Russia's Hidden Paradises - Nature Documentary

Russia's Hidden Paradises - Nature Documentary

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Bigger than Europe and Australia together... ...Russia is a land of incredible vastness ...and wonderful, fascinating nature. Kuril Lake on Kamchatka in the far east of Russia... a paradise for the world’s largest brown bears. In the far north, the frozen wastes of the Yamal peninsula...

...are home to the reindeer herds of the Nenets. And in the far south, the ancient forests of North Ossetia-Alania... the Caucasus are once again the habitat of wild bison. In all these places researchers and conservationists are working... ...with great enthusiasm to preserve Russia’s hidden paradises. Located in the extreme west of Russia is the Curonian Spit: A narrow strip of land in the Baltic Sea that’s around 100 kilometres long. Since 1945 the northern half has belonged to Lithuania...

...the southern half to the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad. Amongst other creatures, it is home to the Tengmalm’s owl. And he makes sure the bird is in good hands. Vast, white beaches make this an ideal place for a seaside holiday.

And a rewarding location for scientific research. There’s a lot aerial activity going on above this narrow strip of land in the sea. That is why biologists have been studying bird migration here for more than 100 years. The Curonian Spit with its valuable ornithological station...

...definitely belongs to the world’s natural heritage. Up until 1945 Rybachy was called Rossitten. It was the world’s first ornithological research station. Established in 1901... first the ornithological station was only sparsely equipped. German priest and bird lover Johannes Thienemann... ...built it up ‘with a heart full of glowing enthusiasm’. Rossitten is regarded as the birthplace of modern ornithology. Here, German-Russian relations are still very close.

Thienemann was the first researcher to ring birds on a large scale. He began to study living birds in their environment. There was a tradition here of catching hooded crows for food. The birds were caught alive and bitten to death: A cruel way of killing them. The only good thing was that a method existed for catching birds alive. Instead of killing them, Thienemann ringed the birds and released them.

Every year in late March ornithologists in Rybachy roll up their sleeves... ...and get out their most important research tool. Yes, this is just an ordinary fishing net. But when it’s in position it will be spectacular. The rolled-up fishing net turns out... be the biggest scientific bird-catching structure in Europe. The famous “Fringilla” traps, as they are known... ...consist of fishing nets... ...up to seventy metres long, thirty metres wide, and fifteen metres high. It’s a sophisticated concept.

Depending on the weather, it takes two or three days to get everything set up. The researchers always erect two nets. Nikita makes a last check to make sure mice haven’t eaten holes in the netting in winter.

The traps are then hauled up into their final position. The work makes a welcome change from research life... the laboratory or at a desk. In springtime birds fly from their wintering areas... the south to their breeding grounds in the north. Awaiting them is the smaller net on the left. The slightly larger net on the right traps the parent birds... ...and their young in autumn on their way back south. Now it’s a case of waiting.

We should have some birds by tomorrow morning. It depends on the weather, but the chances aren’t bad. An ornithologist knows what he’s talking about.

Cranes are among the first to appear over the Curonian Spit. But these elegant long-distance flyers rarely end up in the net. They simply fly too high. As soon as birds of passage like these chaffinches sense... ...a high-pressure area, a suitable tailwind, or rising temperatures they set off. Millions of chaffinches, indicated in yellow, arrive from the far south.

Blackbirds, shown in pink, are regular guests. So are starlings. They would all rather fly over the tiny tongue of land than over the open sea.

Today Nikita’s colleague Micha has the early shift. To keep their stress levels as low as possible... ...the hungry birds are removed from the net every hour. The experienced researchers work quickly and efficiently. In the ringing station each bird is measured, weighed and given...

...a “passport” in the form of an aluminium ring with a number. This robin is ringed with the number fifteen. It takes the researchers just fifteen seconds... determine what condition a bird is in. The bird’s breast feathers are checked for parasites.

And the bird’s fat reserves assessed. For years now these “Lords of the Rings” have focused on far more... ...than determining the birds’ migratory routes. We can evaluate the data we collect with reference to climate change. We've discovered, for instance, that many birds are now arriving... ...far earlier in spring than in the 1960s and 70s. And that, of course, has to do with climate change.

Each season Nikita’s colleagues ring up to three hundred thousand birds. Known as the “hummingbird of the North”... ...this tiny goldcrest weighs just five grammes. The colourful goldfinch is now also returning earlier. So is the obstreperous blackbird. Through observing birds over a long period, ornithologists here are able... determine many global correlations and gather evidence... ...of the changes taking place in our modern age. This makes Rybachy an ornithological hotspot...

...and a valuable natural treasure. Like the entire Curonian Spit, in fact. The uniqueness of this coastal strip was even extolled by Alexander von Humboldt. He wrote: ‘The Spit is so remarkable that along with Spain and Italy... must have experienced it. Otherwise one’s soul would be deprived of a wonderful sight.’ If they are to discover the last secrets of bird migration Nikita Chernetsov... ...and his colleagues will have to carry out research... this special place for quite a while longer With well-thought-out experiments, limited funding, and great commitment. When it’s breakfast time in the far West in Russia...

...the further East you are the later in the day it is. This huge country extends over eleven time zones... ...and a distance of ten thousand kilometres. The largest region in the Russian Federation is Siberia. Stretching from the Urals to the Pacific... has a wide range of landscapes. Like the seemingly endless and treeless tundra of the north... ...or the mighty mountain ranges of the south, like the Altay Mountains. And in between there is the Taiga... ...the biggest continuous northern forest wilderness on Earth. The climate is extreme. Full of snow and bitterly cold, winter here lasts for eight months. At times the temperature can drop to minus 70 degrees.

In this separate eco-system only four species of conifer thrive. Pine, spruce, fir, and larch. No deciduous species could ever survive here on a permanent basis. The farther north they grow... ...the smaller and more slender the trees are. Trees, too, can freeze. Then they grow more slowly. Located in the extreme far east of Siberia is Kamchatka.

Slightly bigger than Germany and surrounded by three oceans... is the largest peninsula in East Asia. Virtually uninhabited, Kamchatka is... of the most active volcanic regions on Earth. Thirty of the 160 volcanoes here erupt at regular intervals. According to legend, when Creation was complete...

...God still had a sack full of everything. And bestowed it on Kamchatka. Up until 1990 the peninsula was a military no-go area. For years, time seemed to stand still on Kuril Lake, too. The second-deepest freshwater lake in Russia.

It lies in the caldera of a huge volcano. One of its most important tributaries is the Ozernaya River. Situated where it enters the lake, and surrounded by a simple electric fence ... the rangers’ camp of the South Kamchatka Wildlife Sanctuary. Here, in the habitat of these furry quadrupeds, man is merely a guest. With food in abundance...

...there are many places the animals can retreat to. This is a paradise for bears. 500 of the biggest brown bears world-wide... right next to the lake where they catch red salmon. Every year five million salmon come here to spawn. In this paradise bears practically grow on trees. And it’s Sergei Shurunov and Anatoli Lasarenko’s job... guard to this paradise. We’re often out and about in areas which are hard to get to.

We have to cover dozens of kilometres through... ...tundra, marshland, snow, and snowstorms. We have to be physically fit. That’s also important for us personally. And we catch armed poachers. That calls for character and a lot of will. To get them to give up, Anatoli and Sergei...

...have even beaten poachers at arm wrestling. Wherever they go, they leave a strong impression. Anatoli and Sergei are both around sixty years old. To protect the bears they patrol the entire sanctuary at regular intervals. It’s not unusual for them to cover 70 kilometres a day...

...with 35 kilogrammes on their backs. The salmon migration and the lake are important... the entire eco-system of the region. With international support, Russian biologists have been... ...carrying out research here for many years. But it's also vital for the sanctuary to be... ...constantly monitored to combat poaching. The rangers know the problem from the Caucasus. That's where they come from originally. For years the situation in many...

...wilderness areas of Russia was desperate. Poachers hunted anything they could find in the forests. Nothing escapes the rangers’ attention. It’s the only way to protect themselves and the bears. In 2007 Sergei and Anatoli got an emergency call. On one of the annual monitoring flights... ...biologists at the sanctuary had made a horrific discovery. Organized gangs of poachers had killed around 100 bears.

They left the carcasses to rot. The bears had had their paws hacked off and their gall bladders cut out. A short time later we captured the group of poachers responsible. They had chopped the paws off a mother bear and her three cubs.

In China bear paws and bear gall are in great demand. But, thanks to strict patrolling, since 2007... ...not a single bear at Kuril Lake has been killed by a poacher. The brown giants feel safe and go about their favourite pastime: Catching salmon, totally untroubled. Some bears have their own special fishing technique.

The spawning season has just begun and the water level is still high. Many attempts end in failure. But all the same, everyone here is content.

It was more a case of the job finding us than the other way round. A female with cubs needs twenty thousand calories a day. That corresponds to at least fourteen kilogrammes of salmon.

To ensure the future of the lake... ...poaching salmon is also strictly forbidden. Protecting this region means a lot to Anatoli and Sergei. They rarely see their families, which makes it... ...all the more important for them to get on well together. I'm so grateful that fate has given me such a friend. A comrade for life and for work. Not everyone is as lucky in life as me.

My friends are my colleagues. On Kamchatka salmon are an important economic factor. All five species of Pacific salmon occur here. As a result, the region accounts for 80%... ...of the Russian fishing industry’s entire catch. Strict regulations and quotas are in place to prevent overfishing.

On two days of the week, for instance... in the sea is totally forbidden. In the rivers, Itelmen fishermen... ...are allowed to cast their nets on four days. For the rest of the week the salmon remain undisturbed. Many Itelmens welcome the measures.

To please their fish god, some of them make offerings to him. In the sanctuary Sergei and Anatoli are embarking on their next patrol. They’re being taken by boat to a remote region on the Ozernaya River. It was here, in the middle of the night a few years ago...

...that they surprised a large group of poachers. The men had five hundred kilogrammes of salmon eggs with them. A huge amount worth around 8,000 euros on the Russian black market. Today one of the poachers works at a fish factory. The two conservationists got him the job. They know that if there are job prospects... ...many men will stop poaching voluntarily. On their patrol Anatoli and Sergei again face...

...a strenuous trek through difficult terrain. It’s pouring down but they press on regardless. My great wish is that this place will stay so full of life that everyone... ...will understand how sacred it is and that the whole world needs it. The cub felt that. The better the food situation, the more cubs a mother bear will produce.

Thanks to the lush vegetation, triplets are not uncommon. What’s more, the lake serves as a delivery room for red salmon. Twenty per cent of the world’s red salmon come from here.

Poachers, of course, also know that. On their patrol Sergei and Anatoli have seized two nets. A rather modest yield this time.

Our biggest-ever find here on Kuril Lake was... ...when we seized three or four kilometres of nets. That was really impressive. We then had to burn them ourselves. Sergei showed us a video of the incident. Three poachers had just hauled in the first net when they were caught. What happened next is regulated by law.

The rangers have to report every poacher to the police. Prior to that, the thieves have to destroy their booty themselves. The fish have to be destroyed so that no-one can use them. Certainly not the poachers. What’s more, since fish goes off quickly... ...someone might get food poisoning. We throw the fish back into the water... food for bears, micro-organisms, and baby fish. All poachers’ nets are seized and then burnt. Another victory for this bears’ paradise. This time a good thirty bears are fishing simultaneously on a sandbank. Two bears are taking a short nap. But most of the others are in the grip of hunting fever. Encroaching on your neighbour’s patch is not exactly a good idea! Bears can smell the salmon in the water.

But the younger and less experienced a bear is... ...the more often its efforts go unrewarded. Mature bears waste far less energy. Some salmon have managed to avoid their hunters.

From the air it is clear what has helped them: The sediment that is swirled up... ...makes the water very cloudy and the fish harder to spot. Naturally, the salmon are delighted! But the bears are good at fishing. And no-one here misses out. This is what a contented, relaxed brown bear looks like. These two young blades are brothers and hunt in tandem.

If everything in the South Kamchatka Sanctuary goes as well as it... ...has done, this bears’ paradise on Kuril Lake has a real future. Russia has a population of only 144 million. Green indicates the sparsely inhabited regions. A good third of all the country’s inhabitants, most of them Russians... in the European part, shown here in red. 170 other ethnic groups are spread over the entire country.

The most deserted area of Russia is located... ...around the Arctic Ocean which is rich in species. It’s an icy world of incredible beauty. And it still abounds with life.

Franz-Josef-Land is a natural treasure shrouded in mystery. It consists of some 190 uninhabited islands... ...located just 900 kilometres from the North Pole. For a long time Franz-Josef-Land was a military no-go area.

Today the archipelago is part of... ...the Russian Arctic National Park and can be visited. Remarkably perfect spheres like these are scattered all over Champ Island. Measuring up to three metres across, they look like giant marbles. But they are, in fact, concretions.

The ball-shaped rocks are believed to form around a fossil. Another geological phenomenon has caused... ...a sensation in Russia’s Far North. Since 2014 huge round holes have been appearing... the ground on the Yamal peninsula. And their number is increasing.

The most fantastic explanations for the holes have been put forward. They're ranging from meteorite impact to aliens. Russian scientists studied the phenomenon. They decided that rising summer temperatures were causing... ...the permafrost to thaw to a greater depth than ever before. Frozen methane is suddenly released...

...and escapes in a huge explosion. This explains the crater walls on the edge of the holes. The particularly large number of holes indicates the existence on... ...the Yamal Peninsula of the biggest fields of methane gas on our planet. But the Yamal Peninsula is the home of the Nenets people. In their language “Yamal” means “end of the world”.

And indeed, the only way to get to it is aboard an old military helicopter. A strenuous trip with several intermediate stops. From Yar-Sale, the main settlement in the province...'s six hundred kilometres to the reindeer herds of the Nenets. The Nenets have survived in their hostile environment for centuries. Florian Stammler wants to find out just how they manage it. Even the youngest lend a hand. The Nenets lead a life full of privations.

As nomads, they migrate with their animals all year round. The reindeer provide the Nenets with everything they need: Food, clothing, transport, and even sport. Florian Stammler has been coming here for more than twenty years. Spending several weeks helping his friend Nicolai... ...cope with the harsh reality of everyday life. For me, Siberia is peace of mind. It’s meditation.

And it is also life, of course, and work. But peace of mind is something very special. I always find it so restful here.

When I have left the hectic pace of urban life behind me... ...I can really feel my soul relaxing. And that is fantastic. Providing firewood is a job for the men. No matter what the weather. When a snowstorm persists... ...Nicolai’s family can sometimes spend days in their chum. That's their traditional tent.

But the Nenets are used to it. After all, they’ve been living in these icy wastes for generations: Cheek by jowl with their animals. On days when a storm is raging with particular ferocity... ...and everyone is sitting cosily in a tent with time on their hands...’s a good opportunity to work with maps and to discuss things. Then, when the weather improves we go out... ...and head for the places we’ve talked about. The idea behind field work is not for the ethnologist to merely... things theoretically with his local partner. But for the two to actually experience things together.

Nicolai and his family spent... ...several years living in a real village. But then he decided to return to this icy emptiness. First and foremost I was drawn by the tundra.

That was the main reason. Secondly, my father was sick. So we had to come here, back home. I found it too boring being in the village. I need the freedom to head out into the tundra. Nearly everything the Nenets wear came from their reindeer.

Well-moistened, the sinews serve as yarn, as they have done for centuries. These nomadic people can adapt perfectly... so many different conditions. Indeed, their capacity for adaptation is so great that... ...they can adapt to industrialization as well. But despite all the Nenets’ flexibility... ...climate change and gas production are rapidly changing their world. Roads and pipelines to the gas-fired power station...

...cut right across the reindeer’s grazing areas. While some of the animals are untroubled by such obstacles... ...others shy away from them. The permafrost soil is thawing to an ever greater depth. The Nenets tackle the problem with mats. But the thaw is also releasing dangerous germs. Germs that have been safely sealed in the ice for centuries. 2016 saw the first major outbreak of anthrax.

One child died along with more than two thousand reindeer. Nicolai’s family has no wish to lead any other kind of life. They all love their icy homeland. Today is slaughter day. The Nenets kill their animals by strangling them. It's not a quick death.

Enough to make any European shudder. But for the Nenets this is a centuries-old ritual. This method of slaughtering is deeply rooted... the Nenets’ religious beliefs. They strangle a reindeer instead of killing it with a knife... ...because the animal’s blood must be saved for the gods. Not a single drop must touch the ground. Everyone lends a hand with the slaughtering. Later, every part of the reindeer will be put to use.

The Nenets drink the animal’s blood. Some of the meat is eaten uncooked. Only in its raw state does it provide the Nenets and any visitor of course... ...with essential vitamins. Life here with the Nenets, I think, shows one thing quite clearly: That the snowmobile and the reindeer team... ...the electricity generator and the stove, can all exist side by side. And I can’t see these things disappearing...

...over the next ten or twenty years or even longer. Naturally, changes take place which are so far-reaching... ...that occasionally something is lost. But that has always been the case with cultures. It is not only Florian Stammler who believes in a future for the Nenets.

The Nenets have always protected their reindeer from all evils. From geologists and from wolves. If the Nenets protect their culture and their customs in the same way... ...they will always be strong. There is no doubt that the world would be a far poorer place... ...if the robust culture of these people were lost. As we head south, apart from the tropics... ...we find that every climate zone is represented. This huge country encompasses more than half of all the fertile land on our planet.

That’s because there are around two and a half million rivers... ...running through Russia as lifelines. Situated deep in the south is Lake Baikal... ...the oldest and deepest freshwater lake on Earth. This dinosaur amongst the world’s lakes... often referred to as Siberia’s “blue pearl”. Lake Baikal is 25 million years old and teeming with life. Sponges grow here, strange creatures that look like corals. Some three hundred different species of amphipod... tirelessly as minute treatment plants. That's good, as Lake Baikal contains... ...480 times more water than Lake Constance. And that makes it the biggest freshwater reservoir on Earth. The undisputed star among the lake’s inhabitants is the Baikal seal. The only species of freshwater seal, this is its sole habitat.

In the 1980s the Baikal seal was threatened with extinction. But, thanks to a strict ban on hunting, the population recovered. Towering up some 4,800 kilometres away, still in the far south of Russia... ...are the mighty peaks of the Caucasus, a range of mountains that runs... ...eleven hundred kilometres from the Black Sea to the Caspian Sea. Situated on Russia’s border with Georgia... the republic of North Ossetia-Alania. In this colossal landscape it is easy to feel small and lost.

Where tourism is concerned... ...North Ossetia-Alania is virtually undeveloped. That’s because of Russia’s military conflicts with Chechnya and Georgia... ...which lasted well into the opening decade of this century. This is a wild region with large areas covered by ancient mountain forest. It is home to Europe’s biggest living bovine: The bison. The region has been inhabited since classical times. In the ninth century the Alans migrated here.

Direct ancestors of the Ossetians... ...they found their last resting place in Dargavs, the City of the Dead. It is said to be the creepiest place in the whole country. But that doesn’t bother him. Today Valerij Shmunck and two colleagues...

...are out and about in the Tsejsky State Nature Reserve. These Caucasus experts are looking for bison they released into this... ...three hundred square kilometre sanctuary over several years. It’s no easy task. Bison are shy creatures and the mountain landscape here is extremely rugged. There's a valley down here. We know that two large Bison males usually spend daytime there.

We’ll go down now, and see if they are there, maybe we will find them. We are, of course, also looking primarily for young animals. They are always a sign that the population is healthy. That the bison are reproducing. That the population will be stable in the long term. The conservationists are turning the clock back.

Mountain bison were thought to have died out. The last animals were shot in 1927. A single bull called “Caucasus” survived and was taken to Germany.

All the bison alive here today were bred... ...from him and female lowland bison. Bison from the lowland Caucasus strain are being resettled here. Donated by various European zoos, these ancient bovines have been...

...transported thousands of kilometres to their new home. The mountain forests of North Ossetia must seem like a paradise to them. To find them, the conservationists have to cover a lot of ground on foot. Since he’s familiar with the area, Pavel Weinberg guides his two colleagues through the pristine forest of the sanctuary. So, here you can see very well, they start from the bottom...

...and then they rip up the entire bark. But this is only in summer and spring. In winter they would not rip it up so... You can see the signs of teeth. The conservationists from Russia and Germany work very successfully together.

They have a common goal. Since real natural paradises are disappearing, then of course every work... ...which is done to research or to preserve such places is important. Really, we are losing such places. Unfortunately.

The more we know about them, the better we can preserve them. At last: A fresh hoof print. Pavel knows that the bison like this valley. Down by the river is an alder forest. Alders prefer wetlands.

Along with plenty of food and water... ...the forest provides the bison with enough places to retreat to. But there is not a bison in sight. So the men head on to a muddy clearing. This is where the bison find minerals in the soil.

So it’s an ideal location for a camera trap. The shy animals can then be observed without being disturbed. The data are read at regular intervals. Here is a group, one two three, five adults and one calf.

In front there is a bull. This is also a bull. Maybe a young. Big bison. Right in front of the camera, they are posing.

For the conservationists these pictures are like winning the lottery. They’re the reward for months of work. Thanks to the co-operation between zoologists from... ...Germany, other European countries, and Russia, more than eighty... ...of these giants can once again roam the forests here in freedom. It’s always a gamble. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. In this case, I think, we’ve won. Bison can be seen in nearly every video and on every photograph.

Pictures of a small wolf pack make a perfect end to a strenuous day’s hiking. After their exertions Pavel, Aurel, and Valeri have decided... spend the night in the mountains and treat themselves to some kebabs. The conservationists have achieved a great deal in recent years.

For a long time after the collapse of the Soviet Union... ...poaching was a major issue in this region. It was mainly boar, roe deer and red deer that were hunted. So, people here in Alania, are they respecting bison? Respecting is one thing. Okay, suppose, you shoot a bison.

It is a very hard job to take it out of the forest. You cannot put it in a backpack and walk away. It is really difficult. Consequently, the wild forests of North Ossetia have become... ...a real refuge for these brown giants. In the mountains of North Ossetia-Alania, on the border with... ...Georgia, the trio have come to check on another reintroduction project. It lies on the other side of the range.

Animals, of course, don’t stop at national borders. So it is particularly important for us... select sanctuaries on both sides of a border. Habitats we can protect. It is also vitally important for these habitats to be interconnected. Here is the map of protected areas.

So we released here on both sides 60 animals... ...most of them in Azerbaijan, but also some in Georgia. Five of the animals were fitted with GPS collars to enable conservationists... determine their migratory routes. This time, however, it isn't the bison that's involved but the goitered gazelle. At one time goitered gazelles roamed in their thousands.

Today the species is critically endangered. But now, perhaps, this antelope, too, has a slight chance of survival. Despite political conflicts, included arms conflicts, we work together... ...successfully with Azerbaijanian conservationists... ...Armenian conservationists and Georgian conservationists. And I must say we are united. Thus, in a region so fiercely contested geopolitically... conservationists have achieved something politicians are still working towards.

2022-01-16 05:35

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