Conservationists from Belarus and Ukraine participating in the Polesia – Wilderness Without Borders – an Endangered Landscapes Programme supported project– are calling for Europe’s largest wetland wilderness area to be included on UNESCO’s World Heritage List.
The recent signing of a resolution to establish the Pushcha Radzivila National Park in Ukraine and last year’s expansion of the Almany Mires Nature Reserve in Belarus have provided a much-needed boost to efforts to protect Polesia, a stunning transboundary region that straddles Belarus, Poland, Russia, and Ukraine.
But threats to Polesia from human activities still loom large. Deforestation, mining, farming, and plans to construct a major waterway through the region could lead to irreversible environmental damage, experts warn.
Attaining UNESCO status would see the central part of Polesia recognized alongside the Serengeti National Park, the Great Barrier Reef, and the Iguaçu National Park on the international list of sites with outstanding universal value.
Campaigners say that achieving designated protected status for the region at an international level would help ensure the future of the largest and most important inland wetland region in Europe. It would also protect the transboundary landscape’s essential ecosystem services, which underpin hydrology, store immense quantities of carbon, and have significant potential for ecotourism.
The pristine ecosystems and landscapes found in Polesia are, today, extraordinarily rare on a global level,” says Maxim Nemtchinov, a nature conservation officer at BirdLife Belarus (APB) partner in the Wilderness Without Borders Project and member of Wetlands International-European Association.
“We want to identify and classify key areas that are not currently recognized as protected landscapes, including primary forests, other forests of high conservation value, and sites home to rare birds and mammals,” says Olga Yaremchenko of the Ukrainian Society for the Protection of Birds (USPB).
Polesia has also come under intense focus as a result of plans to construct Europe’s longest waterway through the region. Known as the E40, the waterway would connect the Baltic Sea with the Black Sea, stretching some 2,000 kilometers from Gdansk in Poland to Kherson in Ukraine. The construction could destroy much of Polesia’s vast wilderness, with researchers predicting far-reaching implications for both humans and nature.
Vast tracts of the area are peatlands. Peatlands are the most carbon-dense terrestrial ecosystems. Globally, the carbon stored in them exceeds carbon stored in all other vegetation combined, including forests. Maintaining them is essential to help tackle the climate crisis. They also provide sanctuary for wildlife, spanning grey cranes, black grouse, beavers, otters, moose, bats, insects, and migratory birds.
Historically, habitats such as peatlands have often been regarded as wastelands. As people don’t live on them, they can come under pressure from those wanting to turn them into farmlands or build roads across them. Many peatlands around the world are now severely degraded.
More information about this initiative can be found at the website of the Frankfurt Zoological Institute https://fzs.org/en/news/achieving-protected-status-for-polesia-europes-largest-wetland-wilderness/