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A New Educational Tool for Siberians and Ecotourists

Contributed by Svetlana Sizykh, Botanic Garden of Irkutsk State University, Koltsova Street 93, P O Box 1457, 664039 Irkutsk, Russian Federation

Siberia occupies the largest part of Russia. When people hear the word "Siberia” they often imagine cold, hard winters, prison camps and desolation. This is partly true, because the growing season is only about 100 days, but there are many more aspects of what makes up Siberia.

For instance, Lake Baikal is the deepest lake in the world. It is one mile deep and contains more water than all the North American Great Lakes combined. The Lake itself and its surroundings possess a unique flora and fauna. Over 60% of the 2635 species of plants and animals of the Baikal region are endemic. More than 140 species of the total of about 1800 terrestrial higher plants are included in the list of rare and endangered plants. It has been proposed that in the next few years the Lake Baikal region will be recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.

The main part of Baikalian Siberia is covered with a wild conifer forest called ‘taiga’.

The Botanic Garden of the Irkutsk State University is situated in Irkutsk City, the capital of Irkutsk Oblast. The population is a little over half a million. The Botanic Garden of the Irkutsk State University is the only botanic garden within two thousand miles. It was founded about 60 years ago as a soil and biological research station of Irkutsk State University. It is situated in the heart of the city. According to a new Russian environmental law the Garden, which covers an area of 70 acres, is considered to be a Natural Protected Territory.

Before perestroika our mission statement and purpose were very simple. It was to function as an educational facility exclusively for University students. After perestroika in Russia, when our country shifted from a totally controlled economy to a market economy, many new demands arose from the general public for free access to the Botanic Garden.

The Garden’s collections of living plants, display gardens, educational greenhouses, the library, the herbarium of native plants, special TV programs and articles in local newspapers, are very useful for its expanded educational role.

To meet the increasing demands of the public, more advanced educational programmes are continually being developed to serve different targeted groups of Siberians and ecotourists. Visitors and students have a good opportunity to experience the controlled environment of our greenhouses and conservatories throughout the entire year. This is very important for Siberia, because of its extremely short summers.

Every second family has a small piece of property outside the city limits, referred to as a ‘dacha’. They are used exclusively for growing vegetables and fruits to sustain the families throughout the year. People grow approximately 63% of their food and therefore have an excellent working knowledge of growing plants, starting from childhood. Most children know the importance of growing food for survival, because of the difficult economic situation in Russia. People in Irkutsk are very resourceful and they take responsibility for providing themselves with plants for food to prepare for the long winter in Siberia. People are very interested in the advanced growing techniques that the Garden disseminates through classes and practical training. People are also interested in obtaining new healthy plants and seeds to grow at their dachas.

Another popular demand on the Irkutsk Botanic Garden is in the area of the development of local ecotourism. These people are mainly foreigners. Tourism is becoming a major industry in and around Lake Baikal This diverse landscape of clear water, majestic mountains, expansive taiga, and the mosaic of steppe and forest is ideal for ecotourism development. It is very useful for educating people about our native environment, building on people’s natural desire to preserve nature. Scientists from the Irkutsk Botanic Garden take part in organizing and leading ecological tours for people in areas of Northern Lake Baikal. Plants are identified, described and systematically described by our botanists, and the resulting information is included in brochures. These enable both tourists and local visitors to enhance their knowledge of the native plants of central Siberia.

Ecotourism is becoming a very popular way to educate and share with people the richness of the native flora and fauna of this part of the world. Betchart Expeditions, in conjunction with the Chicago Botanic Garden and American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), along with several Russian scientists, have brought several tour groups from the United States to Lake Baikal. Russian scientists were able to enhance the educational value of these tours through their specialist knowledge and their first-hand experience, based on their years of involvement with the Lake. These trips were an extremely successful collaboration.