Kamianska Sich is a valuable nature conservation and historical area in the Kherson region, located along the shore of the former Kakhovka Reservoir. It was once the administrative and military center of the Zaporizhzhian Kozaks' lower army, and since 2019 the territory has been designated a National Park.
Before the Kakhovka hydroelectric power plant explosion, the park covered more than 50 kilometers of the Dnipro coastline. It was a place of protection for more than 90 species of rare animals.
The territories of Kamianska Sich are also part of the Emerald Network, a network of nature conservation areas created to preserve species and habitats that require protection at the pan-European level.
The occupation of the territory of Kamianska Sich began on March 8, 2022, and during the occupation, the Russians managed to cause irreparable damage to valuable ecosystems. Serhiy Skoryk, the director of Kamianska Sich, was even taken prisoner by the Russians.
The right bank of the Dnipro, together with Kamianska Sich, was liberated by the Ukrainian Armed Forces on November 11, but part of its territory is still a combat zone, and the front line runs along the water part. The man-made disaster — the explosion of the Kakhovskaya HPP dam — posed even more challenges to environmentalists.
Rubryka contacted Serhiy Skoryk and found out how Kamianska Sich continues to live now: recording environmental damage caused by the Russians, cleaning nature from what the occupiers left behind, and restoring the environment.
From the beginning: capture, escape, and return to conservation
The WowNature portal, dedicated to Ukrainian national parks, was the first to tell this story.
Skoryk was captured on the second day of the war, February 25. According to him, the Russians believed that if he was the director of the National Park, then he was the director of the "Nazis," as Russians often refer to Ukrainians. During the seven days of captivity, the enemy kept Skoryk and other prisoners in the Kakhovka HPP assembly hall, taken to interrogations, and sometimes locked in a cold and dirty compressor room with 30 corpses of Russian soldiers.
Sometimes prisoners were taken to the roof of the hydroelectric power station and forced to jump — they say, this is how you can be freed. One day, when the soldiers forced the captives to dig trenches, and they were distracted by drinking vodka, Skoryk jumped into the water, swam across the North Crimean Channel, and got to the other shore. Through the villages, he reached acquaintances, and then, in less than a week, he returned to the Kherson region, to the gray zone.
Skoryk remotely coordinated the work of the park and helped one of the charitable foundations to deliver hygiene products and food to the de-occupied territories and evacuated people.
Other employees of the park, who remained in the occupation all this time, kept the annals of nature and helped the Ukrainian military. They passed information about the occupiers to Ukraine's Security Service and caught fish for civilians.
Now, a year and a half after these events, the National Park continues to function. However, the war posed tough challenges.
What is the problem?
The spontaneous landfills at the occupier's camps cannot be cleaned up even now
In March of 2023, the employees of the Kamianska Sich National Park, together with experts from Environment, People, Law, other scientists, and a film crew, went on an expedition to record the consequences of the war on the territory of Kamianska Sich.
Everywhere near the landings, where the Russians were deployed, and in the Myliv Bay of the Kakhovka Reservoir, the remains of an entire settlement of the occupiers stretched along the shore was found.
Going beyond the path can cost lives
Currently, all but employees are strictly prohibited from visiting the park. Even journalists are not allowed there, being cut off with a definite "No."
"The territory was occupied for nine months. I think this entire territory can potentially be mined," says Skoryk. "It is better to be insured because this human life is the most valuable thing in this world."
The maps of the State Emergency Service completely confirm Skoryk's words — the de-occupied territory of the National Park for dozens of kilometers around is considered potentially explosive.
Back in April, Kateryna Polyanska said that going beyond the boundaries of the path can be worth one's life: "Some explosive objects are immediately visible, others are buried and hidden in the grass and among trees. The remains of a car that blew up on a mine are a reminder of the danger," she writes.
"The steppe may never be the same again"
As a result of shelling, numerous fires broke out in the park's territory, which destroyed the steppe vegetation. Damage resulted from excavators digging caponiers and dugouts, felled and damaged trees, burned equipment remains, fuel and lubricants spills, which are very toxic to the environment, tracks of vehicles, and mutilated ground cover.
According to the botanist Ivan Moisienko, the steppe may never become the same as it was before the war: it takes hundreds of years and a change of successions (that is, a gradual change of the ecosystem) to reach the state that was previously in the untouched territories.
When the shells hit the river, some of them explode, destroying the flora and fauna of the water bodies and polluting the water with chemicals. The part of the projectiles that do not detonate remains at the bottom of the river, creating a threat for decades because underwater demining is a costly and challenging procedure.
The park's infrastructure was also catastrophically affected – the office was destroyed, and the occupiers stole the machinery and equipment.
What happened to Kamianska Sich after the explosion of the Kakhovka HPP
After the detonation of the hydroelectric power station, the Kakhovka reservoir almost completely silted up — only a thin strip of the Dnipro River remained.
"This is the end," Skoryk comments on the situation. "The end of aquaculture, the end of the Kakhovka Sea. This is a huge disaster."
However, according to Skoryk, shallowing is only part of the problem. Few people think about the true consequences of the disaster: "We see shallowing, mollusks are partially affected, almost all aquatic vegetation has died. The fish went downstream, but these are not consequences," the park's director continues.
"The real consequences will come later when it dries up: high temperatures, winds, climate change. In addition, the metals that have been dumped into the Kakhovka reservoir for 70 years from Dniprorudne, Marhanets, Nikopol, Kryvyi Rih, and Enerhodar will rise into the air, and Ukrainians will inhale all this with our lungs."
What is the solution?
The solution for the Kakhovka Reservoir: Our football field
According to Skoryk, you can find temporary advantages in shallowing the bottom. Now is the time to explore the bottom that was flooded more than 70 years ago. However, returning to studying a new ecosystem is not a solution to the problem. The plans of Kamianska Sich are much more ambitious and have already begun to be implemented.
"Although we are the youngest park, we have the most powerful scientific department. We have seven professors, and we have developed a project. Everyone agreed with us, the regional military administration, the Ministry of the Environment, and the Cabinet of Ministers. This is a project according to which we will sow annual plants in the area that has become shallow."
The project is already being implemented. This will solve three problems simultaneously: prevent soil erosion, preserve moisture, and prevent the wind from raising dangerous dust.
"All workers went into the field for seven days and collected annual seeds. They germinate quickly, and you can see what will be at the bottom for the next year. Maybe it will be another project, or maybe we will repeat this one," says Skoryk.
The only problem is that it is possible to implement the National Park project only on the institution's territory — it is a small part of the exposed bottom of the reservoir. Moreover, part of the bottom is in the gray zone. However, the park hopes the project will be taken as a basis by other nature reserve funds and communities.
Employees of the National Park, together with the State Emergency Service, are engaged in demining the NPP
The park is gradually being cleared of mines and other explosive objects, but the area of the park is 12 thousand hectares. Demining can be an extremely long process. The situation is complicated by repeated remote mining. However, demining work does not stop because, over time, mines become less visible, and their disposal will require more effort.
To somehow speed up this process, the director of the NPP, with other park employees, is carrying out complicated work: together with the specialists of the Armed Forces of Ukraine and the State Emergency Service, they carry out demining of the park. For such work, all those involved had to obtain appropriate qualifications: "We all went through the briefing and took the exam. Those who put more effort into demining training, four people, are walking with me. Those who clean up the garbage follow," says Skoryk.
Garbage is also removed independently
Kateryna Polyanska, a member of the Environment, People, Law organization and a participant in that expedition, wrote at the time how, near one of the forest strips, scientists met employees of the national park who were cleaning the area from the remains of the occupiers' camps:
"These camps are places of spontaneous garbage dumps with tons of solid waste, felled trees, damaged soil, shell holes, etc. We have to take out trucks of garbage so that it doesn't start to decompose and increase the pollution level," Polyanska says in her post, summing up her impressions of the visit to Kamianska Sich.
After demining, employees of the State environmental inspectorate must enter the territory to record violations — this must be done before the garbage is removed. However, Skoryk says: "Today, they do not have the desire and ability to come and record all this. That's why I decided that we will record, measure and remove everything ourselves because every day, this household waste will increase the area of pollution."
"If the state eco-inspection does not record the damage, we will do it" — lawyers have developed a special protocol for environmentalists to make their work easier
In October of 2022, the Ministry of Environment approved several Methods for determining damage and losses caused as a result of the armed aggression of the Russian Federation, including for the territories and objects of the nature reserve fund.
To facilitate the work of environmentalists, the lawyers of the Environment, People, Law organization have developed a detailed protocol that meets the requirements of the Criminal Procedure Code, which they, together with other scientists, use during expeditions.
"We record everything on photo and video, and we have special devices for measuring radioactive metals, oximeters, certified rulers… According to Resolution 575 of the Cabinet of Ministers, we record everything and immediately calculate the losses," says Skoryk.
This whole process takes place after demining and cleaning the territories, and the same algorithm is used after each hit at the territory of the National Park.
The biggest flag
There is one more interesting fact about Kamianska Sich. The highest flagpole in the Kherson region is located on the territory of the National Park.
In May 2022, Skoryk bought yellow and blue satin and sewed 20 small flags and a large one — nine by six meters. He planned to hang it the next day after the liberation of the territory, but the military did not allow it because such a flag would be very visible from the left bank, so the Russians could simply shell this historical monument.
"Now the flagpole is in place, and the flag is in my car. I am not putting it anywhere; it is waiting for its time. I don't hang it because I don't want the Russians to fire at the flagpole and with it the settlement of Respublikanets," Skoryk says.
Therefore, an ordinary flag flies in the park now, but after the Russians are expelled from Ukrainian lands, the largest Ukrainian flag in the south of Ukraine will appear in the Kherson region.
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