The victim was found along the beach near the port city of Odesa in southern Ukraine this summer, the cause of death unknown.
As a light rain fell on the open field where the necropsy was to take place, law enforcement officials, a representative of the local prosecutor’s office and civilian witnesses gathered to watch.
On a table lay a harbor porpoise. They wash up the dead en masse on the shores of the Black Sea.
“Dolphins are not just cute creatures,” said Pawel Goldin, 44, a doctor of zoology who specializes in marine mammal populations at the Ukrainian Scientific Center of Ecology of the Sea, before the necropsy. “They are fundamental creatures for the marine ecosystem. If dolphins are in bad shape, the whole ecosystem is in bad shape.”
And the dolphins in the Black Sea are in trouble.
Ukrainian officials say their plight speaks to the brutal toll that Russia’s war is taking on marine life and the environment more broadly – something they want to document for prosecution.
Currently, four specific acts — genocide, crimes against humanity, aggression and war crimes — are recognized as international crimes. Ukraine wants to add a fifth — ecocide — and is setting out to build its case against Russia. The porpoise autopsy is part of that effort.
“We are now developing a strategy for the prosecution of environmental war crimes and ecocide,” said Maksym Popov, an adviser to the Prosecutor General of Ukraine, who focuses specifically on environmental issues. “It hasn’t been established yet.”
While people often refer to porpoises and dolphins, they are unique creatures that are both endangered.
The attempt to document and prosecute atrocities in Ukraine is a vast effort, and the government in Kyiv, the capital, is being assisted by experts from the United States, Britain and the European Union. there is tens of thousands of registered war crimes under investigation, including the killing of innocents; the destruction of civilian infrastructure and entire towns; cases of kidnapping, torture and rape; and the forced deportation of men, women and children.
Even with so many hardships to document, Ukraine’s atrocity advisory board has also devoted resources to investigating and prosecuting environmental crimes.
“The environment is often called the silent victim of war,” said Mr. Popov. Ukraine is trying to change that, because “the environment has no citizenship, no borders.”
As a sign of the importance Kyiv attaches to the issue, President Volodymyr Zelensky included “urgent environmental protection” in the 10-point peace plan Ukraine hopes that will provide a foundation 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 related to more than 900 cases of dead dolphins. The figure includes those located on the coast of Ukraine, as well as Turkey and Bulgaria, which also border the Black Sea.
In one week in July, he said, 10 dolphins were found and are being studied to determine how they died.
“This is a new challenge for wartime,” he said. “We cannot lose any information about environmental crimes.”
The destruction of the Kakhovka dam, which sent trillions of gallons of polluted water into the Dnipro River and the Black Sea, was the most serious environmental blow in an already catastrophic ecological war. But even before then, dolphins were dying at an alarming rate.
Russian warships threatening Ukraine’s southern coast in the Black Sea continue to use acoustic sonar signals that scientists say could interfere with dolphins’ sense of direction, as they use their own natural sonar for echolocation.
Explosions, rocket launches and low-flying Russian fighter jets only add to the cacophony that traumatizes the dolphins, Dr. Golden. But he cautioned that it was too early to directly attribute the dolphin die-off to one cause.
Sea mines littering coastal waters present new, deadly obstacles. Pollutants from explosives and fuel leaks, along with various war-related flotsam, are destroying vast swathes of the Black Sea Biosphere Reserve — Ukraine’s largest protected area classified as a “wetland with international importance.” And the environmental toll caused by the widespread consequences of the dam break is still being studied intensively.
said Dr. Goldin said the floodwaters carry heavy metals, pesticides and nutrients – particularly nitrogen and phosphorus – that accumulate in the sediment behind the dam. Those nutrients trigger massive algae blooms, which can be toxic.
A major study of the Cetacean population of the Black Sea in 2019 found that there were approximately 200,000 harbor porpoises, 120,000 common dolphins and 20,000 to 40,000 bottlenose dolphins, said Dr. Golden.
While some environmentalists thought more than 50,000 Black Sea dolphins May have died in the first year of the war alone, scientists involved in forensic tests are more cautious.
said Dr. Goldin that it is not yet possible to estimate how many dolphins have died as a direct result of the war, and that Ukraine is working with international partners to better understand what is happening.
Ukraine had to create new methods to document environmental damage, Mr. Strilets said. The Black Sea is a battle zone, much of the Ukrainian coastline is under Russian occupation, and many places are too dangerous to visit due to heavy fighting.
But it’s one thing to document a dead dolphin washing ashore. It is a more complicated matter to understand why the animal died.
“The diagnosis is the result of all the steps of all the research,” said Dr. Golden.
After each necropsy, Ukraine sends samples to experts at the University of Padua in Italy and the University of Hannover in Germany for further analysis.
That work will take time, said Dr. Golden. And only after the war, when a large-scale survey of marine life in the Black Sea can take place, will the true toll be known.
However, each dolphin death they document and study offers important clues.
The porpoise that was dissected this summer died a few weeks ago, days after the dam collapse. With Ukraine’s resources stretched thin, it had to be frozen until officials could conduct an autopsy in accordance with protocols for both scientific and criminal investigations.
“It’s a little guy,” said Dr. Goldin as his team laid the porpoise on a table to thaw. A strong smell was overwhelming even in the open air as they tore the creature apart.
After the necropsy, Dr. Goldin said that one surprise was that the porpoise’s stomach was full and that it had recently eaten at least five species of fish.
“To eat so much food shows that he is ready for life,” said Dr. Golden. “It’s intriguing because it adds to the mystery of why he died.”
Dr. hopes Goldin said they will begin to get a better overall picture of what is happening to the dolphins in the coming months, but said that “the best agent of nature conservation today is the Ukrainian Army” because the war just ended. destruction will cease.
“Maybe we’re not the best stewards, but we’re really shocked by what the Russians are doing with nature,” he said. “The sooner the Ukrainian Army can control the Black Sea, the faster the environment in the Black Sea will start to heal.”