EcoRubric 15:54 07 May 2024

Citizen science in action: Discover eco-station in Ukraine where anyone can explore and research nature

Ukrainian researcher Yevhenii Dovhaliuk transformed his country house into a hub for citizen scientists. Here, people watch birds, study local biodiversity, and work to protect the environment. Why do we need places like this?

You can find an unusual spot in Chervone Zarichchia, a Ukrainian village one hour southeast of the capital, Kyiv. This unique place has a lake with the same name as the nearby river, Supii, which formed in the 18th century. Long ago, the last leader of the Ukrainian state of Zaporizhian Cossacks, Hetman Kyrylo Rozumovsky, who owned the land in the nearby town of Yahotyn, ordered a dam to be built across the river. The surrounding meadows filled with water, and the oxygen-rich peatlands floated to the surface, forming islands.

In the 250 years since then, Rozumovsky's estate burned down in the early 20th century, and more dams were built along the Supii River in the 1970s, creating more artificial lakes with fish farms. The floating islands, however, stayed and became nesting spots for rare birds over time. Three years ago, researcher Yevhenii Dovhaliuk and his wife moved to the area with ambitious plans — not to get rich using the land but to preserve the remaining ecosystems.

What's the problem?

We barely know anything about the nature of the places where we live 

At a recent presentation of research from the "Hlyboki Balyky" eco-station in the Kyiv region, which we visited, biologist Oleksii Vasyliuk mentioned that most of Ukraine's territories remain unexplored. Although Ukraine has many nature reserves and national parks, where most of the biodiversity research is conducted, the entire protected area covers just over 6% of the country's land. The rest is relatively unknown, leaving us with little knowledge about those regions' nature.

This lack of knowledge leads to careless use of natural resources and disinterest in their preservation. In recent years, a new and unexpected solution has gained popularity, driven by active, nature-loving Ukrainians — environmental stations. Rubyka visited one such person, who founded his own eco-station, to learn more.

What's the solution?

A former logistics worker transforms his country house into a science hub 

Yevhenii Dovhaliuk, who greets us at the gate of his house by Supii Lake, used to work in logistics before the COVID-19 pandemic. With the start of the quarantine, he moved to the house by the lake, fulfilling a childhood dream. The simple village house with its ordinary fence and yard hides a different half of the property. It slopes down to reveal a view of the vast expanse of the Supii River.

Yevhenii saw dozens of swans landing on the river and its islands one day. The fantastic sight sparked questions. He began researching and found that the lake was a migratory route for some wild birds and a nesting area for others. This finding led to research, consultations, birdwatching sessions, collaborations, and local flora and fauna studies. Now, "Supii" is not just the name of a river or lake but also of a Nature and Architecture Research Center. Yevhenii immersed himself in exploring the region, formed a civic organization, and eventually joined "Supii" in the Network of Eco-Stations of Ukraine.

Екостанція Супій

Yevhenii doesn't just study nature but also historical landmarks around Supii. A Cossack church behind him dates back to the 17th century but is dilapidated. Dovhaliuk plans to restore the building

There are now seven similar eco-stations in various parts of Ukraine: "Hlyboki Balyky" near the town of Rzhyshchiv southeast of Kyiv, three stations in the west of Ukraine, such as "Mys Komariv" in the Chernivtsi region, "Tepla Hora" near the city of Ivano-Frankivsk, and "Berdo Svaliava" in the Zakarpattia region, "Practical Botany Island" in the northern Sumy region, and "Komarivshchyna" in the eastcentral Dnipropetrovsk region.

Екостанція Супій

Since "Supii" became an eco-station, Yevhenii Dovhaliuk has published five books about the region's biodiversity, local archaeological finds, and tourist spots

Ecostations aim for ambitious goals, like environment monitoring, experiments to improve biodiversity, and annual publications similar to nature chronicles in protected areas but written in more reader-friendly language. They serve as hubs for connecting activists and those interested in nature without needing a science degree — citizen scientists.

Who needs eco-stations? Citizen science in action

"We wanted to bring researchers together. I felt that there's a certain group of people in Ukraine who aren't professional scientists but are engaged in research. The world community calls citizen science. Often, this research goes unnoticed, but sometimes it leads to significant discoveries that can impact legislation or science," says Yevhenii.

Екостанція Супій

One of the friends of the "Supii" eco-station, Ihor, is a birdwatcher. Last year, he documented 250 bird species and won the "Big Year" competition. The competition is straightforward — the winner is the one who photographs the most bird species in Ukraine from January 1 to December 31

Through social media, Yevhenii found a community and target audience he didn't know existed. He realized he wasn't alone; others were also interested in discussing various topics about nature in a relaxed setting.

That's how the volunteer house was born — a small, wooden house with a library and an attic where a few people can stay overnight.

"This place exists to support citizen science activities. In developed countries, scientists sometimes turn to people like us to ask for our insights when they hit a dead end in their research. We already have a foundation — we're studying the shore, know a bit about local biodiversity, and have our research," says Yevhenii.

Екостанція Супій

Yevhenii Dovhaliuk in the house he built for guests of the eco-station

Sometimes, citizen scientists have more resources than university-based researchers. It might be due to financial flexibility or available free time. Either way, citizen scientists can have advantages over nature reserves and academic institutions. Birdwatcher Ihor explains:

"Once, a birdwatcher visited me with equipment worth over $10,000. Let's face it: no university [in Ukraine] can afford that. Also, ornithologists are often bogged down with paperwork, spending more time with documents than in the field. Birdwatchers, on the other hand, can skip the bureaucracy and spend all their time photographing rare species, then share their findings with the scientific community. My goal is to bridge the gap between professional science and citizen science."

Екостанція Супій

Vadym, a  "Supii" team member, is a fourth-generation herbalist who knows almost everything about local plants. He's updated his family's traditional craft and turned it into a business, jokingly calling his herbal teas "biohacking tea" instead of "medicinal tea"

Eco-station founder Yevhenii says he plans to continue community-based research at "Supii" for his entire life. He's convinced that if he compiles his research over the next 50 years, it will provide insights into the impact of farmers or fish farms, among other things.

By the way, the "Supii" eco-station team is already taking steps to influence the local fish farm in a unique way. This experiment could have broader implications for environmental protection, so Yevhenii's approach might interest anyone concerned about nature.

Harvard Negotiation Method: How the "Supii" team fights for nature

On the day Rubryka visited, the core team of the station was gathered for an important meeting with the local city administration.

The thing is, Yevhenii is limited in what he can legally change in the environment on his own property—the land by Supii Lake. However, the ecosystem doesn't follow property boundaries, and positive changes for biodiversity need to be made in much larger areas.

The team was concerned about the relationship with the local fish farm located on this lake.

"For the fish farm, birds that eat fish are their main competitors. And I'm here watching those birds! People who kill birds are my competitors. It is a conflict of interest, and we had to find common ground so we don't get in each other's way," Yevhenii explains.

The solution the parties reached is quite interesting.

"We discussed the cormorant, which catches fish but drives away other birds. We need to prevent it from nesting," Yevhenii shares. "In the past, the fish farm used hunting to control the cormorants, but we found common ground, and they bought a deterrent — it sounds like a gunshot, but the birds get scared and fly away. Another effective method is to poke their nests with sticks — then, they won't lay eggs and will go elsewhere."

The founder of the eco-station expects that by scaring away cormorants instead of shooting them, the number of other bird species at Supii  Lake will increase, and the fish farm will maintain its fish population. Yevhenii says he prefers negotiations over open war, following the Harvard principled negotiation method created by Roger Fisher, where each side must put aside personal interests and focus on objective facts.

"We understand that our approach also interferes with the ecosystem, but it's more humane than shooting. It's like neutering cats — on the one hand, it prevents future generations, but on the other, it prevents deaths from starvation and cold," Yevhenii explains.

It remains to be seen whether the decision to manage cormorants in this way was the right one and how it will impact Supii's ecosystem. It's an experiment, and the results may not be clear for several or even several dozen years.

How to visit the "Supii" eco-station

The "Supii" eco-station wasn't initially intended to be a tourist spot, but over time, Yevhenii realized it might need to be.

"This isn't our priority, but research is hard to monetize, and if we want to travel and document things, we need to fill up the gas tank at least. So, we need a way to fund our work, and the tourist segment could help," Yevhenii says.

However, "Supii" won't be a place for picnics or loud parties. The idea is much more interesting, with events designed to educate visitors about nature. The "Supii" team is creating a calendar of events. For example, the pond turtle, nearly extinct in Europe but still found in Ukraine, will soon start laying eggs.

"We want to invite people to help find these turtles and record their observations," this way, "Supii" will learn more about local habitats, and visitors will gain a unique experience.

The event calendar will be tied to natural events, such as turtle egg-laying, specific plant blooms, or bird migrations. The schedule can be found on the SupiiLake website.


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