Animal Decline After Economic Collapse: A Case Study in Russia
Conservation is, in many ways, a luxury of stability. In areas of the world where economic or social situations are in upheaval, governments are forced to triage their priorities, and conserving the environment or certain species becomes less of a priority. What’s more, economic downturns have been shown to increase people’s reliance on hunting, which may in turn increase instances of poaching or hunting off license. Over-exploitation, land use, and the governance of protected areas can all be affected by economic collapse and socioeconomic shocks, and the results for animals can be profound.
A study from Russia attempts to show the extent of those effects, using the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 as a case study. At the time, GDP plummeted, countries gained independence, land was privatized, previously state-controlled economies folded, and “governmental funding for wildlife management vanished.” Alongside this, there were major shifts in land use – “most notably widespread farmland abandonment and steep declines in livestock numbers and forest harvesting.” Based on this, the researches note that the collapse of the Soviet Union “represents a perfect opportunity” to study the effect of socioeconomic shocks on wildlife, both immediately and in the long term.
To carry out the study, the researchers analyzed population trends of eight large mammal species in Russia: European and Siberian roe deer (grouped together); red deer; reindeer; moose; wild boar; brown bear (Ursus arctos); Eurasian lynx (Lynx lynx); and grey wolf (Canis lupus). They studied the period from 1981 to 2010, which “encompasses periods before and after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.” The researchers hypothesized that all of the large mammals would show a decline except for wolves, and that after 2000 those numbers may tend to improve. They also wanted to evaluate whether these population shifts may be coincidental to the collapse, or actually caused by it.
They found that there were “major changes” in the populations trends of wild boar, moose, and brown bear, who had lower per-capita population growth rates, while the numbers of wolves increased during the 1990s. Their research indicated that “increased poaching, low enforcement of protection laws, loss of crops as forage, an increase wolf abundance, and other factors associated with the collapse of the Soviet Union together likely caused the rapid population changes.” Though the authors note that none of these species were endangered, “even species with otherwise healthy populations like wild boar decreased in population size by half.” They emphasize that this means that “even abundant species may need careful monitoring during times of turmoil. Similarly, wildlife conservation and monitoring efforts may need international assistance during times of turmoil.”
In the second decade after the Soviet Union’s collapse, wild boar populations increased significantly, and there was an increasing but not significant population growth for brown bear, moose, roe deer, and red deer. Interestingly, the researchers note that about 40% of farmland in European Russia was abandoned after the collapse and had become early successional forest by the 2000s. This succession provided cover and forage for species such as bear and moose.
Overall, this study shows that socioeconomic crises can have a deep impact on large mammal populations. As part of the research, the findings from Russia are compared to other countries with similar species (but no economic turmoil), which gives dramatic results. The researchers say that “times of socioeconomic shocks can be critical periods for wildlife and may warrant special attention by conservationists,” which is somewhat of an understatement, given their statistics. If even healthy species can decline in massive numbers because of rapid shifts in human activity, advocates need to be keenly aware that market crises can quickly reflect in the environment. Conservation-minded advocates should be prepared to quickly respond to these types of human shifts to be most effective.