European Wilderness Volunteer DiaryThe Diary of the European Wilderness Society Volunteers

740-hour walk and all the wilderness I have skipped

Elena Leonteva

Hi, Servus, Привет, my name is Elena and since January I’m the new ESC-Volunteer at the European Wilderness Society. Here’s the story of my 4297 km long journey from my hometown in Russia to Austria. 

From the banks of Volga to the banks of Danube I cross multiple regions and countries, different ecological and time zones on my way to the EWS office. I move through a substantial part of the Earth, densely occupied by humans with gems of wilderness scattered among it. Although unfortunately, I skip most of it by plane, even a quick look over such a natural diversity provides a good overview of what is there to advocate for.

Train 217GA: Cheboksary, 22:45 – Moscow, 13:10

My journey starts at Cheboksary, the capital of one of Russia’s constituent regions – the Chuvash Republic. On this night train ride, we pass several Russian regions with different wild areas, but there aren’t any protected areas on our way. 14 hours and 25 minutes later we arrive in Moscow, from where the plane will first take me all the way to Istanbul and then to Vienna. 

Plane TK-412: Moscow VKO, 02:40 – Istanbul, 05:45

Even though Russian wilderness is not included in the European Wilderness Network I’ll still start my overview from these areas crossed on my way from Moscow to Istanbul. There are different categories of protected natural areas in Russia. The highest degree of environmental protection is established in the category called Zapovedniks. Translated from Russian it means sacred, prohibited from disturbance. These areas represent untouched natural ecosystems with prohibited economic activity and access closed to the general public. During my flight I cross two such areas, corresponding to the IUCN category Ia: Kaluzhskiye Zaseki Nature Reserve and Bryansky Les Nature Reserve. 

Kaluzhskiye Zaseki is a nature reserve in Kaluga Oblast. From Russian, Zaseki means field fortifications made of felled trees. Forests containing such defensive lines were restricted for public use and protected. Kaluzhskiye Zaseki represents the remnants of the old-growth forest, which was a part of Moscow’s defence line from the potential invaders from the south in the XVI-XVIII centuries. The mosaic of different soil types here supports different forest types including dubravas (from Russian, forests consisting almost exclusively out of oaks) with individual trees dating 400 years and more. Almost half of Zapovednik’s territory is considered to be a key international ornithological area. Currently, it’s also one of the places of reintroduction of the European Bison to Central Russia.

The Bryansk Forest Nature Reserve is a nature reserve in Bryansk Oblast, near the Russian border with Ukraine. The forest is an integral part of the Nerussa-Desna Woodland UNESCO-MAB Biosphere Reserve. It represents one of the last remaining unbroken forests on the southern end of the European broadleaf forest, supporting abundant wildlife in the forests and bogs. The Bryansk forest is the only place in Europe with all ten of the European woodpeckers: great spotted woodpecker, middle spotted, lesser spotted woodpecker, Syrian, white-backed, black woodpecker, grey, green, three-toed and Wryneck. Zavpovednik’s symbol is the black stork, which is included in the Red Data Book of the Russian Federation due to the destruction of its habitat in the form of the old-growth forests.

Here we cross the border of Ukraine. Ukraine is represented in Wilderness Network, but I’d like to mention several not (perhaps yet) included natural areas crossed on this journey. 

First, we fly over Michael’s Virgin Land Nature Reserve, which is part of the Ukrainian Steppe Nature Reserve. It is the remnant of what was formerly a large virgin grassland and it covers meadow-steppe and forest-steppe in the northeast of Ukraine near the border with Russia. It is known for wildflowers, feather grass, fescue and other grasses and it exhibits plants found in both northern and southern steppes.

Then we move to Yelanets Steppe Nature Reserve. It is a protected nature reserve of Ukraine that covers a section of the largest virgin steppe tract in the Northern Black Sea Coast area. It is the only steppe reserve in Right-bank Ukraine (the area on the west side of the Dnieper River). A herd of American bison was introduced and lives within the territory. 

Having similar to Russia nature protection system, these two nature reserves are also considered to be zapovedniks with limited public access: mass recreation and construction of facilities are prohibited as are hunting and fishing. 

During this flight, we also pass the Danube Delta Transboundary Biosphere Reserve. The  Reserve represents a labyrinth of water and land shared between Romania and Ukraine. It is made up of countless lakes, channels and islands at the end of a 2,860 km-long river. The area is particularly well known for its abundance of birdlife, with the presence of 312 important bird species, many of which use the Delta as an important stopover and breeding area. About 90 fish species are present including populations of sturgeon. The Delta is also one of the last refuges of the European mink, the wildcat, the freshwater otter and the globally threatened monk seal.

Having met Danube here we’ll follow its path further with a few minor deviations.

Plane TK-1883: Istanbul, 08:50 – Vienna, 09:10

The plane from Istanbul to Vienna takes us over Persina Nature Park in Bulgaria. The Park is the only Bulgarian nature park situated along the Bulgarian part of the Danube river. The designation of this protected area aims at the conservation and restoration of Danube wetlands and islands. There are 2 candidates from the park in the European Wilderness Network: Milka WILDIsland and Persinski blata Wilderness. 

Milka WILDIsland is covered by natural riverine forest, consisting mainly of willow, poplar and elm. It provides a good habitat for rare plant species, such as the yellow water rose and swamp ragweed. It is also an important bird breeding area for a number of aquatic bird species, such as cormorants and black-necked grebe and the habitat of the white-tailed eagle. A rich diversity of mammals including black ferrets and river otters can be found here, as well as many amphibians and reptiles.

Persinski blata Wilderness consists of 4 separated but ecologically linked marshes and lakes. It is a wetland of great international importance and a local hotspot for biodiversity, especially favourable to birds. Colonies of many different bird species live here, including terns, herons, cormorants, gulls, wild ducks and geese. The area is particularly important as a safe nesting spot for extremely threatened species such as the Dalmatian pelican. Furthermore, black storks gather here in autumn and the mute swan nests here in summer. There are also many rare and threatened plant species in the area, such as water chestnut, yellow floating-heart or frogbit.

Upon entering Romania, we fly over Retezat Wilderness, which is embedded in the Retezat National Park, the oldest national park in Romania. The park is located in the southwestern part of the Carpathian Mountains. It has large well-preserved forests and a high number of endemic and endangered species that gives the area a very important role for biodiversity conservation and the development of natural ecological processes. The flora of Retezat Wilderness consists of approximately 1 190 plant species, of which 130 are endangered or vulnerable. Here you can find one of the last remaining pristine forests in Europe, a homeland for all Carpathian Wilderness iconic species. More precisely, 55 species of mammals can be found in Retezat, accounting for 23% of all European terrestrial mammal species. Wolves, brown bear, wild boar, Eurasian lynx, wildcat, chamois, marmot, roe deer and red deer, as well as small carnivore species such as badger and otter found suitable habitats in the park. Soaring through the sky, you will find different species of eagles on the hunt for a meal.

Finally, we pass Hungary and enter Austria. Having crossed forests, steppes, seas, wetlands and mountains in the course of my 1,5-day journey for the following week I will be bounded by a few blocks of Vienna with my path leading to the Covid-testing booth and back to the apartment. Nevertheless, I haven’t reached my final destination yet. Winter and snow await me again at the Biosphere Reserve Lungau and so my wild journey continues.

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