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Science team plunges into Pripyat Marshes

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July 28, 1998, 1 a.m. |
There are treats for mosquitoes and traffic police alike this Summer in a remote corner of Ukraine. Thanks to a new prize awarded by the Royal Geographical Society of London, the mosquitoes will get an opportunity to sample foreign blood from a joint British-Ukrainian team of researchers, scientists and young conservationists exploring the Pripyat Marshes in the Shatsky National Park. Meanwhile the traffic police will be bemused by Mir. Mir is patriotically pa-inted blue and yellow like the Ukrainian flag, and as prone to technical malfunctions as the Russian space station ofter which it is named. Mir is a 1981 Safari Landrover four-wheel drive vehicle and the pride and joy of Dave Minter, the expedition's leader. 'It's a splendid vehicle,' Minter enthuses, pointing out a gouge in one of the tires, suffered on one of Ukraine's less passable roads. Mir (along with its crew) is in Kyiv for a week undergoing repairs, having been driven by Minter all the way from Britain to Volhynia, in the North-West corner of Ukraine bordering on Poland and Belarus where the Shatsky National Park is located. The park is known as Ukraine's 'Lake District', both for its large number of lakes and for its great natural beauty. The Pripyat Marshes, so named because of the river which runs through the region in Ukraine and Belarus, are Europe's largest region of wetlands. Minter and his team are funded by the Ralph Brown prize, worth around $24,000 and awarded for the first time this year. The gift from 'a passionate devotee of water sports', which is all Minter has been able to find out about Mr. Brown, the prize is open to anyone in the world to apply for as long as the expedition involves wetlands - marshes or shallow coastal waters. Other short-listed projects this year were exploring the Seychelles, white-water-rafting through the Himalayas and travelling by a balsawood craft through South America. Minter is understandably proud that the less-glamorous-sounding Ukraine project won. He attributes the success to having had real contacts with local scientists. Minter has had links with Ukraine since 1993, when the British Council in Kyiv put the Center for Agricultural and Biosciences, for whom he works as a reasearcher, in touch with the Ukrainian Institute of Botany. Minter later won a grant from the British Darwin Institute to computerize the Institute of Botany. Six scientists from the institute are accompanying the British team on this project. Minter chose to explore the Pripyat Marshes because they are among the most endangered eco-systems in Europe. The river Western Buh flows from this region Northwards into the Vistula and thence to the Baltic sea, while the Pripyat joins the Dnipro - via Chernobyl - which runs South to the Black sea, so the area forms a kind of crossroads for Europe's water systems. With appropriate care, says Minter, the wetlands could potentially be the heart of an ecological corridor connecting the two bodies of water. One result of the research will be a recommendation to the Ukrainian government to make the whole area a nature reserve. The first half of the expedition was based in Shatsky national park, but 'exploration was the theme,' Minter said. The team canoed down the Stokhid and Turiya rivers to work out routes for the second half of the expedition. Stokhid can be translated as 100 ways, which Minter found to be a fairly accurate description of the river's meandering and unmapped routes. The team also surveyed the Shatsky lakes, while Minter, an expert in microfungi, collected and classified specimens with his colleagues from the mycology department of the Institute of Botany. 'There are many new records for Ukraine,' Minter said of the results. 'It's clear we're dipping into a whole new bucket with lots of species waiting to be discovered.' The expedition will look not only at the ecology of the area but also its human history and characteristics. During the first half, sustainable tourism expert Lindsay Fielding from Nottingham Trent University in Britain came along to look at how the area could be opened up to tourism without destroying the village life that has survived there for generations. In the second half of the expedition in August, historians will visit World War Two sites in the region, which was a stronghold for both the Ukrainian Insurgent Army and Soviet partisans. 'There are enormous problems for Ukraine in developing a tourist industry,' Minter said, singling out, after experience, the difficulty of coming into the country by road. 'But there's wonderful potential in places like Volhyn region. A lot of charm is in things the Ukrainians have not even grasped, like the traditional agriculture, old villages, every village pond with its flock of geese.' Fielding meanwhile had been sampling local restaurants and cafes to take notes on the service. She too foresaw problems for mass tourism, but predicted that with good management and an improved infrastructure, Volhynia could attract more specialized visitors without spoiling the traditional structure of life. Shatsky national park, which is on one of the main road routes from Ukraine to Belarus, already caters for local tourism with hotels and tourist bases, but that is also one of the problems, as the facilities cause pollution especially of the lakes, said Irina Dutka, head of the mycology department at the Institute of Botany. Following the expedition, the team will formulate proposals for educating local tourists and managers in ecological issues. Dutka said that Ukraine could learn much from Britain about nature conservation and welcomed the further cooperation between the two countries offered by the expedition. As well as experts in their various fields, teenagers both from Ukraine and Britain are taking part in a fairly unique cultural exchange. For the British teenagers, 16-year-olds from Hampton school in London, the unrelenting rain of the first expedition had made the biggest impression - and Mir's technical foibles, of course. 'We changed its name to 'reliable' for a while, that seemed to work,' said one. 'But it didn't last.'
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