Birdlife diminishing in Russia’s southern wetlands

RT’s Close-Up series travels to the South of Russia, in the Rostov Region at the mouth of the River Don, where the variety of species of birds takes your breath away.

The biggest salt lake in Europe, the Manych Gudilo, is situated in Russia’s south and is home to more than 200 species of birds, where they find shelter before migrating to other parts of the world.

But around thirty of them are in danger. The reason is that the region is one of Russia’s main agricultural hubs because of its extremely fertile lands, thus man’s impact is affecting the wildlife. The cultivation of the steppe has brought certain species to the brink of extinction.

Now people are trying to reverse the situation by guarding the places where birds live. The biggest populations of birds in the Rostov region live on the islands of the salt lakes in the steppe. The main point of concern is that those lakes are evaporating rapidly due to the last few years’ severe drought, as well as soil salinity and the reclamation of the marshland.

“Here we see the Great white pelican and several species of the Dalmatian pelican which are both in the Red Data Book. There are only 40-50 couples left in the region,” Viktor Minoransky from Living Nature of the Steppe NGO of Rostov region.

The pelicans, as well as other species at the Manych Gudilo, feed on fish. The best catch for them is in a small area of the lake, where the water is relatively fresh, as the fresh-water fish cannot survive in the saltier parts of the Manych.

And the lake’s getting saltier every year.

The Manych Gudilo is an artificial reservoir which was filled in the 1950s.

In the area’s hot climate, the water evaporates quickly, and the local soil’s natural salinity takes over.

Birds of the Manych Gudilo

“There are relatively few water sources here. Some water comes from the Don River and some from the Kuban. During the last 3-4 years we’ve had a really severe drought. Due to this drought we are practically standing on the bottom of this lake. It’s been falling every year. The majority of birds have been retreating as well. They nestle in the islands,” laments Viktor Minoransky.

Apart from birds, the drying out of the lake could also threaten one of the world’s biggest populations of mustangs – more than 400 of the animals live on one of the Manych islands.

The area is a protected wildlife reserve – it’s a place of serene peace and calm.

“They live and reproduce on their own, we do not feed them. Only when the temperature reaches above 35 Celsius, the natural water reservoirs dry out and there is no dew, do they come here to get water and ask for help,” says Lyudmila Klets, the head of biospheric reserve.


The horses appeared on the island some 60 years ago. First there were just two or three couples. They became wild and now there are hundreds of them.

In recent decades, dozens of canals have been dug around Manych Gudilo to cultivate the local steppes – broad, grassy plains.

This may be useful for humans, but it has badly hit many species of the animals here.

For instance Saiga antelopes – which are extremely shy – were scared away, only to be killed in the hundreds of thousands by poachers.

Folklore here believes the substance found in their horns can cure impotency.

Just some 40 years ago there were more than two million Saiga antelopes in Asia. They live nowhere else in the world. But people have brought the species to the verge of extinction and now, the only place you’ll find a Saiga in Rostov region is in a nature reserve.

The region has been rich in life for thousands of years. But now, in a relatively short space of time, its vibrant diversity of creatures is threatened on all fronts by man and Mother Nature herself.

The Rostov region has lots of salt lakes which are very shallow, just 20-30 centimeters deep. As they dry out, they provide some of the healthiest mud, even compared to the mud from the Dead Sea. For decades people have come to the region for treatment, despite a lack of promotion of the health benefits.