The pelican seems to have trouble getting airborne, powering along the surface of the water before lifting off with beating wings.  But in the air it soars and swoops, circling over our boat as the passengers brandish cameras and phones trying to take pictures.  Onshore, half-a-dozen more pelicans cluster on a sand spit.  In the distance a sandbank teems with rare black-headed gulls. 

Donetsk Oblast, in the east of Ukraine, has a long-established reputation as the "boiler-room of the Soviet Union", with its abundance of coalmines, steel plants and metallurgical enterprises.  But here at the Meotida country park, about 50 km east of Mariupol and close to the Russian border, the local authorities have set up a wildlife reserve which is nothing less than beautiful.  Named after the ancient Greek name for the Azov Sea, the sanctuary has been going for 10 years and was originally set up with help from the UK's Department for International Development (DFID) and Flora and Fauna International (FFI).  Gennadiy Molodan, Director of the park, reels off a list of successes.  The first pair of pelicans set up home in Meotida only last year; now there are two separate colonies.  The rare black-headed gull is now firmly established.  In addition to the spectacular colonies of birds we see on a brief boat trip around the trip, we're shown a DVD demonstrating a series of mammals, reptiles, insects and arachnids established in the reserve, many of them listed in the "red book" of endangered species. 

None of this has been easy.  Sergei Tretyakov, Head of Environmental Services for Donetsk Oblast, tells us that Donetsk Oblast still produces an astonishingly high proportion of Ukraine's air pollution, and that the water in the Sea of Azov itself is badly polluted too.  Setting up the reserve has entailed an information campaign to dissuade local residence from collecting birds' eggs to feed to livestock.  Now, after ten years, Molodan says the locals are seeing the benefits.  "But," he says, 'we're only at the start of a long road."  It's great to see that, with a clear focus and much hard work over a ten year period, this small part of Ukraine has been transformed into something so beautiful.  Even better that UK funding helped to make it happen.

Some photos of Meotida, and a short video, are below.


Leigh Turner
British Ambassador to Ukraine

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