The Wild Amur

September 13, 1992|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,Staff Writer

INNOKENTIEVKA, RUSSIA — For 30 years, the bitter rivalry between Russia and China protected the mighty river. Now the easing of tension is

threatening to spoil this ecological treasure.

INNOKENTIEVKA, Russia -- The wild Amur River cuts its way for 2,744 miles through Russia's rugged Far East. From Siberia until it falters into the arms of the mighty Pacific Ocean it makes a glorious passage through sweet-smelling prairies that swell into timber-rich mountains, nourishing some of the world's rarest and most endangered creatures.

This great river, the fifth longest in the world, also pushes apart two fearsome enemies -- Russia and China. For 30 years, its waters were a no-man's territory, and in an odd way, the mighty river and its extraordinary inhabitants were the beneficiaries of those long years of bitter Sino-Russian enmity.

Barbed wire and gunboats offered sanctuary for the fragile storks and cranes threatened elsewhere by man's presence. Fish swam freely, unfettered by dams. While men endangered each other, wildlife thrived.

Now the border tensions are easing. Much of the barbed wire has been stripped away from the river banks. Peaceful cooperation is being discussed, and with it comes great danger for the Amur. China, looking northward to feed its millions, wants to drain the rich wetlands for farming. Russia sees an economic lifeline in these waters -- it hopes to build dams and sell power to China in return for the hard currency it so desperately needs.

Such are the ominous forces, more powerful and threatening than the specter of war, that are mustering for development. But these forces are not unopposed. They have a formidable opponent -- Sergei M. Smirenski, a man simply but impressively armed. He deeply loves the Amur and its birds.

"This river is one of the world's wonders, and this means it's not a Russian river," he says. "It's not a Chinese river. It's the world's river. We must help our governments save this amazing river."

To that, end Mr. Smirenski, a professor of ornithology at Moscow State University has assembled far-flung disciples from around the world to save the Amur, its rare storks and cranes and other wildlife.

With the help of the Wisconsin-based International Crane Foundation, he organized a floating workshop on the Amur, bringing scientists from Russia, China, Japan, Korea, Hong Kong and the United States here in an attempt to save one of the world's last great undammed rivers. For a week, more than 100 scientists and environmentalists motored along 700 miles of the Amur, studying its past, trying to divine its future.

Until this year, barbed wire was strung across the beach

It was an extraordinary expedition. The Amur, winding through prairie and forest, mountain and plain, is more epic than river. A journey along its shores is as much travel through time as through space.

By helicopter, the travelers fly over nests of the rare oriental white storks and red-crowned cranes, nourished for millenniums by the Amur's delicately balanced ecological system.

By boat, the modern explorers move westward past log cabins and Cossack pioneer outposts settled in the 19th century.

The travelers float past places where the pure horror of Stalinist memories abide, where old women remember eating grass to survive the starvation Josef V. Stalin induced to force them onto collective farms. Here, in Innokentievka, the inhabitants can still conjure up images of people dying.

"This is a tender moment for the Amur," says George Archibald, president of the International Crane Foundation. "Because of the political tensions, it was never built up. Now the great plains of northern China are targeted to become the bread basket of China. They plan to drain the wetlands. And they need power. Twenty-two dams are planned for the Amur and its tributaries."

And so on a hot bright summer day, hammer and sickle still flapping on the shipping company's pennant, the expedition leaves the smoke-belching factories and power plants of Khabarovsk for some of the freshest air and wildest landscapes most of those aboard will ever see.

On the edge of Khabarovsk, the Ussuri River joins the Amur. A Russian gunboat stands silent watch. Beyond is China.

The sandy banks, sloping down from grassy, tree-dotted fields, look much the same on either side. In Chinese, the Amur is Heilong Jiang, River of the Black Dragon. It is the world's 10th largest river basin, stretching across Mongolia, China and Russia. An amazing 10,610 rivers of varying length flow into it; 61,426 lakes are filled with its waters.

Everything is written in the superlative here. In 1987, a fire started on the Chinese side of the river. It burned into the world's worst forest fire in 300 years, destroying timber stands covering an area the size of New England.

The humming motor carries the boat gently along, past prairie and flood plain, past Mongolian oak and birch, terns and eagles. Two gray herons soar freely in the wind above, untroubled by borders below.

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