AFC Flag Expedition #7
In June and July 2008, AFC sculptor Terry Woodall travelled to eastern Russia to visit Lake Baikal - the world’s largest freshwater lake - and to observe and record the rare Baikal Seal (also called “Nerpa”) in its habitat. Terry became the first sculptor to receive support under the AFC Flag Program. Working in cooperation with research centers near Lake Baikal in north-eastern Russia, and with the Baikal Watch and the Baikal Wave conservation organizations, Terry spent extensive time in the field and with subject matter experts.
The Baikal Seal is the only indigenous freshwater seal in the world, although a small number of a sub-species of ringed seals has been found inhabiting Lake Lagoda and Saima Lake [the two connect] in Finland. This population has existed in these lakes for many generations although these lakes in Finland are connected to the sea by a man-made canal. The Russian seals on the other hand are isolated thousands of miles from the nearest sea in Lake Baikal which is the largest and deepest lake in the world. It is located in the Zabaikalsky National Park, which encompasses the Holy Nose Peninsula and the Ushkanin Islands, the primary haul-out area of the seals. This national park adjoins the Barguzinsky Zapovednik conservation area, one of the first in Russia, established in 1916 to protect the sable. Wildlife found in this huge area include brown bear, mountain goat, snow sheep, reindeer, elk, moose, Siberian roe, wild boar, musk deer, white-tailed deer, lynx, wolf, wolverine, and dozens of other fur-bearing animals including the sable and ermine.
The ecology of the lake is tied to the well-being of the seals, and many efforts and ongoing studies have been made on their behalf. The seals are dependent on adequate ice floes during a short molting period that is critical to their reproduction, which could be affected by global warming and is of particular interest concerning their future. They have been hunted since prehistoric days, and their numbers are monitored and controlled today, as hunting continues. Counts and estimates vary, but about 60,000 animals seems to be the consensus. Hunting quotas are set according to these figures and the health of the seal populations. The main threats to the seals are poaching and pollution. Through his artwork, Woodall hopes to encourage more interest in this unique ecology. The Baikal Seal’s molting and birthing relies on a small window of opportunity dependent on the seasonal ice cycles. Their successful reproduction can be threatened by disrupted ice cycles.
The ice cover in the Baikal region is shrinking and poses a long-term threat to the Nerpa. Exacting records have been kept since 1869 on the temperatures and ice cycles of the Baikal region. The seasonal ice cover over the lake now lasts 18 fewer days than the historical average, and the temperature has increased 2 degrees Celsius over all of Siberia, and 1.2 degrees over Lake Baikal. Fewer days of ice and softer snow cover in winter can threaten the seals, as their molting and birthing is dependent on seasonal ice, and the pups in dens are more vulnerable to predators with less solid snow cover. The changes in ice are being monitored into the future by scientists at the Limnological Institute and Museum in Listvyanka, which Terry visited earlier in this expedition.
Though protected, there is limited hunting allowed of the Nerpa. Quotas are set and monitored at about 5000 seals per year. With only a minor demand for fur, primarily from China, hunting is not considered a threat to maintaining a stable seal population. PCB’s have been detected in the fish of the lake as well as the Nerpa, who occupy the top of the lake’s food chain. Improvements are slowly being made in the one major industrial contaminator of the lake – the paper mill at Baikalsk – and soon it will have greatly reduced its discharges, which contain the pollutants, into the lake. The building of this paper plant in the 1960’s galvanized the first major green movement in Russia, and subsequent public outcries in Irkustk recently diverted a planned oil pipeline to the North, away from Lake Baikal and its watershed.
As in many regions, a lack of funding for environmental protection, research and agency management is an ongoing problem in the Baikal region. That said, the region has cause for hope as it has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site and there is a great deal of indigenous support as Russians consider Lake Baikal their Sacred Sea.
Working with a recognized research/conservation organization was very important to the success of the expedition. While on-site, Terry researched current information on the Nerpa’s status in the natural world at research centers near Lake Baikal. This included working with the Baikal Wave, which has focused on the protection of the Nerpa. Baikal Wave has extensive research available, and assisted Terry with local logistics and information on the Nerpa. Also, the Tahoe-Baikal Institute, a conservation partnership between Lake Tahoe, California, and Lake Baikal, Russia, has provided logistical support for the expedition.
With few tools, Terry carved freeform pieces in the field during the expedition. An objective of the expedition remains to present and donate a large Nerpa carving to an appropriate entity active in the conservation of the Nerpa.
While in the region, Woodall made presentations celebrating the seals, beginning with the Baikal Watch and Baikal Wave conservation organizations in Irkutsk, the major city close to Lake Baikal. He also made presentations at the Bolshoye Goloustnoye Center for Ecology and the Limnological Institute in Listvyanka, a town on Lake Baikal, 40 miles from Irkutsk. The Institute is a research center for the science and biology of the lake, and includes a “nerpaquarium”.
To draw attention to their future plights and to encourage awareness of this pinniped world, Woodall is in the process of creating and exhibiting wood sculptures of these creatures under the theme “Pinnipeds - The Ice is Moving”. Woodall has spent many years sculpting a variety of pinnipeds after observing them from Oregon coastal headlands near his studio, and he considers them his favorite subjects.
Most recently, as a direct result of the expedition, a letter exchange program for 11, 12 and 13-year-old students has been established between the Ecology School of Ust-Barguzin, Russia, and middle schools of the Coos Bay area, Oregon, USA. Ust-Barguzin is a town of 9,000 inhabitants located on the remote central-eastern shores of Lake Baikal, and is the headquarters of the Zabaikalsky National Park. The huge wilderness park includes major habitats of the unique freshwater seals. The National Park and the Ecology School are promoting the letter exchanges of the youth of their community. The rugged Pacific coastline of Coos Bay and North Bend is home to elephant seals and harbor seals, as well as sea lions. Young elephant seals have been found wandering on North Bend city streets and harbor seals swim up local rivers. A program encouraging college education for young students of these adjoining Oregon towns is organizing the letter exchange for the USA recipients. “Pen Pals for Pinnipeds” emphasizes the similarities in both environments and highlights the Baikal Seals of the Lake Baikal region and the four pinnipeds found in the Coos Bay area.