Morning fog is covering a village, spotted eagles are stretching their wings in the sky, when 75-year-old English Sir John Hartley Lawton takes his backpack, binoculars and goes outside. This is the perfect time for a wilderness retreat, he says.
“Amazing pictures!” says Sir Lawton watching a flock of birds through his binoculars. Villagers passing by don’t share his excitement, they are pretty used to the exotic-for-a-foreigner views.
TUT.BY reporters took a walk with John Lawton along Polesie to find out how Belarus hooked an Englishman, why he is willing to spend hours waiting for a wolf, and why the Chernobyl exclusion zone is a unique opportunity for scientists and tourists.
Sir John is 75, he traveled halfway across the world, twice visited Antarctica with an expedition, was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II for the preservation of the environment and won a la Nobel Prize of $250,000 in ecology.
Who would have thought that it will be a post office in Belarus that will take him aback? To get to Olmansky swamps, a foreigner should pay 245 BYN (~$118), give his checking account and somehow find a common language with a local cashier.
“They gave me this at the airport, this one is from a hotel, this should be given to a border guard and this is a permission to a border area. Everything is very complicated here, I have not seen so much paperwork in any other country,” the Englishman laughs.
Half an hour later, another piece of paper is added to the collection of documents and certificates. Sir John is now free to visit the Olmansky swamps all year round.
No landscapes like yours in Europe
The English scientist came to Belarus for a reason. Frankfurt Zoological Society jointly with Achova ptušak Baćkaŭščyny won a grant by The Arcadia Fund for Polesie – Wildlife Without Borders program.
Turns out that Sir John Lawton chairs the fund’s supervisory project. He decided to see for himself how $1.5 million will be spent and how exactly Belarusians intend to preserve their nature in the next five years.
First of all, there are plans to restore the marshes drained back in Soviet times. Experts analyzed satellite images of the marshes since 1984 and identified 15 areas that need to be restored first.
The car stops, and Sir John Lawton gets outside in slight confusion. There’s a 40km long high road running through the reserve, a unique territory where rare species of animals, birds and insects live.
This is a very strange decision to bury a swamp alive,” the scientist shakes his head.
“A person should not interfere with the wild, Belarusians explain it this way: since there is a road, it will be easier to put out fires. In fact, fires occur where there is a person.
Look over there! See, there’s a woman over there on the road? It means that the territory of the reserve becomes more accessible and may lose its uniqueness. There are no landscapes like yours in Europe. It is vital to save them.”
Don’t understand how rich you are
As we walk through the swamps, white-tailed eagles and large spotted eagles are flying in the sky. The scientist, who doesn’t let go of his binoculars, admits that it’s incredible luck to see these birds in the wild.
“The forest in England is like an art gallery without paintings, almost nothing remained there. Some species are gone forever. There are no lynxes left, we have badgers, the otter is coming back. The British were so fond of hunting in the Victorian era that some species simply disappeared.
Here you have white-tailed eagles flying above your head, we have about a hundred pairs of them. Their return to the country cost millions of dollars. The main restoration program was on the small island of Mall in Scotland.
There are 22 couples now living there, and every year, thanks to the tourists who come to see them, they bring in seven million dollars! Only we have never seen so many of them in one place, while you have no problem with that,” laughs Sir John Lawton.
Chernobyl zone mystery
We head to the Polesie State Radioecological Reserve, the car stops several times, as white herons and cranes catch the eye of the Englishman.
John Lawton is not afraid to go to the Chernobyl exclusion zone. Firstly, he has already been there in 2013 and, secondly, he believes the territory is unique.
“What happened there is terrible, people should see and know what nuclear disasters can do to them. I remember how I went into a dilapidated house, saw a newspaper and doll on the table and started crying. The exclusion zone is not only a safety and health problem but also a huge potential for scientific work.
There is one riddle. This area is very radioactive, but large animals live there. Moreover, wolves and moose have a long life, the population becomes larger. We do not understand this. Why don’t they die?
This needs to be scientifically verified. The same about mushrooms and plants eaten by animals, how does this affect them? If the same catastrophe suddenly happens, we will need to understand how it works and how to preserve the ecosystem.”
To see the wolf and the moose in the wild, the Englishman leaves the hotel at 5.30 in the morning. He doesn’t hide his surprise when he sees people planting new trees on the site of a burned-out forest.
“Why? Radiation accumulates most in wood. It is clear that it will not be possible to use it for another hundred years. It’s hard for you to do nothing. In fact, tourism should be here, it needs to be promoted.”
At this moment, one wolf crosses the road, then another. “Nature in the exclusion zone does not allow radiation to leave, it blocks it,” the scientist explains.
“We chose Belarus from 48 countries, so you have great opportunities. You don’t even understand how beautiful your country is! It is important to preserve the Belarusian nature.”
Sir John Lawton has a dream, he wants to come back with his wife to show her “an amazing country, beautiful Orthodox churches and village houses.”
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In his dreams, he rents a car and travels around the country, in reality, he is afraid of bureaucratic troubles and endless paperwork.
“Your officials should let go of the situation and allow tourists to come just like that,” the sir says goodbye, holding a pile of documents he collected during his a week-long trip around Belarus.