Ivan Tymofeiev missed his family in western Ukraine. He’d been working for a large German conservation nonprofit in Berlin and decided it was time for a trip to see his mother in his hometown of Uzhhorod. He also planned a work-related detour: a visit to partners working on a peatlands restoration project in Ukraine’s Zacharovanyi Krai National Park, which he was overseeing from afar.
When Tymofeiev boarded a plane on February 10, 2022, he thought he’d be gone a few weeks. A full-scale invasion by Russian forces was a threat, but one Ukrainians had lived with for years, particularly since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. Although active fighting had occurred along Ukraine’s eastern border, everyday life was peaceful for most. No one knew when—or how, or if—tensions would come to a head.
On February 24, Tymofeiev woke at dawn in his childhood bedroom to his phone buzzing: Russia had launched dozens of missiles aimed at cities across Ukraine. “It was all so fast. It’s something you don’t like to remember but can’t forget,” says Tymofeiev, who is the Central Asia and Eastern Europe deputy team leader for the Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union (NABU).
Russian troops moved swiftly across the country’s eastern edge, bombing Kharkiv before descending on the capital of Kyiv, where they encountered intense resistance and failed to take the city. Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy quickly issued a state of martial law, which barred most adult male citizens, including Tymofeiev, from leaving. Since then, the brutal war has continued with no end in sight. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights estimates that more than 9,000 Ukrainian civilians have died, more than 16,000 have been injured, and more than 6 million people have fled, creating the fastest-growing refugee crisis in Europe since World War II.
Beyond the human tragedy, the invasion has taken an incalculable toll on the environment. Even so, Ukraine’s government, international agencies, and various nonprofits attempt to track and verify what impacts they can. In May 2023, Ukraine’s Ministry of Environmental Protection and Natural Resources estimated that the war had caused $53 billion in damage to the nation’s air, water, and land. Forests have been burned to the ground, tanks have torn apart wetlands, oil from ruptured pipelines has tainted landscapes, and mines and toxic military scrap now litter nature reserves and protected areas.
Yet the full scope of ecological devastation to a country that hosts more than one-third of Europe’s total biodiversity, while covering less than 6 percent of its land area, will be impossible to comprehend until well after the conflict ends, if ever. The fighting has been largely concentrated in eastern and southern Ukraine, home to some of the country’s most important protected areas and migratory bird stopovers, many of which remain dangerous or occupied. “It’s too early to say what the future of Ukrainian nature will be after the war,” says Tetiana Shamina, head of communications for the Ukrainian Nature Conservation Group (UNCG). “But we can say with certainty that the Russian war is the most destructive factor for the wild nature of Ukraine that we have ever encountered.”
That reality is deeply concerning for Tymofeiev, who has remained in the country since that February day, anxious about the future of ecosystems he has worked to safeguard. “We don’t have any plan B for nature,” he says. “All we have is Ukraine.” He and other members of the country’s conservation and birding communities are forging ahead, doing what they can to monitor and protect wildlife and habitats in a war-torn land.
Ukraine is a country rich with natural wonders. Fertile lakes and wetlands abound in the north, and the formidable Carpathian Mountains and their old-growth trees tower in the west. To the south and east, vast grasslands make up Europe’s only steppe zone. The Dnipro River cuts through verdant valleys across the nation’s center before its waters spill into the Black Sea. More than 430 avian species, including 18 that are globally threatened, live within the country’s borders. “Everywhere you go in Ukraine, you will find different birds,” says Oleksandr Ruchko, an amateur ornithologist who has been giving birding tours across Ukraine for more than 20 years. “It’s a bird paradise.”
Ruchko had once been a radio engineer who worked occasionally for the Soviet military, but he always questioned this work: “I thought we would do better producing something for peace, not war.” He opened the Ukrainian Birdwatching Center in Lviv in 2002. At first, people didn’t know what to make of groups he led, sometimes mistaking them for hunters. But his part-time ecotourism initiative slowly grew, and eventually Ruchko was guiding locals and tourists alike across the country and helping to grow a nascent birding community.
At the time, there was also growing interest in conservation. Ukraine had been a powerhouse for the Soviet economy before the USSR dissolved in 1991: With its fertile farmland, mineral and energy resources, and industrial production, its output at one point accounted for around 25 percent of the Soviet gross domestic product, according to a 1993 article in the Journal of Environmental Law and Policy. But its environment paid a high cost for this productivity, and by the time the Soviet Union collapsed, residents were increasingly alarmed by the pollution around them. “Industry has turned much of Ukraine into an environmental catastrophe,” wrote the article’s author. Most glaringly, the 1986 nuclear disaster at the Chernobyl power plant in northern Ukraine exposed millions of people to radiation and contaminated the country’s air, soil, and waterways with radioactivity that will persist for decades.
Spurred by that disaster and ongoing degradation as well as the democratization of society, new nature and environmental organizations sprung up. The Ukrainian Society for the Protection of Birds (USPB), founded in 1994, was one of the earliest conservation groups in the liberated nation, and others followed. “In Soviet times, we had one, maybe two conservation NGOs,” says USPB director Oleg Dudkin, who lives in Kyiv. “Now there are hundreds.”
With that momentum, Ukraine made progress safeguarding its wildlife habitat. In 2021, 13 percent of Ukraine’s land and nearly 10 percent of its waters were protected in some form, and scientists and nature advocates were actively working to increase that total before war broke out. Other prewar conservation efforts focused on restoring unhealthy ecosystems and bolstering Ukraine’s at-risk wildlife, such as Aquatic Warblers, Barn Owls, and sandy blind mole-rats.
Then the first bombs fell. Domestic and international conservation organizations quickly ceased their work in the country, including Tymofeiev’s peatlands project, which had been slated for completion later that spring. “I had this feeling,” he says, “that big organizations that stopped projects in Ukraine were thinking, ‘Two to three days and there will be no Ukraine anymore.’”
Sea of Azov
and inland waters
Approximate extent of Russian military advance or control:
Sea of Azov
Protected land and
of russian military
advance or control:
Map: Michael Reagan
In April 2022 Ruchko stepped outside and watched in awe as some 40 White Storks flew above Rozvadiv, a village south of Lviv. The birds had reached the end of an arduous migration from their Africa wintering grounds, and the sight gave him hope. White Storks are a national symbol of peace, life, and rebirth: Tens of thousands arrive each spring and often nest near homes, which legend says brings luck. “Maybe they will bring us peace soon, too,” he wrote in an essay for The Guardian.
With support from Lviv’s tourism department, Ruchko decided to help others find a semblance of respite amid the turmoil. Their regular tours disrupted, he and other guides began taking displaced people who were flooding into the city on bird walks in its parks and green spaces. “They were not ‘birders,’” Ruchko says. “They were regular people who wanted to hear something other than sounds of war, bombardment, and missiles.” But birding felt different during wartime than it had before. “It’s hard to go out with cameras and binoculars pointed at the sky,” he says. “Everybody is asking, ‘What are you doing here? Why do you have that camera?’” Rather than mistake them for hunters, now onlookers wondered if they were spies.
Many in Ukraine’s now scattered conservation and research communities similarly sprang into action in the early months of the invasion. Some went either to fight for their country or to offer assistance on the front lines. “We were worried in those first days,” says Eugenia Yablonovska-Grishchenko, a bioacoustics ornithologist who lives and works in the Kaniv Nature Reserve along the Dnipro River. “But we wanted to do something to defend our country.” While volunteering as a paramedic with her husband, Vitally, she came across a young soldier whom she had taught about endangered species conservation when he was a boy. The positive encounter moved her: “This is the new generation that might work to protect our nature,” she recalls thinking.
Staff at some parks and preserves created classes and workshops for temporarily displaced Ukrainians, especially children. UNCG also raised funds to provide direct assistance to workers who remained in more than a dozen nature areas, including the famous Askania-Nova Biosphere Reserve, a sprawling grassland sometimes referred to as the “Serengeti of Europe.” But the reserve stopped receiving that assistance once Russian forces occupied the area earlier this year.
Tymofeiev, meanwhile, turned to his European network for support. He connected with Dorothée Guénéheux, a Brussels-based partnership development officer for BirdLife International, a global partnership consisting of more than 100 national and regional conservation groups around the world (including Audubon, USPB, and Tymofeiev’s German organization, NABU). Guénéheux had started her job only weeks before, but serendipitously, she had spent years working in the humanitarian aid and human rights sectors.
BirdLife began raising emergency funds, which enabled USPB project workers to continue to receive their salaries. “We’ve been able to mobilize very quickly,” Guénéheux says. “Even humanitarian agencies, I think, were not so quick. That’s thanks to the solidarity of those partners.” Meanwhile, another BirdLife affiliate, the Polish Society for the Protection of Birds (OTOP), organized to provide safe passage for fleeing USPB employees, as well as some national parks staff, and their families. The group’s members met refugees at the border, drove them to Warsaw, and set up temporary work and living arrangements.
Despite successes supporting one another, conservationists were often powerless to protect land, waters, and wildlife in Ukraine from escalating damage. In the Kherson region, along the shores of the Azov and Black Seas, fires ignited by artillery and mines destroyed reed thickets and imperiled the habitats of birds such as the Demoiselle Crane, a species considered endangered in Europe. In Askania-Nova, saiga antelope were at risk of starvation, and in Tuzly Lagoons National Park on the Black Sea, by May 2022 an estimated 2,500 dead dolphins washed onshore, having suffered apparent acoustic trauma from submarine sonar.
This past June, in one of the war’s worst catastrophes, the Kakhovka hydroelectric dam collapsed. Likely caused by Russian explosives, the damage unleashed water from the nation’s largest reservoir by volume, flooding communities and forests and killing dozens of people. The deluge also killed fish (notably the critically endangered sturgeon) and destroyed shorebird nesting islands and habitats. Pollutants lifted from the reservoir’s bottom began seeping into tributaries of the Dnipro River.
For Yablonovska-Grishchenko, forest fires in southern Ukraine, sparked by bombings and artillery, have been especially painful on a personal level. “It’s a catastrophic situation,” she says. She thinks about the chaffinches whose unique regional song dialects she’s spent more than two decades studying. “Birds forget them,” she says. “And we know that chaffinches will return to the forests, but the dialect will be missing fully.” While the birds will still be able to communicate, she worries that a rich repertoire of courtship tunes could be lost.
The months passed, and the White Storks didn’t deliver the portents of peace that Ruchko had hoped for. Continued air strikes threatened to disrupt his sporadic birding tours at any time, and the storks weren’t doing well, either: During the 2022 breeding season, residents in Lviv noticed dozens of nests, which the birds typically reuse each year, eerily vacant. A small survey turned up almost no successful nests in Kyiv, either, says Dudkin.
Although White Storks are relatively resilient as a population, that’s less true for the most vulnerable wildlife during warfare. In Syria, a country that plunged into civil war in 2011, an already small, endangered population of Bald Ibis withered to a single bird in 2014. Most scientists agree that the conflict was a main cause of the decline.
Over time, few species on Earth escape war’s effects. A 2021 study in Conservation Letters found that at least 78 percent of terrestrial mammal species and 85 percent of terrestrial bird species experienced armed conflict within their geographies between 1989 and 2018. In the second half of the 20th century, more than 80 percent of the world’s major armed conflicts took place in biodiversity hotspots.
“If you want to conserve biodiversity on this planet, then you need to be concerned with conflict,” says Thor Hanson, an independent research biologist in Washington State who studies the relationship between ecology and warfare. He became interested in this connection while working on a project to conserve mountain gorillas in Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable National Park during a lull in conflict after a war ended in the 1980s. While the project had international attention and good funding, progress fell apart when a rebel group attacked the park in 1999. “Wildlife conservation in the area will always be tenuous until those underlying social stresses are addressed,” he says. “It’s all very fragile.”
Rather than view war as an isolated event, Hanson’s studies consider an ongoing cycle of impacts, including military preparations, active conflict, and aftermath. Training and weapons testing, for example, can damage landscapes before a single troop is deployed, and militaries—especially that of the United States—are some of the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitters. When fighting ensues, domestic and international funding for conservation, regulation, and enforcement may decrease in priority, and spikes in illegal mining or logging, chemical-waste dumping, and emissions are common (however, ecosystems sometimes perversely benefit from disruption to human activities: In Ukraine, Dudkin says, poaching has seemingly dropped since the war began). Postwar, land may not be just contaminated or mined, says Hanson; it may also require vastly different management for decades.
Today there is growing recognition of the far-reaching environmental and public-health repercussions of war and conflict, whether in Afghanistan, Iraq, Colombia, or Vietnam, where the effects of the U.S. use of Agent Orange still linger. But the Ukraine war, in the heart of Europe, has drawn unprecedented international attention to these issues. In December, after a decade of debate, the U.N. General Assembly adopted significant new legal principles aimed at enhancing environmental protections during and after war. This past March, the European Parliament voted to codify laws against ecocide, making the deliberate destruction of the environment a crime. A long-running campaign to make ecocide a serious crime is also gaining traction at the International Criminal Court.
In Ukraine, the war’s impacts include not only immediate destruction, but also lost potential: conservation projects never finished or started, long-running records of undigitized scientific data at risk of destruction during the occupation, and expertise that has left the country. In Russia, war sanctions have similarly upset key conservation funding and multinational collaborations, including a breeding program for critically endangered Spoon-billed Sandpipers.
The war’s effects also ripple across the world and beyond. Global biodiversity governance, especially in the melting Arctic where cooperation with Russia is crucial, has been thrown into disarray. Experts worry that geopolitical concerns spurred by the war—and money devoted to addressing them—are already eclipsing global conservation priorities. In March 2022, the Russian space agency ended its cooperation with ICARUS, a groundbreaking project to track GPS-tagged migratory animals. An antenna aboard the International Space Station’s Russian module stopped transmitting at the start of the invasion. It hasn’t restarted.
Some say Ukrainians don’t have blood, but soil, in their veins,” says Tymofeiev. “Everything that grows in the soil, everything that lives off the soil, that is all a chain that cannot be broken.”
It’s a sentiment that is both philosophical and literal. Much of Ukraine’s biodiversity is made possible by its black earth or chernozem, some of the most arable soil on Earth. That fertility has been one catalyst for Soviet and now Russian forces to lay claim to the territory. That’s not lost on Ukrainians, who have a profund connection to what they feel deeply is their land, their rivers, their birds, and their grassy plains.
The stewards of Ukrainian lands and waters have continued or restarted their work wherever possible and are looking ahead. Conservationists are eager to begin planned restoration work on Snake Island, a biologically rich, rocky outcrop on the Black Sea that Ukrainian troops regained from Russian control last year. UNCG is helping scientists save and digitize research, and in 2022, the group says, 27 proposed nature reserves were approved by the government.
In April, Dudkin and his colleagues from Poland, Germany, and Lithuania traveled to Ukraine’s Volhynia region to conduct habitat surveys for a grant proposal to the European Union’s LIFE Programme. They seek funds to restore habitat for Aquatic Warblers, a threatened species that breeds almost exclusively in Belarus, Ukraine, and Poland. Tymofeiev has also kept busy; the peatlands project that originally brought him on his trip was finally completed in September 2022. Recently, he organized a puppet show focused on Barn Owl conservation. The sight of children—many of whom fled west with their families—in a theater learning about the vulnerable species brought him to tears.
As this year’s White Stork breeding season arrived, there was reason for hope: The country had received major rainfall in the first five months of 2023. “In some places, the floodplain was dry,” says Yablonovska-Grishchenko. “But now, we can see these fantastic lakes and marshes. And so many birds.” Dudkin thought the flooding boded well for a more successful nesting year: “A lot of water means a lot of food.” While their typical monitoring surveys aren’t possible, USPB and its partners are deploying a questionnaire asking residents to report on this year’s nests, reconnecting people with nature while tracking a critical species.
This spring, birders in Kyiv set up their own birding tours, their binoculars and cameras pointed up toward the lush green treetops. These events all serve as a powerful reminder of what those outside the country can forget: Normal life still goes on amid hardship and chaos, and nature finds a way to survive. So do the people of Ukraine, says Yablonovska-Grishchenko, who perseveres with her research in the Kaniv reserve, listening for the high-pitched staccato trill of the chaffinches she loves. “We continue to live and work as usual,” she says. “We are Ukrainians.”
This story originally ran in the Fall 2023 issue as “Collateral Damage.” To receive our print magazine, become a member by making a donation today.