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As dead dolphins wash ashore, Ukraine builds an ecocide case against Russia

The victim was found earlier this summer on a stretch of beach near the port city of Odessa in southern Ukraine, and the cause of death is unknown.

As a light rain fell on the open field where the autopsy was to take place, police officers, a representative from the local prosecutor's office and civilian witnesses gathered to watch.

There was a porpoise on the beach. They are washed up dead on the shores of the Black Sea in droves.

“Dolphins are not just cute creatures,” said Pavel Goldin, 44, a zoologist specializing in marine mammal populations at the Ukraine Scientific Center for Marine Ecology, before the autopsy. “They are key creatures for the marine ecosystem. When the dolphins are bad, the whole ecosystem is bad too.”

And the Black Sea dolphins are in trouble.

Ukrainian officials say their plight shows the heavy toll Russia's war is taking on marine life and the environment in general — something they want to document for law enforcement.

Four specific acts – genocide, crimes against humanity, aggression and war crimes – are currently recognized as international crimes. Ukraine would like to add a fourth – ecocide – and is set to deepen its arguments against Russia. The porpoise's autopsy was part of that effort.

“We are currently developing the strategy for prosecuting environmental war crimes and ecocide,” said Maksym Popov, an adviser to the Attorney General of Ukraine who focuses specifically on environmental issues. “It's not established yet.”

Although porpoises and dolphins are often used interchangeably, they are different creatures that are both critically endangered.

Trying to document and prosecute atrocities in Ukraine is a vast undertaking, and the government in the capital, Kiev, is being assisted by experts from the United States, Britain and the European Union. There are Tens of thousands registered war crimes under investigation, including the killing of innocent people; the destruction of civilian infrastructure and entire cities; cases of kidnapping, torture and rape; and the forcible deportation of men, women and children.

Despite so much suffering to document, Ukraine's Panel Advisory Council has also dedicated resources to investigating and prosecuting environmental crimes.

“The environment is often referred to as the silent victim of war,” said Mr. Popov. Ukraine is trying to change that because “the environment knows no citizenship, no borders.”

As a sign of the importance Kiev attaches to the issue, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy included “immediate protection of the environment” in the directive 10 point peace plan Ukraine hopes to create a basis for negotiations to end the war.

Ruslan Strilets, Ukraine's minister of environmental protection and natural resources, said in an interview that environmental investigators have collected data on more than 900 dead dolphin cases. The number includes finds on the coasts of Ukraine, as well as Turkey and Bulgaria, which also border the Black Sea.

Ten dolphins were found in a week in July, he said, and investigations are underway to find out how they died.

“This is a new challenge for wartime,” he said. “We must not lose information about environmental crimes.”

The destruction of the Kakhovka Dam, which flushed trillions of gallons of polluted water down the Dnipro River into the Black Sea, was the biggest environmental blow in an already ecologically disastrous war. But even before that, the dolphins were dying at an alarming rate.

Russian warships threatening Ukraine's southern coast in the Black Sea constantly use acoustic sonar signals, which scientists say can impair dolphins' sense of direction as they use their own natural sonar for echolocation.

Explosions, missile launches and low-flying Russian warplanes only add to the cacophony that traumatizes the dolphins, said Dr. goldin However, he cautioned that it is far too early to directly attribute dolphin deaths to a single cause.

Naval mines littering coastal waters pose new, deadly obstacles. Pollutants from explosives and fuel spills, as well as a variety of flotsam associated with the war, have ravaged large parts of the Black Sea Biosphere Reserve – Ukraine's largest protected area, dubbed the ” Wetland of International Importance” – devastated. And the environmental impact of the far-reaching consequences of the dam collapse is still being intensively investigated.

dr Goldin said the flood water contained heavy metals, pesticides and nutrients — particularly nitrogen and phosphorus — that had accumulated in the sediment behind the dam. These nutrients triggered a massive algal bloom that can become toxic.

A major study of the Black Sea whale population in 2019 found there were about 200,000 harbor porpoises, 120,000 common dolphins and 20,000 to 40,000 bottlenose dolphins, said Dr. goldin

While some environmentalists have more than speculated 50,000 Black Sea dolphins The scientists involved in the forensic investigations are more cautious that they could have died in the first year of the war alone.

dr Goldin said it is not yet possible to estimate how many dolphins have died as a direct result of the war and Ukraine is working with international partners to better understand what is happening.

Ukraine needs to develop new methods to document environmental damage, Mr Strilets said. The Black Sea is a combat zone, large parts of the Ukrainian coast are under Russian occupation and many areas are too dangerous to visit due to heavy fighting.

But it's one thing to document a dead dolphin that washes ashore. It is far more complicated to understand why the animal died.

“The diagnosis is the result of all the steps of the entire research,” said Dr. goldin

After each autopsy, Ukraine sends samples for further analysis to experts at the University of Padua in Italy and the University of Hanover in Germany.

This work will take time, said Dr. goldin And only after the war, when a large-scale survey of marine life in the Black Sea can be carried out, will the true damage be known.

Still, every dolphin death they document and investigate provides important clues.

The porpoise dissected this summer had died a few weeks earlier, days after the dam was destroyed. With resources scarce, Ukraine had to be frozen until officials could perform an autopsy under scientific and criminal investigation protocols.

“That's a little guy,” said Dr. Goldin as his team placed the porpoise on a table to thaw. A strong odor was overpowering even outdoors when they cut the creature apart.

When the autopsy was completed, Dr. Goldin that the surprise was that the porpoise's stomach was full and it had recently eaten at least five species of fish.

“Eating so much showed that he was ready for life,” said Dr. goldin “It's fascinating because it adds to the mystery of why he died.”

dr Goldin hoped they would get a better overall picture of what was happening to the dolphins in the coming months, but said that “the best conservationist now is the Ukrainian army” since that was only the case with the end of the war the destruction would stop.

“Maybe we weren't the best stewards, but we're really shocked by what the Russians are doing to nature,” he said. “The sooner the Ukrainian army takes control of the Black Sea, the sooner the Black Sea environment will recover.”

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