For centuries, the white stork has been a powerful symbol of peace for the people of Ukraine. Its arrival from Africa this northern spring gives new meaning to the notion that it can shield families from evil spirits, writes Don Knowler
Ukrainians looking to the skies for Russian war planes and missiles have instead seen the country’s emotive symbol of peace – the white stork.
The storks migrate to Africa each year and this northern spring have arrived back at a time when the nation is experiencing the most traumatic period in its recent history.
In other parts of Europe storks are traditionally associated with fertility. Legend has it they bring babies. Although this may also be part of Ukrainian folklore, they are also a token of peace, prosperity and protection. Storks building a nest on the roof of a house are said to shield the home from evil spirts.
A Ukrainian bird lover, Oleksandr Ruchko, says the storks have never been more welcome and their return has been seen as a portent of happier times to come.
Oleksandr has lately been providing bird-watching tours in the parks of the western city of Lviv for refugees from eastern Ukraine, including the capital Kyiv.
“They’ve lost homes and some have lost family members,” he said. “I’m trying to help them to be calm, and take a break from thinking about what is happening.”
Oleksandr’s account of life in Ukraine appeared on the Birdlife International website in which he said to escape the constant sound of air-raid sirens he and his wife had taken a trip to the Carpathian Mountains to the south-west of Lviv.
It was here that they saw the first of the storks, which throughout history had been regarded as sacred and had never been hunted for food or sport. This had included the turbulent and cruel times of the great famine under Josef Stalin’s communist rule in the 1930s and the Holocaust during the Nazi occupation in the early 1940s.
“The flying bird is the ultimate symbol of freedom. They don’t know borders, they need no visas, or permission to spend winter in Egypt, then come back to Ukraine. And we are happy they are back safely, giving us hope for better times.”
At 59 years of age, Oleksandr said he was still awaiting the call to join the war as a conscript. Meanwhile, he would continue his volunteer work promoting bird-watching as an alternative to hunting species that do not have the same protection as storks.
In all, Oleksandr and his wife saw 40 storks on their trip to the country and he offered a stark contrast between the reality of war and that of his love of nature.
“The storks were gliding in the sky with no effort, looking like aristocrats, calm and sure of themselves,” he wrote.
But there still remained a downside to birding in Ukraine.
“At the moment, it is a problem to watch birds with binoculars or telescopes. Any person using these things will cause suspicion, so we must use our ears and eyes instead. Nobody wants to look like a spy,” said Oleksandr.
Birdwatchers in Ukraine, however, have escaped the intimidation and arrests experienced in its northern neighbour, Belarus, where the national ornithological organisation has been forced to shut down.
Belarus, which supports Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, has accused not just ornithologists but other conservationists of “extremist activities”.
Employees of Birdlife Belarus have been arrested and one has been in jail for six months, suspected of attempting to destabilise the political situation in the country under the guise of protecting birds.
A Belarusian environmentalist said birders were concerned about phones being tapped and the safety of individuals who spoke out. “Belarus has pretty much been taken over by Putin,” he said.
“The darkness that has engulfed the east of our region is catching up also with those protecting the environment. Aside from the sheer injustice, this a massive blow to conservation at a global scale.”
The action against Belarusian birders follows President Putin’s accusation that wildlife scientists in Ukraine working on bat conservation are in fact developing bioweapons. He has said that “dozens of laboratories in Ukraine” are experimenting with infectious diseases such as coronavirus.
Birders in both Ukraine and Belarus have over the years been campaigning for the protection of a vast wetlands straddling the two countries’ border. The Polesia river system and swamplands– covering 18 million hectares – is known as Europe’s “secret Amazon” and is home to a bird close to extinction, the aquatic warbler.
Conservationists are worried that if the conflict continues the area will become a war zone ruined by the movement of tanks, armoured personnel carriers and missile launchers and artillery pieces.
Nature lovers in both Ukraine and Belarus accept that as Russia’s war on Ukraine continues and the fastest-growing refugee crisis since World War Two unfolds, human lives should take priority. Environmental work is being put on hold and urgent attention is being directed to providing food and shelter for refugees leaving Ukraine for neighbouring countries.
One of Europe’s biggest conservation organisations, the Frankfurt Zoological Society, has lost more than a third of its European program due to the war in Ukraine, where it had been doing conservation work for two decades. It is now supporting efforts to help refugees fleeing the conflict find a temporary place to stay in protected areas.
Organisations such as World Wildlife Fund and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) have released statements saying that peace is essential for nature to thrive, condemning the war as having profound humanitarian and ecological consequences.
“The damage caused by armed conflicts goes far beyond that caused by the fighting itself,” the IUCN statement said.