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Biodiversity

Every species has the right to live, or to a decent chance to live, simply because it exists.

One of the most important and precious resources on Earth is its diversity of biological species, known as biodiversity. The most important trait of biodiversity is that its various components, despite being qualitatively different from one another, are able to adapt to form stable ecological systems. This is what makes life on Earth and human civilisation possible.

Components of biodiversity

There are three primary components of biological diversity:

  • genetic diversity, which is the variety of individuals within one and the same species;
  • species diversity, which, according to biologists, currently comprises between 15 million and 40 million species on Earth (although scientists have so far succeeded in classifying only 1.75 million of them); and
  • ecosystem diversity, including woodlands, deserts, fields, rivers, seas, oceans and other bio-communities that interact with each other and with the non-living environment.


Evolution of species

Throughout evolution, plant and animal species have appeared and disappeared; some have remained without undergoing significant changes, while others have divided into subspecies.

  • Typically, the length of a species' existence, from its evolution to its extinction, is several millions of years. However, species may disappear a thousand times faster during ecological crises. Large geological or cosmic events (such as volcanic eruptions or collisions with huge meteorites) can lead to the occurrence of an ecological crisis.
  • During the past 10,000 years, the most dramatic impacts on the environment have resulted from relatively rapid and omnipresent changes caused by human activity. Today, it is possible to argue that there is no land surface in Europe below 2,000 m that has not been altered by humans in one way or another.
  • By force of habit, many people still think that the possibilities of nature are endless, but the belief that pollution and waste will simply disappear by themselves is delusional. We cannot rely on infinitely renewable quantities of fresh air, crystal-clear waters, and fertile and healthy soil as human impacts continue to create new ecological conditions.
  • Many changes occur too quickly to allow species to adapt, leading to a progressive reduction in the number of plant and animal species. Since some of these species are endemic, their local disappearance also results in total extinction.

The main threats to biodiversity are habitat destruction, the fragmentation of natural ecosystems, pollution, the over-exploitation of animals and plants (e.g. over-fishing), and the introduction of invasive alien species.

Biodiversity is a priceless asset for humankind. In nature, everything is connected and nothing is random and unnecessary. What nature gives us is nothing less than the basis of our modern economy and society.

Nature:

  • provides us with raw materials, such as plant and animal food, fish, timber and construction materials, forest products, fodder, genetic resources, medicines, dyes, rubber, etc.;
  • provides us with a natural living environment or habitat;
  • performs pollination;
  • provides biological control over diseases and pests;
  • recycles natural wastes, alleviates pollution and maintains the soil;
  • regulates the cycle of nutrients and organic substances;
  • regulates atmospheric processes, the hydrological cycle and natural disasters; and
  • is a place for rest and refreshment, as well as a source of culture, education and scientific discoveries.

Belarus lies on the plains of Eastern Europe, which have their own specific types of biodiversity.


Flora

Natural vegetation occupies 67 percent of the surface area of Belarus: 37.8 percent is forest (7.8 million hectares); 15.8 percent grassland (3.3 million hectares); 11.5 percent wetlands (2.4 million hectares); and 1.9 percent shrub (0.4 million hectares).

  • According to scientists, the flora of Belarus consisted of about 12,000 species of plants and fungi in 2012. The most numerous are fungi (more than 7,000 species) and algae (over 2,200 species). Up to 1,680 species of wild vascular plants, 442 species of bryophytes and 477 species of lichens grow in Belarus. In the past 100 years, the country has lost approximately 70 indigenous species.
  • Herbaceous plants are dominant within the spectrum of vascular flora in Belarus (with more than 1,500 species). There are 107 known native species of wild, woody plants, 28 of which are trees, the rest being bushes, woody shrubs and perennials. One of the rarest plants in Belarus is the horsetail, a relic mountain species that is found in only two places in the Palessie region, in clay soil on bushy slopes along the river. The known populations occupy only a small area. In 2009, the beautiful fly orchid (Ophrys insectifera) was discovered in the country for the first time in the Berezinsky Biosphere Reserve.

Fauna

There are 467 registered species of vertebrates and more than 30,000 registered species of invertebrates in Belarus.

  • There are 76 species of mammals living in Belarus. The European bison, elk, red deer and wild boar are the largest among the artiodactyls. Some of the largest carnivores are the brown bear, European lynx and wolf. Among the smaller predatory animals are the common fox, badger, European otter, pine marten and stone marten, European mink, ermine and weasel. The raccoon dog was introduced from the Russian Far East and the American mink and raccoon from North America in the 20th century.
  • In terms of species extinction, mammals have been far less fortunate in Europe than birds. Hunting has completely wiped out the auroch from the continent, while the wild forest cat and Russian desman have also disappeared from Belarus. While the disappearance of the sable and wolverine from the current territory of Belarus can be attributed to global warming, the almost complete disappearance of the beaver and elk in the 1920s was due to unrestricted hunting. The Berezinsky Biosphere Reserve was founded in 1925 to preserve some of the few remaining members of these species in the country.
  • Birds comprise the greatest variety of vertebrates in Belarus: the number of bird species is three times higher than the number of mammal, reptile and amphibian species combined. In early 2013, a total of 325 bird species were observed in Belarus (228 of these species nesting there). Three species had nested in Belarus but are now believed to have disappeared (the bustard, little bustard and Pallas’s sandgrouse). The great cormorant, mute swan and greylag goose have reappeared in the country to breed during the past 50 years. 
  • In terms of reptiles, there are three species each of lizards and snakes, as well as the European pond turtle. Two species of newts and 11 members of the tailless Anura order, such as frogs and toads, can also be found in Belarus. Three species of lamprey and 60 species of fish, 46 of which are native, can be found in the rivers and lakes of Belarus. The construction of hydroelectric dams and the unrestricted exploitation of fishery resources have caused a decrease in the number of lamprey in Belarusian rivers, as well as falling numbers of certain anadromous fish species (among them the Atlantic and Russian sturgeon, the great white sturgeon and the Black Sea roach).
  • Belarus has no endemic species, although several species are of international significance — mainly wetland animals. About half the world’s population of aquatic warblers and a large proportion of the world's greater spotted eagles nest in Belarus.
  • The red kite is one of the rarest breeding birds in Belarus. This medium-sized bird of prey inhabits old-growth floodplain forest. Only one nesting pair has been witnessed in the past 20 years, near the city of Grodno.
  • Belarus is home to the world’s second largest population of European bison.

Biological resources

Game animals include 21 species of mammals, 29 species of birds and 30 species of fish, as well as the Danube crayfish and French snail.

  • According to scientists, populations of the main game species in 2010 were as follows: 22,700 elks (1,595 killed), 9,400 red deer (706 killed), 69,700 deer (5,787 killed), 69,100 wild boars (25,949 killed), 8,900 capercaillies (170 killed), and 37,400 black grouse (317 killed). It is reassuring to know that the populations of all these species, with the exception of capercaillies and black grouse, are growing steadily. In 2010, commercial fisheries harvested 896 tonnes of fish in the wild, the most numerous being bream (23.5 percent), crucian carp (19.2 percent) and silver carp (14.0 percent). Sports anglers caught an estimated 8,398 tonnes of fish.
  • All forests in Belarus are state owned. The stock of standing timber is estimated at 1.6 billion m3. More than 30.3 million m3 of timber are grown in Belarusian forests each year, and the annual allowable cut has also increased each year. The approved final total in 2013 was 9.3 million m3. However, it should not be forgotten that an important part of forest wealth derives from non-timber resources. The main harvested species of berry in the forests of Belarus are blueberries (33,000 tonnes of the estimated reserves), cranberries (11,200 tonnes), lingonberries and bog whortleberries, in addition to rowan berries and rosehips. Mushrooms grow on about one-third of the area of forest stands. Forest mushrooms and berries are harvested in similar annual quantities (52,900 and 51,800 tonnes respectively).
  • Forests are great places for developing recreation areas. More than 1.3 million hectares (17.8 percent of the country’s forested area) have been created in Belarus, and there are plans to expand this to 2.5 million hectares.


Threats

Human activity has changed the environment and led to a rapid loss of biodiversity. It also threatens many species with extinction.

  • Global warming is the main negative factor and is driving competition between native and alien species from southern areas while creating conditions conducive to the development of diseases and pests of southern origin. Areas of boreal species of wild plants and animals are shrinking because of global climate change (as species are relocating to the north), while other new species (natives of the steppe and steppe-forest zones) are being discovered.
  • The greatest threats to biodiversity resulting directly or indirectly from human activity are hunting (especially the spring hunting of waterfowl); the introduction of invasive species from extensive land use; the overgrowth of natural meadows and fens with shrubs; the ploughing of grasslands; pollution; land melioration; the fragmentation and degradation of natural habitats due to urbanisation and infrastructure development; the replacement of mixed and deciduous forests by forest monocultures; forest and peat bog fires and spring burning; and anthropogenic loads associated with recreational and tourism activities.
  • The transformation of wetland habitats has had disastrous impacts on biodiversity in Belarus. Open marshes that once covered about 10 percent of the country’s territory and account for two-thirds of its swamps have been drained by nearly two-thirds and transformed into farmland. As a result, about half of the wetland bird species are now listed as rare in the Red Data Book. The anthropogenic transformation of open landscapes has led to the extinction of some relict species from the steppe complex, while other steppe species are on the verge of extinction (e.g. the bustard and stone curlew).
  • The list of animals now facing extinction is dominated by those that inhabit different types of wetlands and forests. Currently, the Palessie, a relatively large, low-lying wetland area that is regularly flooded, is representative of the uniqueness of the territory of Belarus.
  • About 300 species of alien invasive plants have appeared in the territory of Belarus during the last 50 years, while people have intentionally imported roughly 1,500 different species of trees and shrubs and 5,000 herbaceous plants. Compared to earlier times, there are now five to six times more species living in the country. In Belovezhskaya Pushcha National Park, more than 120 non-native species of trees and shrubs have been discovered. In the Berezinsky Biosphere Reserve, the most common invasive plant is Sosnowsky’s hogweed, which was brought into Belarus for processing into silage. The situation is similar in other national parks and reserves, where alien plant species make up 10 to 20 percent of the local flora.
  • The acclimatisation of the American mink in Belarus has led not only to a reduction in the number and range of small mammals (its prey), but also to the disappearance of the European mink. Meanwhile, raccoon dogs, brought from the Russian Far East, have reduced the number of capercaillies, black grouse and other ground-nesting birds. Fortunately, other alien species, such as raccoons and skunks, have not survived in Belarus.

Legal protection

Several laws and other normative acts of the Republic of Belarus have been adopted to ensure the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity. Among the most important are the:

  • Law on Environmental Protection (November 26, 1992)
  • Law on Specially Protected Natural Territories (October 20, 1994)
  • Law on Flora (June 14, 2003)
  • Law on the Safety of Genetic Engineering (January 9, 2006)
  • Law on the Animal World (July 10, 2007)

Belarus is a party to several international instruments aimed at the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity:
  • Convention on Biological Diversity
  • Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety to the Convention on Biological Diversity
  • Convention on Wetlands of International Importance (especially as Waterfowl Habitats)
  • Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals
  • Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES)
  • Convention for the Protection of Wild Fauna and Flora in Europe


The National Strategy for the Development and Management of a System of Nature Protected Areas was adopted in 2007 and remains in force until January 1, 2015. A strategy for the implementation of the Convention on Wetlands of International Importance was put into effect in 2009.

Resolution No. 1707 of the Council of Ministers (November 19, 2010) adopted the Action Plan and Strategy for the Conservation and Sustainable Use of Biodiversity for 2011−2020.

The implementation of state policy in the field of biological conservation is primarily the duty of the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environmental Protection. The State Inspectorate of Animal and Plant Life of the President of the Republic of Belarus oversees the protection and management of wild game and fish, and also monitors the use of the forestry fund.

Government agencies promote the conservation of biodiversity in Belarus by:

  • ensuring the development of a system of nature protected areas;
  • designating natural areas that are subject to special protection, such as water protection zones, riparian forests, protection forests, special protection forest areas, coastal strips, habitats for rare species of wild animals and rare vegetation, and other territories requiring special environmental protection (the total area of such natural areas is roughly 3 million hectares, or 14.4 percent of the country’s surface area);
  • regulating the use of fauna and flora;
  • conducting state environmental reviews and assessments of the environmental impact of projects that have a negative impact on biodiversity;
  • making compensatory payments for economic projects and other activities that have a detrimental impact on biodiversity;
  • taking permanent control over the introduction into nature of alien species of wild animals and plants, and combating invasive alien species;
  • establishing a cadastre of flora and fauna; and
  • monitoring flora and fauna and ecosystems in nature protected areas.

Belarus should not only maintain a network of protected areas, but should also create a network of ecological corridors between protected areas in the very near future.

  • Belarus has various designated nature protected areas: biosphere reserves (zapavednik), which applies only to the Berezinsky Biosphere Reserve); national parks (Belovezhskaya Pushcha, Braslauskiya aziory, Narachanski and Pripyatsky), wildlife reserves (zakaznik) (85 of national importance and 348 of local importance); and natural monuments (305 of national importance and 542 of local importance). In 2010, nature protected areas covered more than 1.595 million hectares in total (7.7 percent of the country's total area). Some nature protected areas in Belarus are recognised internationally. The Berezinsky Biosphere Reserve, Belovezhskaya Pushcha National Park and Pribuzhskoje Polesie National Reserve, for example, all have the status of UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. Almost the entire area of Belovezhskaya Pushcha National Park is recognised by UNESCO as a World Heritage site, the highest form of international recognition for a natural area.
  • One of the most valuable areas for biodiversity conservation in Belarus — and Europe — is the Polesie State Radiological-Ecological Reserve, which, due to the circumstances of its establishment (the Chernobyl accident), does not formally qualify as a nature protected area. Economic activity in the area ceased in 1986 and the reserve was created in 1988, covering an area of 2,154 km2.
  • Some 40 breeding pairs of rare bird species have been identified within the Polesie Reserve. The white-tailed eagle is commonly found nesting (10 to 15 pairs) and wintering (about 100 individuals) here. There are an estimated 10 to 15 breeding pairs of eagle owls, 20 to 30 breeding pairs of black storks, and 50 pairs of European bee-eaters. The reserve is also home to relatively large numbers of other rare species, due to the strict protection regime, freedom from human interference, and the large territory. Its contiguity with an even larger radioactive exclusion zone in Ukraine is also important, as it contributes to the de facto organisation of a large transboundary nature protection reserve. The area was home to 76 European bison in 2011, territorial groupings of European lynx (25 to 30 individuals) and about 120 badgers, representing between 7 and 8.5 percent of the total population. Brown bears have become permanent inhabitants of the area, which also sustains core populations of the European pond turtle (some 70,000 individuals).
  • Belarus plans to increase its total nature protected areas to 9.3 percent of the country’s territory by 2022.


Belarus created a national Red Data Book of rare and endangered plant and animal species in 1981, and it is updated periodically. The third edition, from 2005–2006, included 173 species of vascular plants, 27 species of bryophytes, 21 species of algae, 24 species of lichens, 29 species of fungi, 17 species of mammals, 72 species of birds, two species of reptiles and amphibians, 70 species of insects, 10 species of crustaceans, two species of molluscs, and one species of spider, leech and millipede. A total of 2,039 habitats containing 71 species of wild animals and 1,040 areas of vegetation with 103 species of wild plants listed in the Red Data Book of the Republic of Belarus came under official protection on January 1, 2010.

Bodies, organisations and resources promoting biodiversity protection include:
The natural borders of ecosystems, habitats and species distribution differ from the artificial boundaries of individual states. Harm caused to any species in one state will likely have a negative impact on this species in neighbouring countries — and, in some cases, on a global scale. International conventions, such as those listed below, are important tools for protecting biodiversity at national level: