Any Japanese schoolchild can wax eloquent about the Hoppo Ryodo or “Northern Territories,” the tiny islands Japan has demanded back from Russia since World War II. And with Japan keen to resolve its border dispute with Russia and wrap up a peace treaty by the end of next year, the issue looks likely to continue generating headlines for months to come.

Yet geographically, the Northern Territories are about as familiar to most Japanese as the face of the moon. Ignored in the squabble over sovereignty is the fact that the islands form one of the richest wildlife sanctuaries in the world.

It is a paradise in peril.

There are 93 high-level nature sanctuaries scattered across the Russian Federation, but the Kurilsky State Nature Reserve is known mostly for being one of the country’s most remote and wild. A few mammal species such as brown bear and sable exist there, but the big story on Kurilsky is its huge variety of marine, plant and bird life. There are about 800 tree, grass and other plant species, including threatened varieties such as Maksimovich’s birch and silver magnolia. Kunashiri Island alone supports at least 227 species of birds, including the Steller’s sea eagle, tufted puffin and Blakiston’s fish owl, which are endangered in Japan.

The most tantalizing feature of Kurilsky is that in its physical features it essentially is Hokkaido, before the larger neighboring island was degraded by development beginning half a century ago. The noted crane expert George Archibald, marveling after a visit several years ago, compared Kurilsky’s riches to Yellowstone or Crater Lake national parks in the United States; and the reserve’s fish-filled streams and seas rival the larger Georges Bank area in the Northwest Atlantic.

Tracing Archibald’s footsteps last fall, I was able to spend a week on the reserve on Kunashiri. All visits must start in Kunashiri’s drab and muddy capital of Yuzhno-Kurilsk. But to focus merely on the unpaved streets and crumbling buildings of this provincial town, as the infrequent media reports from the islands do, is to miss the point. Sixty percent of the contested islands of Kunashiri and Shikotan and the Habomai islets are part of the Kurilsky nature reserve. The fourth island that Japan wants back, Etorofu, lies outside the reserve’s borders, but also houses large tracts of excellent-quality wilderness.

Our party included ranger Viktor Olshevsky, chief driver Anatoli Milichikin, and a young ranger from Siberia, Irina Nevedomskaya, a rarity among the overwhelmingly male, middle-aged reserve staff. Anatoli was one of three drivers on the reserve, a necessity in an area with few roads, not to mention mechanics or service stations.

About halfway down the coast, Anatoli stopped and parked the jeep at the side of the road. Drawing long draughts on a pungent Russian cigarette, Viktor led us up a muddy slope, surrounded by thick stands of Jeddo spruce, stone birch, red-leaved angelica trees and, higher up, dwarf pine. He paused to point out brown bear and fox tracks in the mud. We thrashed our way to the Golovnin caldera and its boiling lakes, Kipyashchee and Goryachee, through meter-high sassa, or bamboo grass.

Perhaps the caldera’s warm twin lakes inspired the indigenous Ainu people to give the island its name (Kunashiri is Ainu for “black island.”) The lakeside of black goo was churning and alive, with steaming fumaroles of assorted sizes giving the sensation of a hundred pots furiously on the boil.

Cold, wild and beautiful

A freezing drizzle turned into a torrent. Foul weather is the bane of Kunashiri’s residents, delaying the already infrequent plane and boat service to the island; in winter, mail delivery stops altogether. After lunch and a futile attempt to warm up, we headed farther south, dodging lake-size potholes on the windswept 11-plus-km-long Vezlofsky Peninsula. The storm had deposited a bounty of crabs, kelp and scallops on the beach. As the rangers scooped up mollusks, Irina and I searched the thick grasses in vain for a nest of red-crowned cranes. There are only 1,500 or fewer of these cranes left in the wild, and ornithologists are anxious to find out more about their breeding sites on Kunashiri and the Habomais. In defiance of the strict border controls that keep Russians and Japanese rigidly apart, a few cranes have been observed crossing the narrow Nemuro Straits every autumn in order to winter with a flock permanently based there.

Chilled to the bone, we retired for the day and set off again next morning for a site closer to town, in the shadow of the volcano Mendeleev, which Kunashiri residents say looks like a woman in repose. Irina, along with a visiting geologist named Nadya Razjigaeva and I, hiked down a path blazed by Japanese settlers early this century through yew and magnolia to one of the island’s many hot springs. Dozens of fat, unlucky salmon were piled up, lifeless, in the cold and highly acidic stream nearby. The shallow hot spring, with a floor of black, gooey mud, was tepid, but on the way back to get my clothes I had a rude shock, inadvertently stepping into a tiny patch of scalding water. Temperatures in some hot springs can reach 80 degrees Celsius.

The inky springs were about an hour’s hike from the island’s best-known tourist spot, the curious ocean cliffs of Stolbchatyy. (Stolb means “pillarlike.”) The cliffs resemble vertical stacks of pencils, which occasionally splinter off and shatter into stubs. After nearly an hour rock-climbing up the coast along the jagged, surf-lashed cliffs, we suddenly arrived at a ridiculously smooth platform polished smooth by the waves, called Mostavaya, or cobblestone street. One theory is that these odd rock formations were created after lava was released, and rapidly cooled.

But the larger and more mountainous region of the reserve — and probable home to a large number of fish owls — lies to the north; its centerpiece is the 1,819-meter-high volcano Tyatya, one of Kunashiri’s four active volcanoes. (“We say it’s the third most beautiful volcano in the world, after Vesuvius and Mount Fuji,” said Irina.) There are no roads to the north and most of the terrain is impassable even by jeep.

So we traded the jeep for a rickety 10-meter boat, which catapulted and crashed onto the waves of the Okhotsk Sea with such force it could have been a toy tugboat. The men traded jokes and swigs of beer while Irina and I fought nausea. Still, the view from the sea was magnificent. To the west, Hokkaido’s Shiretoko Peninsula loomed from the mists; above, along the steep cliffs of Kunashiri, a lone bear ambled into view.

Penury, poaching and pollution

But this Garden of Eden is under siege. Once the reserve was operated by 70 rangers and 30 researchers, but Draconian budget cuts by Russia’s Ministry of Finances have left it with a skeletal staff. It now hobbles along with just 28 employees, who are in effect volunteers, since their salaries have dwindled to a few dollars a month.

Moscow provides no money at all for operating the reserve, for gasoline, computers, utilities or repairs of any kind. The consequences of this penury range from the inconvenient — dilapidated offices without heat or water — to the disastrous. Kurilsky’s caretakers can’t afford to patrol most of its territory, so the poachers have declared open season. Most of the stealing is done by the hundreds of Red Army and border-patrol soldiers garrisoned on the island, but lately civilians have also moved in with a vengeance.

Kurilsky’s director is Evguenie Grigoriev, 40. An imposing, hyperkinetic man whose steel-wool hair seems statically charged, he spent a half-hour one gray morning last fall storming around the Severyanka River, on the Okhotsk Sea side of the island. Kunashiri’s many untouched rivers leap with salmon, rush-hour freeways of fish so packed you can reach in and pluck one out.

But the Severyanka this particular morning was a scene of piscine carnage. Grigoriev, dressed in fatigues and fishermen’s boots, sloshed angrily past mounds of dead salmon, stacked by the hundreds, bellies systematically slit and relieved of their “ikura,” the orange-colored fish eggs that fetch handsome prices in Japan. Local residents have been known to help themselves to a salmon or two for dinner, but slaughter of this magnitude was the most brazen Grigoriev had seen in his 14 years on the reserve. All the more infuriating was the fact that the fresh poachers’ tracks, etched in the muddy river banks, led straight to a row of shacks perched right next to the local ranger station.

“If you know who the culprits are, why the heck don’t you haul them in?” I asked. “We have to catch them in the act,” the director replied. “But since we can’t afford to man this area round the clock, that’s impossible.”

Constant vigil at only a few of Kurilsky’s 12 ranger stations; Grigoriev says he needs twice that number manned full-time. This station, in an area called Rudnoe, was built by the reserve’s longest-serving ranger, Viktor Karpov, 52, and his wife. A rude, one-room, wood-and-tar paper shack equipped with a wood stove, a bed, and odd little bits of detritus washed over from Japan, like supermarket shopping baskets, the station strikes outside visitors as primitive. It is actually palatial by the standards of Russian forest rangers, who can sleep as easily on a bed of pine branches under the stars as in a sleeping bag.

Like most Russian rangers, Karpov has no formal training in forest management, but joined the reserve purely out of a love for the outdoors. It is not a job for those who crave human company; rangers at full-time stations can go months without seeing another soul. (When I asked another ranger, Andrei Arhangelski, what the hardest part of his job was, he seemed perplexed at the question, before finally coming up with an answer: “Dealing with people.”)

Karpov showed me the reason poachers now reside permanently in the buffer zone — and why there is further cause for alarm over the reserve’s future. The intruders are 17 geologists hired by a St. Petersburg-based firm to dig for gold in the buffer zone. Earlier generations of prospectors had bulldozed a muddy road 3 km through the forest to a site where about half a ton of gold ore and half again as much of silver is believed to exist. Several months after my return to Japan, the regional government in Sakhalin approved full-scale mining on the Udachny River, a tributary of the Severyanka. Earth movers are now readying the site, preparing to blast a 72-meter pit out of the earth and “leach” the gold ore with sodium cyanide, turning the Severyanka and four other important salmon-spawning rivers into a poisonous stew of cyanides, arsenic, antimony and selenium.

A chance to build bridges

Japan officially professes deep concern for wildlife in the Northern Territories, but refuses to spend a yen on conservation pending the conclusion of a peace settlement, a process that could drag on years beyond the Dec. 31, 2000, deadline. “We don’t have much time (until the deadline), so we have to concentrate on the core problem,” says an official with Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs who asked not to be named.

Nongovernmental groups, the official added, need to take the lead on conservation in the Northern Territories right now, but the Japanese government makes it extremely difficult for Japanese NGOs to do so. Though it’s not a criminal offense, Japanese citizens are strongly discouraged from visiting the Northern Territories, since in the eyes of the Japanese government obtaining a Russian entry visa is tantamount to acknowledging Russian sovereignty over the islands. (The Kurilsky reserve, along with every other Russian institution on the islands, is not recognized by the Japanese government.) A Japanese scientist who flouts the travel ban can expect at least a severe reprimand when he returns home. The sole exception is the highly controlled “visa-free” program, which allows a few hundred former Northern Territories residents and their descendants to sail to the islands each year under strict Foreign Ministry supervision to visit family graves.

The Wild Bird Society of Japan has lobbied for years for permission to do research on the Kurilsky reserve, and last year, for the first time, four ornithologists were finally permitted to tag along on a visa-free tour. As a practical matter, this concession was essentially symbolic. Researchers need to be able to move freely in order to band birds, train rangers and do other work essential to an effective conservation project, but the Foreign Ministry says the moratorium on research remains in place until the dispute is settled. But by the time a political settlement is hammered out, it may be too late for the struggling Kurilsky nature reserve.

Japan’s stated policy is to pursue relations with Russia based on “mutual trust, mutual understanding and mutual interest.” Surely there could be no better way to build bridges and serve the best interests of both countries than by cooperating to save one of the finest nature sanctuaries on the planet.