July 01, 2005

Saving the Desman

Two rangers from the Klyazma Wildlife Sanctuary, 120 miles east of Moscow, carefully draw an illegal fishing net from a floodplain lake into their small boat. Fish squirm in the contraption. As they take up the

net, the men free the fish one by one. Nearly half the net is in the boat when they notice a small, bedraggled animal with a long nose and scaly tail entangled in the strands. As they pull it near, the men recognize it as a Russian desman, an aquatic insectivore distantly related to the mole, whose ancestors have inhabited lakes like these for 30 million years. The creature is lifeless. Gennady Khakhin, who conceived this refuge to conserve the endangered desman three decades ago, watches solemnly from the shore.

Stationary fishing nets, prohibited by law in many regions, pose the greatest threat to the Russian desman today. Though the desman spends most of its life underwater, it requires air to breathe. With the illegal use of fishing nets increasing in poor rural regions of Russia, the desman is caught in a fight for survival. Khakhin, deputy head of the Center for Wild Animal Health at the Institute for Nature Conservation in Moscow, says that saving the desman is primarily a socio-economic problem. “Those fisherman don’t need the desman,” Khakhin said, “they just need to feed their families, and the desman keeps coming up in their nets.” According to a census organized by Khakhin in 2002, fewer than 35,000 desman remain in Russia – roughly half as many as 30 years ago.

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