to extend ski facilities into the Western Caucasus World Heritage site, cancelling commitments to expand natural protection in an area set to be the location of the world’s first Persian leopard release later this summer.
“These law changes show that Russia is pulling away from its Olympic commitments to the international community and the environment,” Chestin added.
Attempts to build in the area started in 2007 during the preparation for the Olympic Games. At that time, the Russian government made a commitment to enhance the World Heritage site by adding new territory and guaranteeing strict protection to the neighboring areas of the Sochi National Park. 
Late in 2015, Russia pulled its promise to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to create two protected areas bordering the Western Caucasus site and instead downgraded protections to make way for a mountain ski complex. WWF expects urgent action from the IOC to remind Russia about the importance of living up to its environmental commitments.
“The International Olympic Committee should monitor the delivery of commitments made by countries during the preparations for the Olympics, including commitments on nature protection. Not doing so will undermine the credibility of any future commitments," said Chestin.
Russia is famous for its unique system of natural protected areas of which there are more than 200 federal protected areas, six World Heritage Sites, 103 strictly protected nature reserves and 48 national parks.
Protections have been weakened for Russian natural areas like the Western Caucasus.
© WWF-Russia / Sergey Trepet
Endangered Persian leopards soon will be reintroduced into the Western Caucasus World Heritage site.
© Victor Lukarevskij / WWF-Russia
The Western Caucasus World Heritage site is under threat from expanding ski resorts used for the Sochi Olympics.
© Caucasian rhododendron