MOSCOW. (RIA Novosti commentator Tatyana Sinitsyna)
Southern Primorye Territory is to host a guarded nature reserve for 30 Amur leopards (P. pardus orientalis), the world's rarest big cats. To this end, the route of the Eastern Siberia - Pacific Ocean (ESPO) oil pipeline will be altered, costing its builders another $3 billion. But there is one more facility jeopardizing the leopard project - a gas pipeline, which is planned to be laid across the nature reserve.
Amur leopards have long, thick fur that allows them to survive in northern territories. They are disappearing before our very eyes: there are as few as 40 Amur leopards left on earth: 30 of them live in Russia, and the rest in China. If poachers kill just two or three more females, the population will never be restored.
There is still hope of saving these unique animals. A recent meeting chaired by Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov approved an initiative from the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment to create a comprehensive nature reserve. The legal documents should be processed by the end of the year. The decision comes after pressure from scientists, wildlife experts and the public to save the Amur leopards.
A century ago, in imperial times, the natural habitat of Amur leopards and tigers was declared under state protection. In 1916 the Kedrovaya Pad - Russia's oldest nature reserve - was established. Many generations of scientists have worked there. Until recently the reserve was owned by the Russian Academy of Sciences. Over time two other wildlife preserves - the Barsovy, run by the Ministry of Agriculture, and the Borisovskoye plateau, belonging to the local administration - were incorporated into it.
This division of ownership was disastrous. The reserve was guarded ineffectively and without any coordination, and poachers didn't miss their chance. The population was decimated, and the number of leopards fell to 30 individuals, which is the critical point for bio diversity.
"Triple government" in the reserve is now being abolished - the departments are merging to form a single body responsible to the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment. What can you expect from this redistribution of powers?
Igor Chestin, head of WWF Russia, told RIA Novosti that the absence of coordination between the departments and the lack of centralized management was a major impediment to the program to restore the leopard population. Now that hindrance has been removed.
The main changes in the reserve come down to extended credentials and new financial opportunities. This year alone, as much as $400,000 is to be allocated for the project. Scientists will be in charge of the research work necessary to maintain the conservation and breeding program. At the same time the reserve will be guaranteed a preserved status - the security system will be improved to provide better defense against poachers, illegal deforestation, industrial development and destruction.
Will this important step eliminate all threats to the leopard? Hardly. The risks persist, and they are related to industrial projects. It should be said, however, that one of the most serious threats has been eliminated this year. Under pressure from public opinion and environmentalists, Transneft, which operates the ESPO pipeline project, agreed to remove its oil terminals to the village of Kozmino, near Nakhodka.
According to the initial project, a branch of the pipeline was to be laid from the town of Taishet via the most direct route, entering the Sea of Japan at the Perevoznaya bay. That would have taken the pipeline across two crucial reserves. First, it was to be laid in close proximity to the shores of Lake Baikal, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and at its final stage, the pipeline was to cross the leopards' habitats - the Kedrovaya Pad and Barsovy nature reserves.
Environmentalists long opposed these two sectors of the pipeline, but it was not until 2007, when President Vladimir Putin interfered, that it was changed. With all his political will, he forced the oil producers to divert the pipeline away from Baikal. Some time later another decision was taken - the final terminal of the pipeline was removed from the Perevoznaya bay to the Kozmino bay. As a result of this concession Transneft had to invest another $3 million in the project and change the completion deadline.
Still, there are some industrial plans that could jeopardize the leopard project - a gas pipeline across the reserve. This pipeline goes in the direction of the border with North Korea. The authors of the project planned that the pipes should be laid next to the shore, cutting across the coastal part of the Barsovy nature reserve.
"We suggested excluding the coastal area from the development plans and attaching another territory to the gas project, which is five times larger, but would take the pipeline along the border with China," said Igor Chestin. "The matter hasn't been settled yet. They have an alternative variant - laying the pipeline on the seabed, rather than along the shore. We've just started public hearings and discussions."
The 30 leopards and the slightly more numerous but no less threatened Siberian tiger population are exposed to one more danger nonetheless. The government of the Primorye Territory has launched a full-scale reconstruction of the Khasan-Razdolnoye highway, which bisects the nature reserve. After being renewed it will become a federal road, and it's clear that no leopard will be able to cross it. Meanwhile the species' recovery depends on their being able to move freely and comfortably around their habitat, with no obstacles to their natural routes of migration.
The road is essential to the local human population, but there are ways to minimize the negative impact. One idea is to construct the road in a tunnel underneath the migration zone. But the Khasan-Razdolnoye highway is owned by the local government, which has no funds to allocate for the expensive business of tunnel building. There is still a way out: they can hand over the highway to the Ministry of Transportation. So far the question has been raised and is under discussion.
The project will take at least two years of hard work and no less than 25 million rubles. But as a result, a vast Far Eastern national park will appear on Russia's map.
The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.