Lost in translation? Discussing Red Data in Russia

Getting a bit hot and bothered with the unseasonal temperatures in London in late September, I decided to pack my bag and head for much cooler climes. More specifically, I was heading to Syktyvkar in the Republic of Komi (Russian Federation) to attend an International Workshop on Conservation status assessment of endangered species in the Barents region based on the IUCN Red List Criteria  from the 29th September – 4th October 2014. With a refreshing 0-5˚C forecast for the week, I figured “hot and bothered” definitely wouldn’t be on the agenda – how wrong I was! But more about this later…

© Gergely Varkonyi

Keynote © Gergely Varkonyi

I was joining a team of Finnish experts on National Red Listing to make the case for introducing the IUCN Red List Categories and Criteria as a parallel process to the existing system of species classification for the Russian Red Data Book. Sounds easy? Well, with the terms “Red Data Book” and “Red List” being rather similar, and the discussion heavily relying on the help of a team of translators, there was much more confusion about our respective goals that there should have been. Why such confusion? Because within the Russian Federation (and other CIS states), the Red Data Book is a legal document of protected species – introduction of a new system is feared to wreak havoc with existing legislation, conservation planning and protected area establishment. Which is fair enough – Red Data Books generally follow an assessment of rarity of a species, while the IUCN Red List estimates relative extinction risk of species – rarity may of course only be partially correlated with extinction risk and vice versa – so the introduction of a new system could lead to a completely different protected species list, thus undermining all conservation efforts made to date. Still with me? Good. For me, figuring all this out meant I started getting hot and bothered again…

On day 1 of the workshop, I gave a presentation on the purpose of National Red Lists, how they help us to monitor progress towards international biodiversity targets and why the use of a standardised system such as the IUCN system is something we should strive towards (if you are interested, the presentation can be accessed here). This was followed by summaries of the work done by our Finnish colleagues on their National Red List – an amazing amount of work which we can all learn a lot from! The day concluded with the Russian perspective, including an overview of the work done on the Red Data Book of the Komi Republic, all 2.85 kg of which are now sat on my shelf waiting to be catalogued and included in our National Red List database.

Day 2 was all about the IUCN Categories and Criteria and started with a very long session on how the categories and criteria work. Needless to say, we very nearly broke the translator. Still, we managed to get through all the IUCN concepts in one piece, including that of a “location”. What have we learned? Well, these concepts are quite complicated, particularly when explained through a translator (I will never forget his face – definite signs of agony which in turn made me feel guilty about inflicting so much pain!). In the afternoon, workshop participants brought their own data and we carried out some preliminary assessments using the IUCN Categories and Criteria. Apparently, the generation length of reindeer is 7-8 years. Not 78 years.

Spring mire near Syktyvkar, Republic of Komi

Spring mire near Syktyvkar, Republic of Komi

On day 3, we learned a lot about species assessment activities in Russia, from Murmansk Region to Perm Krai and Khanty-Mansi Autonomous Okrug – Yugra (and yes, learning a lot about Russian geography too). It was then that we realised that a) we hadn’t convinced everybody yet of the usefulness of the IUCN criteria system; b) the translators really liked saying ‘IUCN Cats and Crits’ (I fear I am somewhat responsible for that!); c) some things definitely got lost in translation, specifically the distinction between Red List and Red Data Book; and d) we would have a lot of work to do the next day in order to agree on a resolution on how to proceed with using the IUCN system in Russia. But despite these minor hiccups, the good humour and atmosphere and amazing welcoming spirit of the meeting was noticeable throughout the day – and culminating in a rather opulent conference dinner. Vodka was flowing, wine was flowing, speeches and toasts were made, culminating in a lot of dancing – definitely getting hot and bothered now, particularly with my two left feet. However, if nothing else, then this friendly dinner may have helped with making our job the next day a lot easier.

Day 4 – the day of agreeing on a resolution. Suffice to say, we did in the end – turns out things are a lot easier once the confusing terminology of Red List and Red Data Book is cleared up, or in fact avoided altogether. By late afternoon, we were all happy in the knowledge that we had reached a milestone in the assessment process in Russia, with the recommendation of using the IUCN system in parallel with the existing Russian Red Data Books. Exciting times ahead and a job well done for everybody involved in the workshop, including the translators. I suspect they all went on a well-deserved holiday straight afterwards.

A statue devoted to an umlaut.

A statue devoted to an umlaut.

No workshop would be complete though without a field trip, so the next day saw us brave the cold and sometimes wet (yes, sleet!) weather to visit the wonderful Komi forest (and a beautiful spring mire which made the Finnish delegation immediately feel at home), marvel at local handicrafts, try our hand at some Finnougric traditional instruments (turns out we make quite a band) and even, yes, rest on hay. Of course there was more food and vodka (come on, it was the last day, I felt I should join in!).

Other things I learned in Russia: Monni means ‘catfish’ in Finnish; Syktyvkar has a statue devoted to the letter ‘ö’ which means I only need to have my picture taken with three more letters before I can spell my surname through the medium of photography; stuffed squirrels holding guns are kind of creepy; and drinking vodka is no longer compulsory in Russia. Already looking forward to the next visit, thank you to all the organisers and participants for a wonderful and memorable time! До свидания!

Landscape near Syktyvkar

Fieldtripping near Syktyvkar