Political unrest doesn’t just destabilize governments—it can also hurt wildlife. A new study finds that large mammal populations declined rapidly following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Using annual population estimates from the Russian Federal Agency of Game Mammal Monitoring database, researchers analyzed trends of eight large mammals—roe deer, red deer, reindeer, moose, wild boar, brown bears, lynx, and gray wolves—in Russia from 1981 to 2010, a time period that includes the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union. The analysis uncovered major changes in population growth; with the exception of wolves, all species experienced a drop in population growth rates immediately following the collapse, and three species—wild boar, moose, and brown bears—exhibited significant reductions in population growth throughout the decade following the collapse, with declines evident in 85% or more of the study regions. In stark contrast, wolf populations increased by more than 150% between 1992 and 2000. Mammals in politically stable regions of North America and Europe did not experience similar fluctuations over the 30-year period. Although not definitively linked, the changes in Russia’s mammal populations were likely a consequence of lapses in wildlife management that occurred following the political upheaval. As the economy folded and farms were abandoned, people likely resorted to hunting and poaching for food and income. Additionally, a lack of government control measures could have led to the increase in wolf populations, which would have further exacerbated wildlife declines. Although the falling populations can’t be definitively attributed to Russia’s political instability without stronger evidence, the findings do draw attention to the important connection between social welfare and wildlife health, the authors report online this month in Conservation Biology.
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