Baikal, which enjoys almost mythic status in Russia, is the world’s deepest and oldest lake. It may also be one of the most vulnerable, though hope springs eternal.
“You know, we Siberians live in fear of being exiled to Moscow,” says Leonid Yevseyev, and we both laugh.
Yevseyev, my guide and interpreter and a native-born Siberian, is beside me on a promontory as we look out over a stunning panorama—the mountain-rimmed lake called Baikal. We stand on Baikal’s remote northwestern shore, watching a thunderstorm hammer the Barguzin Range to the east of us. Here the land plunges a hundred feet to waters that are a vibrant blue-green, so transparent that rocks 10 feet beneath the surface are clearly visible in the glaring sun. Bordering the meadow around us is a dense forest of pine and larch, spreading a resinous fragrance. Exiled to Moscow? Leonid and I agree: only if they take us away from here at gunpoint.
Ask almost any Russian about Baikal and the response is one of superlatives: It is the deepest lake in the world (5,400 feet), the largest by volume (holding 20 percent of all the earth’s liquid surface freshwater), and the oldest (between 25 million and 30 million years). While passing through Moscow on my many trips to Baikal, I mention my destination to friends and acquaintances, and their response is invariable. Eyes take on a faraway look, voices drop close to a whisper.
“Baikal,” they repeat. “I hope to go there someday.” It is almost a prayer.
For most of us, the very name Siberia conjures up visions of a cold, bleak wasteland. Yet summer at Baikal is glorious. Days are warm, even hot. All around the lake meadows are splashed with brilliant wildflowers, and cool green forests invite exploration. The surrounding mountains rise thousands of feet above the surface waters, rivaling many of North America’s scenic treasures.
With a coastline of more than 1,300 miles, Baikal, which lies near the Mongolian border in south-central Siberia, harbors an ecosystem befitting its size and diversity. More than 1,800 species of plants and animals have evolved here in comparative isolation across an immensity of time. Many are found nowhere else. Among them are curious green sponges and hundreds of endemic crustaceans. One crustacean, the minute Baikal epishura, acts as a water purifier, straining out algae, plankton, and bacteria and contributing to the crystalline quality. The lake also nurtures the Baikal sturgeon and the omul, a delectable and commercially valuable whitefish. The Siberian crane, white-tailed eagle, Pallas’s fish-eagle, and various waterfowl and wading birds find homes around the lake and the wetlands of the Selenga River delta. Hawks and owls, brown bears, elk, musk deer, and the famed Barguzin sable are native. But one endemic species rates most of the attention.
Tonkii is a tiny, thinly forested island off the lake’s northeastern shoreline and a part of Zabaikalski National Park. I land there in one of the big steel-hulled boats the park uses for ecotourists and sneak quietly up to a blind strung between trees on a low bluff over the lake. The strips of camouflage mesh have spaces between them that allow me to see and photograph one of Baikal’s most unusual animals—the freshwater seal called the nerpa.
The nerpa is related to the northern ringed seal. It isn’t clear why this oceanic species lives in Baikal, more than a thousand miles from the nearest ocean. One theory suggests that, confronted by advancing glaciers during a previous ice age, the seals were forced to migrate up the Yenisey and Angara rivers from the Arctic Ocean. Another guess is that during an ice age another lake, or series of lakes, linked Baikal to the sea.
I watch six nerpa as they scramble awkwardly onto the rocks just offshore. There is little room, and the seals fight for space, waving their long, sharp claws at a latecomer as it tries to muscle its way in. Their sleek, fat bodies glisten in the sun. They are one of the world’s smallest pinnipeds, averaging less than five feet in length, but have the longest lifespans of all seals; some females live up to 56 years. Here, evolving in isolation from their original marine habitat, the nerpa have few enemies. Man and the brown bear are their only serious predators, though bears seem to have little impact on these wary seals.
On my past visits to Tonkii Island there was no blind, and I crawled to the cover of several large rocks on the bluff. Looking over the boulders, I usually saw scores of seals below. My notes from July 1996 are revealing: “Counted 150 nerpa sunning on rocks and swimming in the clear waters nearby, plus an estimated 200 heads bobbing in the waters off the north end of the island.”
Today’s count of only six individuals is disturbing. Nobody seems to know exactly how many nerpa live in Baikal, and population numbers rise and fall with the source. An “official” survey conducted in 1994 by the Baikal Limnological Institute estimated a population of 104,000 nerpa. In 2000 Greenpeace came up with a figure close to 65,000 adults (and between 85,000 and 89,000, including pups), which some conservationists suspect may still be too high.
Despite the uncertainty, the Russian government permits hunters to kill 3,500 nerpa each year. The problem is that there is little enforcement of this quota, and illegal hunting flourishes. One researcher estimated that in 2001 poachers killed more than 12,000 nerpa. The stimulus for shooting these seals is obviously economic, as this is a comparatively poor area of the country. The average monthly salary here is anywhere from 1,500 to 6,000 rubles (about $50 to $200, compared with about $1,000 in Moscow). The pelt of a young nerpa may bring up to 1,500 rubles.
The nerpa is Baikal’s canary in the coal mine. It stands at the top of the lake’s food chain, in which pollutants are magnified in the complex succession of levels up from phytoplankton to the fish-eating species. In 2005 scientists at the Irkutsk Academy of Sciences found that the high concentrations of PCBs in the seals’ body fat posed a serious threat to their immune systems. Thus the nerpa may not only be vulnerable to the lake’s ever-present pollutants but also prone to viral and bacterial infections.
Many scientists assumed that Baikal’s great volume of cold water would be slow in responding to global warming. The data show otherwise. Statistics recorded meticulously by a dedicated family of Siberian biologists for more than 60 years show that Baikal’s surface and subsurface waters (to 80 feet) are warming faster than expected—an average of 0.2 degrees Fahrenheit per decade.
The resulting expansion of the growing season for plankton and algae has caused changes in the food chain and may eventually affect the food supply for nerpa. Marianne Moore, of Wellesley College, and her U.S.–Russian team uncovered these important data, and emphasized that Baikal’s ice-free season has increased by 18 days in the past 131 years, a finding first reported by Mikhail Shimaraev and colleagues from Russia’s Limnological Institute in Irkutsk, a city more than 60 miles west of Baikal. For nerpa this is very serious, since pups are born and nurtured in snow caves on the ice in early spring. Diminishing ice may decrease the pups’ survival rate, already battered by legal and illegal hunting.
And so the Russians’ love affair with this “Sacred Sea” is tinged with sadness for the environmental degradation afflicting it almost since the end of World War II. Josef Stalin, then leader of the Soviet Union, called for expanded industrial development in Siberia, a policy continued during the regime of Nikita Khrushchev. During the late 1950s construction began on a cellulose factory in Baikalsk, a village on the lake’s southern tip.
Another plant was built during the same period, on the Selenga River. The Selenga originates in Mongolia and runs northward to empty into Baikal, accounting for 60 percent of the water flowing into the lake. Neither this factory nor the one at Baikalsk treated their discharge for some years, and they became the chief source of Baikal’s toxic wastes. The latter closed in November 2008 but may reopen next year with a water treatment plant, though many doubt funds are available to make this happen.
Some citizens, even under the repressive Soviet system of the 1960s and 1970s, were brave enough to speak out against threats to the lake’s ecosystem. Prominent among them was Grigory Galazii. In 1961, as director of the Baikal Limnological Institute, he organized students and local citizens in protest marches through the streets of Irkutsk. Although the demonstrations failed to stop the Baikalsk plant, they marked the beginning of Russia’s environmental movement.
There were political repercussions, however, for Galazii. By the time I first met him, in 1990, the authorities had removed him from his post at the Limnological Institute and made him director of the Limnological Museum, a caretaker’s job for a great scientist. He continued to campaign against the polluting plant and to raise the public’s awareness of the harm being done to the lake’s ecosystem. I once asked him if he hadn’t courted severe punishment during the ’60s and ’70s when the Soviets regularly jailed and exiled (or worse) the dissidents. Galazii laughed at the question.
“What could they do?” he asked. “Send me to Siberia? I already live here.”
Galazii died in 2000, perhaps brokenhearted by the refusal of the later Russian leaders, Gorbachev and Yeltsin, to honor their promises to close the pulp plant. And more trouble lay ahead.
“I hope that you, Vladimir Vladimirovich, will use your weighty words to make the humane decision for the fate of Baikal, one of the symbols of Russia.”
This appeal appeared in a letter my old friend Yevgeny Yevtushenko, Russia’s beloved poet, novelist, and film director, wrote, at my urging, to President Vladimir Putin in April 2006. Yevtushenko, a native of the Baikal region, wrote in the hope of altering the route of a proposed 2,500-mile oil pipeline that would skirt Baikal’s northern shore. (The pipeline was designed to connect the oilfields of western Siberia to Vladivostok, on the Pacific coast.) Given Yevtushenko’s prominence, Moscow’s leading newspaper, New Izvestia, published his letter.
In the period leading up to the poet’s impassioned plea, environmental organizations in Russia and other countries had vigorously protested the routing of an oil pipeline within a half-mile of the treasured lake. Underscoring the urgency of their objections was the region’s frequent seismic activity. (Moreover, Baikal had been declared a World Heritage Site in 1996.) Protesters marched through the streets of Moscow and Irkutsk. Yet Putin hadn’t relented in his support of the project. Three weeks after New Izvestia had published Yevtushenko’s letter, however, Putin went on national television and declared that the pipeline would not be routed through the Baikal Basin.
I like to believe that Lake Baikal may well have been saved from this recent threat by the power of poetry. Baikal’s future, however, remains uncertain. In 1990 a closed water cycling system was installed at the plant on the Selenga River, and although waste outflows are now 10 percent of what they were, pollution still flows into the river. In November 2008 the pulp plant at Baikalsk was finally shut down, partly for economic and partly for environmental reasons. It leaves behind a 43-year legacy of pollutants that may take many more decades to flush from Baikal’s vast volume. Nerpa continue to die, likely from pollution and certainly from hunting.
Still, many parts of Lake Baikal remain pristine. More than three-quarters of the shoreline and its adjacent forests and mountains benefit from some form of official protection. There are three large nature reserves and two large national parks, with several other parks and nature reserves situated away from the shores of Baikal but still well within the lake’s watershed. Overall, these protected lands total more than 6 million acres, an area roughly equivalent to the size of New Hampshire.
On the downside is the lack of management funds for the parks and reserves. Early in my travels I was surprised to learn that in Russia’s national parks, directors have considerable latitude in establishing policies for their own units, and get no guidelines from Moscow. A director of Pribaikalski National Park, on the lake’s western shoreline, proposed a set of hefty trophy hunting fees to attract wealthy foreigners, who could then shoot nerpa and brown bears in the park. Fortunately, the proposal was dropped. In contrast, the director of Zabaikalski National Park, on the eastern and northern shore, has adopted a more ecologically sensitive management philosophy, relying on ecotourism for added income.
Baikal enjoys international support, particularly in the United States, though not a lot of that is financial. Gary Cook, director of Russian Projects at the Earth Island Institute, has long been an advocate of low-impact ecotourism for the region. For nearly 18 years Cook has worked closely with local environmental activists to protect the nerpa and the remainder of Baikal’s ecosystem.
“I’m an eternal optimist,” he told me recently. “I’m really confident that our efforts to promote ecotourism at Baikal will pay off. If locals see how the nerpa are attracting tourists, I have no doubt that they will become a force behind a stronger wildlife management system around the lake.”
One of Cook’s local allies is Andrei Suknov, an ecotourism entrepreneur from Ulan Ude (a city east of Baikal), who worked with other activists to develop the idea of a Great Baikal Trail. Still under construction, this 1,300-mile trail will encircle the lake and will include 700 miles of spur trails, taking future hikers through some of Siberia’s most spectacular mountain and forest country. Local mountains have peaks more than 8,500 feet high. Though not tall by Rocky Mountain standards, the vertical rise of these peaks over Baikal (the lake is at 1,600 feet) rivals the Grand Tetons over Jackson Hole. At present, 3,500 volunteers—Russian, Asian, European, and American—have paid their own way to Baikal along with a fee to spend at least two weeks working on the trail. It is now about 25 percent complete, with an optimistic completion date of 2015.
“Beauty will save the world,” the immortal Russian novelist Feodor Dostoyevsky once wrote. But today Yevgeny Yevtushenko counters, “Who will save beauty?” Ecotourism, a most happy alternative to an oil pipeline, may yet bring this magnificent natural destination the prosperity, and thus the local support, needed to preserve Russia’s “Sacred Sea.”
Boyd Norton has written about and photographed the outdoors for more than 43 years. He has written 14 books; in 2010 he will add Serengeti: The Stillness of the Eternal Beginning (Fulcrum) and Boyd Norton’s Outdoor Digital Photography Handbook (Voyageur Press).
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