Chechnya’s wildlife has been ravaged by war. This man is helping it to heal

The Chechen Wars of the 1990s and 2000s had a devastating effect on the Caucasian republic’s natural beauty. Photographer Svetlana Bulatova travelled to the village of Engenoy to document its wildlife, but instead found herself shooting the ranger responsible for restoring the balance between the human and animal worlds.

14 March 2019

Chechnya’s reputation is as a land of conflict. Since the fall of the Soviet Union alone, the southern Russian republic has experienced war twice, first at the hands of Boris Yeltsin in 1994 and then his successor Vladimir Putin in 1999. Both wars claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands. Whole villages were wiped out. Today, it’s not uncommon to find roads engulfed by forests. But the tragedy was not just human: the atrocities had devastating consequences for Chechnya’s wildlife too. Man and animal alike have had to rebuild.

In Chechnya, war has had devastating consequences for wildlife. Man and animal alike have had to rebuild

The photos we tend to see of the Chechen Republic are usually of armed soldiers, the dazzling mosques of the capital Grozny’s post-war reconstruction, or its highly conservative leader Ramzan Kadyrov. Rarely will you hear about the region’s scenic landscapes, characterised by steppes and semi-deserts in the north, the Caucasus mountains in the south, and the forests and green pastures in between. Visiting Chechnya from St Petersburg, photographer Svetlana Bulatova says she could not forget its “mountain air, snow-covered beech forests, and the noise of pebbles washed by the river.”

Bulatova first travelled to Grozny in 2016 on assignment for a story about oncology in Russia. “This was my first time in the mountains and my reaction to the landscape around me was so overwhelming,” she recalls. “I can only compare it to the feeling of falling in love.” Bulatova works on long-form documentary projects and spent three years travelling to Chechnya after her first trip there. “For me, it is more important to focus on the consequences of armed conflict and trauma than on the trauma itself.” This stance led her to research the environmental aftermath of the Chechen wars.

During the conflict, Chechnya’s forests and mountains suffered a drastic decline in wildlife. Animals migrated to escape the constant shelling. Some species of animals and plants are now endangered and in urgent need of protection. “The authorities have been dedicating more attention to environmental protection, opening sanctuaries and nature reserves,” Bulatova reveals. “In 2008, they launched the Hunting Management Department to care for the environment: it fights against poaching, protects animals, improves their living conditions, regulates hunting.”

Explore the rugged natural beauty of the North Caucasus, a hitchhiker’s paradise
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The village of Engenoy is situated south-east of Grozny. Part of the settlement was moved from the highlands to the plain, perhaps due to the threat of landslides. Bulatova had set out to photograph the red deer native to the area. Unafraid of humans, they are known to break into gardens, eat people’s apples, and trample on crops. In the mornings they can be found at feeders the locals have erected in the village; Bulatova needn’t worry about getting up close to photograph the animals. “I dreamt about documenting these amazing animals in their natural habitat,” she recalls. When she travelled to the village, the forest ranger Shahruddi, who fills the feeders each morning, delivered the news that her trip had been for nothing — the deer had not showed. So Bulatova spent her time photographing Shahruddi, his wife Muhajzhar, and their seven-year-old granddaughter Rayana instead.

Each day, Shahruddi walks close to 15 kilometres. It takes the same amount of time to cover the whole plot of land by car. (He drives a Lada Niva, which Bulatova says is “not specially equipped, but is suitable for driving along difficult mountain routes.”) Shahruddi may be a man of few words, but he is deeply connected to nature, and despite the scale of his territory, familiar with every animal trail on his land. It’s his job to note down any changes to the animal population. One item that is indispensable in his line of work are binoculars. A forest ranger is not required to carry a weapon, but will need be a good shooter to protect wildlife from predators, such as wolves and jackals.

“In our first meeting, Shahruddi told me: ‘A wild animal will never attack a human first. It’s the human that will initiate.’ This became the central theme of my photo story,” says Bulatova. Though not immediately obvious from the photos, human violence lies in the background of this story, hidden in the first snowfall across the plains — and not just the violence of modern warfare.

Engenoy was one of the villages affected by the Soviet forced resettlement program that saw Chechens and other non-ethnic Russian minorities deported between the 1930s and the 1950s. “This eviction left a permanent scar in the memory of the survivors and their descendants,” says Bulatova. Shahruddi’s family were one of the lucky ones who were later able to return to their native lands. His story is one of home, healing, and finding harmony with nature; it’s also about the importance of care in the aftermath of conflict.

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