“It is a pocket of the earth that has been protected, but it will not be like this much longer if we don’t do something. It’s a shame, because we have it in our grasp now.”

The pristine wilderness of the Northern Islands

Lucy Craft is talking about the islands off the north coast of Hokkaido, and her eyes are shining as if reflecting the wonders she has seen. Craft speaks quickly, but as she talks about exotic plants and wildlife, poachers and politicians, she speeds up even more.

“The seas are lush,” she says. “You look in the water and all you see is fish.” On the islands, “there are almost 800 tree, grass and plant species, some of them rare or threatened. On Kunashiri Island alone there are more than 200 species of birds, including tufted puffins and avians threatened in Japan, such as the Stellar’s sea eagle and the white-tailed sea eagle.”

The land here is 60 percent nature reserve.

Questions keep coming to mind as I listen to this fast-paced narrative, but Craft is on a roll and it seems better not to interrupt.

“The tufted puffin used to be found all over Hokkaido, but now it’s basically extinct,” she continues. “The problem is that Hokkaido is ringed with [fishing] nets and these sea birds get caught and strangled in the nets. I’d never seen one of these birds [in Japan]. It’s almost impossible. But I was in a dinghy going up the coast of Kunishiri and suddenly we were surrounded by hundreds of these birds.”

The islands Craft is talking about are known in Japan as the Northern Territories or Northern Islands. Russia, which seized control of the formerly Japanese islands in the final days of World War II, calls them Iturup, Kunashir, Shikotan and Habomai. She is particularly interested in Kunashir, or Kunashiri in Japanese.

“The whole southern part of the island is a nature reserve and buffer zone created by the Russian government in 1984,” she explains. “Excluding Etorofu [Iturup in Russian], 60 percent of the islands are nature reserve. There’s no fishing allowed, no hiking, no camping, nothing. There is no place like this in the world.”

The place is the Kurilsky State Nature Reserve, a zapovednik (highly protected area) which is one of almost 100 across Russia. The zapovednik system began at the turn of the last century, when Russian scientists convinced their government to restrict public access to areas containing rare species.

On the Northern Islands, though, people have never been much of a problem. Even today only 20,000 people inhabit the isles, clustered in villages. This has ensured that land and sea areas, both in and around the reserve, remain in near-pristine condition — for the moment anyway.

The Kurilsky Reserve once had a staff of 70 rangers and 30 researchers, but Russia’s fiscal and political problems have left the park with a staff one quarter that size, and salaries have plummeted. Now rangers and researchers are effectively “volunteers,” says Craft, and the environment is suffering.

Poachers are ravaging the seas around the islands, and selling their illegal bounty to Japanese distributors. Much of this seafood ends up in all-you-can-eat sushi and crab restaurants at harmfully low prices. One Japanese biologist notes that a serving of sea urchin used to cost 400 yen. Now the same serving goes for 120 yen at discount restaurants.

“Eastern Hokkaido hasn’t suddenly had a bumper crop of sea urchin,” he explains. “It’s coming in from the [northern] islands.”

The poachers are mainly Russian, according to Craft, though a Japanese fisherman was recently caught in the area with a drift net he had left out for three days.

“It was like a vacuum cleaner,” Craft says. “He had seals, puffin, everything.”

Craft is an American freelance journalist who has lived in Japan almost 20 years, but her passion is the islands. She first visited Kunashiri in 1997 on assignment from a U.S.-based wildlife magazine and was immediately smitten. She became frustrated, however, when she found that Japan and Russia were negotiating the future of the islands without heeding “the enormous richness of the flora and fauna there, comparable to Yellowstone and Crater Lake Parks in the United States.”

Unlike Sakhalin to the north, where gas and oil abound, the only commercially valuable resources around Kunashiri are marine. Tokyo is demanding return of the islands, says Craft, but has offered no hint as to how it would manage the Kurilsky Reserve upon reversion.

“Japan has shown no official interest whatsoever in conservation of the Northern Territories,” she adds, “although protecting nature on the islands, even before reversion, would clearly benefit all concerned.”

To raise awareness of the islands and their biodiversity, Craft established the Kuril Island Network, a nonpartisan, nonpolitical volunteer group in 1999.

Most KIN members live in Japan, though they come from various countries. All “share a common desire to preserve one of the last untouched habitats in Asia.” KIN offers public lectures and educational programs, and also provides support for the rangers of the Kurilsky Reserve. The goal, Craft says, is to try to create a large constituency in Japan that knows and cares about preserving the islands. Craft would also like to encourage multinational efforts to preserve the pristine character of the islands.

“For the last 10 years, UNESCO has been promoting transboundary nature reserves,” she explains. “It makes a lot of sense for [nations] to pool their resources, and these islands are a perfect candidate.”

Scientists worldwide have long been eager to make the area a jointly or internationally managed nature reserve, but Russian and Japanese political intransigence has left the islands in limbo. Meanwhile, pillaging by poachers continues unabated. As part of her efforts to inform others, Craft is organizing an eco-tour that will visit the islands late next month. But be warned, the trip will not be cushy. “There’s no infrastructure, no roads, no hotels,” she says. “Even stores for the local people are minimal at best.” In addition, the island vegetation is thick, the weather is bad, and there are many bears.

Also, because you cannot fly directly to the islands, the group will have to fly from Hakkodate to Sakhalin then back to Kunashiri. Craft admits the trip will be expensive, difficult, and time-consuming, but she is doing it for KIN members and others who are eager to go.

“To really appreciate this place, you have to see it with your own eyes,” says Craft, her own eyes as bright as ever.