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BGCI Wins New Funding for Russian Botanic Gardens to Support Biodiversity Conservation

Volume 3 Number 3 - December 1999

Fiona Dennis, Peter S. Wyse Jackson, John Landell Mills; Dr Igor Smirnov.

Following the success of a number of Russia-based projects implemented by BGCI over the last few years, BGCI is proud to announce a new project in Russia supported by the British Council and U.K. Know How Fund (KFS) through their Small Environmental Projects Scheme (SEPS).

The flora of Russia is of major international significance. Several regions of the country are important for their diverse native plants and for the significant endemic elements they contain. Several sites are documented in Centres of Plant Diversity (WWF and IUCN, Volume I (1994) and II (1995) which covers nearly 250 major sites of plant diversity. These include the flora of Lake Baikal, the Caucasus, (Armenia/Azerbaijan/Georgia/Russia) which has over 6,000 species of higher plants, including 300 food plants and 300 medicinals, the Chukotskoye Peninsula which contains almost 1,000 plant species, many of which are threatened through over-grazing, mining and visitor pressure, Primorye where there are 1,850 plant species recorded, many of which occur in important vegetation types not presently included within protected areas (protected areas make up 6.5% of the Primorye region), the Altai-Sayan region of Russia and Kazakhstan where approximately 2,500 vascular plants have been recorded, including 120 endemics and about 200 species that are rare or threatened. Even in European Russia the flora is rich and varied, for example in the National Park of Meshchersky, in the Ryazan region about 850 vascular plant species have been recorded including 46 that are rare and endangered.

The 1997 IUCN Red List of Threatened Plants (K.S. Walter and H.J. Gillett (eds.), 1998) enumerates 214 threatened species in Russia although it is recognised that these are only preliminary figures and that the real total of endangered plants is considerably higher. In 1991 an estimate of 22,000 species of higher plants was made for the former Soviet Union, almost 10% of the world's total. An estimate of 17,500 species of flowering plants has been made for the Asiatic USSR Region of which 2,500 are reported to be endemic (14.3%).

The Russian flora is also of outstanding importance for plants of actual or potential economic use; it contains wild fruits such as Pyrus, Malus, Crataegus, Cornus, Berberis and Prunus and medicinal plants Valeriana and Atropa. This has been widely recognised, not only in the scientific literature but also in the priority given to its conservation in a number of projects funded by multilateral and bilateral agencies and donors during the past decade. Included in this is the support given to the Biodiversity Conservation Centre in Moscow (Russian NGO) by the KHF as well as major projects funded by the Global Environment Facility (GEF), the World Bank and the European Union (EC) through the Tacis programme. These projects are based on an awareness that this biodiversity is seriously threatened and the problem is getting worse.

Status of Botanic Gardens in the Russian Federation and Former Soviet Union

There are about 75 botanic gardens in the present Russian Federation (and a further 50 plus in other former Soviet Union (FSU) countries). While only a minority are centres of significant research capability and activity, all the larger Russian gardens are currently members of BGCI (and an additional 15 in other FSU countries) and about 27 undertake research of regional, sometimes national and even international, importance. Some of these gardens are directly managed by the Academy of Sciences (e.g. Moscow Main Botanic Garden, St Petersburg, Novosibirsk); others are part of state universities (e.g. Petrozavodsk, Rostov-on-Don, Samara). In nearly all cases central government funding is now covering only salaries and very little else.

Some gardens and institutes have managed to obtain supplementary funding, generally on a modest scale, from their local authorities (oblast). They have tried, with varying degrees of success, to earn money from entry charges and commercial activities (for instance by operating small plant nursery businesses) but generally lack the management skills needed to put these activities on a sound footing and to make the most of the available opportunities.

According to recent BGCI figures, Russian botanic gardens contain a total of 150,000 living plant collections, of which about 45% accessions are documented in the Russian Red Data Book.

Botanic Gardens in Russia

A BGCI survey (an extended self-completion questionnaire, undertaken by BGCI Moscow Division), of member botanic gardens in Russia was carried out in September, 1998. This provided a preliminary overview of the current activities of Russian botanic gardens and included an assessment of their resources, budgets, funding sources, management and operational situations. The response to this survey has provided an important initial source of information for this project.

In the past, the staff of botanic gardens and their associated botanical institutes undertook a large part of the essential scientific work on documenting and reviewing the status of Russia’s flora. They played a major role in providing the remarkably comprehensive information that is available on the taxonomy, distribution and ecology of the flora of an area covering nearly one eight of the earth's land surface. This knowledge contributed in an important way to the identification of the areas selected for designation as protected areas (zapovedniks), special purpose reserves (zakazniks) and, more recently, as national parks. The botanic garden staff were largely responsible for compiling the Red Data Books which detail the species at risk. In the past, botanic gardens have collaborated extensively with other national and local authorities to support and assist scientific programmes focussed on documenting native biodiversity within and outside the protected area network in Russia.

The ongoing monitoring of plant communities within and without the protected areas and national parks during a time of exceptional economic and administrative change and stress is of the most immediate importance as a basis for effective and focussed in situ conservation. Linked to this is the overdue updating of the Red Data Books. For the medium and longer term it is also critical that the related scientific research should continue and new activities need to be initiated. For example, equipment and training is needed to maintain the collections databases in botanic gardens and their institutes such as libraries, herbaria and living collections. A start on this has been made for botanic gardens by BGCI through a recent Darwin Initiative-funded project to prepare Russian language software for biodiversity collections information management and to train staff in its use.

In many countries the conservation of species has been greatly enhanced through the application of molecular methods for the study and understanding of patterns of diversity. In Russia few botanical institutions currently possess the capacity for such work that has become an important tool for taxonomic research and conservation biology. Seed banks that specialize in native plants also urgently need to be created to ensure the maintenance of as wide a genetic base as possible for endangered species. Above all, further research on the ecology of threatened plant communities is essential to provide a sound basis for future conservation programmes.

It should also be emphasised that many locations with rare or uncommon plant species and the supporting ecological systems, are outside the existing national parks and other protected areas, such as those managed by the Federal Forestry Services. It is important that future research and conservation programmes should not ignore these unprotected sites.

The institutions uniquely placed to undertake much of the necessary work (sometimes in partnership with other research organisations) are the leading botanic gardens and their associated institutes and university departments. They alone have the experienced, multi-disciplinary scientific staff, expertise, extensive reference collections (living and herbaria), the libraries and other facilities. Most importantly, they can provide the continuity that is so critical for research with a long-term perspective. An example are the records of tree growth and flowering from the St Petersburg Botanic Garden over nearly 200 years which are providing invaluable and unique data for research on global warming. Many other examples can be cited. The botanic gardens are also excellently placed to provide a key role, again often in partnership with other government and non-government organisations, in conservation and environmental education activities aimed at all sections of the public (as has notably been done by many botanic gardens elsewhere).

Clearly (and confirmed by the survey) the scientific capacity and resources of the botanic gardens and institutes have already suffered severe attrition and in several instances are in danger of being totally lost. Many of the best of the younger staff are leaving, often for work, which makes little or no use of their training, skills and expertise. Those who remain are crippled by an almost complete lack of funding for their work, especially the field research on which so much else depends. Furthermore, the programmes of vital taxonomic work and status reviews formerly undertaken on native flora have also been greatly reduced. Such work underpins all efforts to conserve biodiversity. Russian botanic gardens have now specifically recognized and accepted the importance of their roles in these fields, as part of their contribution to implementing the Convention on Biological Diversity.

At a workshop organised by the BGCI Moscow Division in December 1998 and sponsored by the International Dendrology Society, attended by the Directors of ten Russian botanic gardens, it was recognised that the current situation calls for a radical refocusing of the gardens' activities combined with an inevitably drastic, reorganization of their management and financing. It is this situation, and the realistic expectation that for the foreseeable future official funding will fall far short in real terms of that provided in the past, which the present project aims, in part, to address.

Project Objective

The overall objective is to put the botanic gardens network in Russia on a sound and sustainable footing, thereby strengthening their capacity to provide essential support for biodiversity planning and management.

The achievement of these aims will enable seven botanic gardens to reorganise their activities so that they are better able to support biodiversity conservation. Areas such as education, maintenance and extension of their reference collections, propagation of rare and endangered species (and of different forms and varieties of economic plants), and the establishment of seedbanks.

The gardens will also be strengthened to undertake appropriate programmes of botanical and ecological research. These will be relevant to long-term biodiversity conservation on behalf of the management of the national parks and protected areas, as well as for areas that are at present unprotected. It is envisaged that much of this work will be carried out on a contractor/client basis thus creating a long term revenue stream for the gardens.

Each garden has been selected on the basis of (a) its location in relation to key zapovedniks, national parks and other areas where the diversity and other features of the flora are of particular significance, and (b) its research record, scientific capability and existing resources. Other factors in the selection process include each garden's potential as a centre for conservation education and the need to ensure, as far as possible, the ultimate evolution of a network of modernised gardens covering all or at least most areas of the country (except for the time being those areas such as parts of the Caucasus where access at present is hazardous).

It should be emphasised that the study will be done with the close involvement and participation of the key staff of each botanic garden and associated research institute or university department.
This project directly addresses the need for botanic gardens to provide an effective and practical response to the urgent needs of Russia's biodiversity conservation activities. Building the capacity of the botanic gardens will enable them to once again undertake their critical role in the protection of Russia's forests, steppes and wetland areas conserving plant resources so vital for sustainable development.

In addition, the project will specifically examine the scope for the development of new business activities based on the botanic gardens’ resources, as described earlier. This could include the development of plant sales, new crop enterprises and the development of eco-tourism. These sorts of activities have all been developed by botanic gardens elsewhere and the scope for this in Russia is likely to be considerable.

The project will provide background information on the current role of botanic gardens in Russia today and the final report will include recommendations for business and management plans for botanic gardens and a programme proposal for capacity building for botanic gardens to undertake biodiversity conservation and in situ conservation programmes.