What the Russians Left Behind in the Steppes of Kherson Oblast

June 7, 2023
Warning: the material contains sensitive content, in particular photos, that may be traumatizing to some audiences.
Photo credit: The USI ONLINE

Hanged endangered hamsters, shot dogs, herds of wild livestock grazing without supervision, burned out fields and forest strips. This is only a small fraction of what the Ukrainians have come across in the liberated territories of Kherson Oblast.

Environmental scientists and eco-activists unanimously claim that Russia has been staging military ecocide on the Ukrainian land causing mass destruction of animal and plant life and poisoning the atmosphere and water resources.

A correspondent from Ukrainian Information Service (USI) spoke with witnesses to Russian ecocide -- including volunteers, soldiers, veterinarians, and ecologists -- who were the first to set foot on liberated Ukrainian land and seen what remained of the rich natural environment of southern Ukraine after the expulsion of Russian occupiers.


Thirty kilometers away from the settlements of Kherson Oblast, hundreds of cows and goats grazed on more or less intact fields. They have no shepherds, and their owners have either died or left their homes long ago. The animals have not been milked for many months. They have been wandering in search of food, sometimes tripping mines.

Historian and researcher Oleksandr Babich from Odesa tells USI that huge untended herds of livestock have been grazing and wandering through the fields of Kherson Oblast.

Babich has visited the liberated area as a volunteer with the On the Shield Mission Group, which searches for and recovers the remains of both Ukrainian defenders and Russian soldiers in recent combat zones. But even for someone who does such grisly work, Babich says that the wild herds of livestock are the most terrifying thing he sees in those fields.

[Oleksandr Babich (on the Left)]

Human corpses are not the scariest thing I have seen there. These untended herds – the sight of them was really apocalyptic.

"In the Kherson steppes, there were many cows walking unattended. We saw them regularly. Believe me, there were no shepherds nearby. There were no people there at all. We saw dead animals again and again. By the dozen. For us, this was the first indicator of where not to go,” he recounted.

[A dead cow]

The locals who have stayed in Chornobaivka and its vicinity call the now-feral cows and goats minesweepers.

"In one village in Kherson Oblast, we met an old woman who told us where we ought to avoid, because a so-called minesweepers had died there. We didn't understand at first, but then she explained to us that this was how the locals called the cows and goats which set off the mines left by the Russians," Babich added.

After the area was liberated, people began to return home. Some of them have taken other people's cattle to save them from dying in the fields. Moreover, cows and goats mean milk and food. Locals admit that they use these animals to help them to survive now.


One of the most absurd and sadistic photos to emerge after the liberation of the right bank of Kherson Oblast showed rodents that had been strung up by their necks and tails.

[Hanged hamsters]

The photo was taken by the Ukrainian military.Zoologists recognized them to be rare gray hamsters listed in Ukraine's Red Book of endangered species. There is no indication of why the Russians carried out this act of senseless cruelty.

USI spoke to Oleksandr Todorchuk, the founder of the animal rights organization UAnimals, about the morbid discovery. In addition to his work with UAnimals, Oleksandr also serves in the Armed Forces of Ukraine.

"Considering how and where they were hanged and the fact that the hamsters posed no threat, this was most likely done purely for fun. There were other horrible discoveries, as well. Dogs were found shot on occupied streets, also clearly for entertainment. Crucified dogs. Animals with their limbs cut off. There have been many cases of the Russians abusing animals for sport.

Moreover, they used pets implements for blackmail. Many people have reported that pets were killed because their owners did not want to cooperate. They shot pets to put pressure on people. In some places, in addition to blowing animals up with mines, the Russians deliberately ran them over with their tanks. There were many such cases, and it is terrible."

[Photo of an endangered gray hamster from the Kyiv Zoo]

Gray hamsters help maintain the steppe's biodiversity, improve soil fertility, and spread plant seeds. As a result of significant population declines, the species was listed as endangered and protected by law in 2009. These hamsters used to inhabit almost all of Ukraine, but have been disappearing in recent decades as a result of numerous factors, now including the Russian aggression.

Ukrainian conservationists have been trying to increase their population, but with a focus on Odesa Oblast. A family of hamsters from the Kyiv Zoo was brought to the Odesa steppes. After all, it is too early to think of restoring the species' natural populations in the burned out fields and farms of Kherson Oblast.


Stories about dogs eating corpses are not the stuff of horror fiction in Ukraine. Volunteers who visit front-line and liberated territories of Ukraine often report the gruesome sight. Organizations like Oleksander Babich's carry out special missions remove human remains from battlefields, but they are often beaten to them by wild, hungry animals.

Valentyna and Leonid Stoyanov, a couple of veterinarians from Odesa, were among the first to go to Kherson Oblast to rescue animals.

Valentyna recounts how, "when entering Kherson Oblast for the first time (at the beginning of the war, when Kherson was occupied), we felt as if we had walked into a movie about the apocalypse. We went to the contact line, and to villages that were on the front line by no fault of their own. There were constant explosions overhead. It was for the first time when two residential buildings were hit right next to us, and we miraculously survived, but shrapnel hit our car."

The Stoyanovs Odesa set up a special rescue station in Kherson Oblast with the help of a local volunteer. He let the veterinarians use his house and the surrounding area, and they began to take all the abandoned animals they could rescue there.

"The place where our station was located was occupied and then liberated twice, so there was constant fighting in the village. We picked up all the abandoned dogs. There were a lot of them on the streets, both purebreds and mutts. People from neighboring buildings also brought their animals to us. Many people decided to leave. Back then, there was a lot of chaos, and we were just trying to help everyone we could," Valentyna adds.

Some animals the veterinarians came across were torn apart by Russian missiles.

Valentyna continues, “There are a lot of both dogs and cats. Unfortunately, with the local shelters already overcrowded, the number of seriously wild dogs has been increasing. Now, with the arrival of spring, many new puppies have been born, and their mortality is high. This is very bad in terms of epidemiology. Dogs can carry infectious diseases that are dangerous not only to animals, but to people, as well.”

Valentyna and Leonid visit shelters to deliver food and medicine there, as well as to vaccinate and sterilize animals.

"We vaccinate everyone, even if the dog or cat is new or has just arrived in the village. This is a very important moment to prevent an outbreak of rabies in the area. Of course, we also spay and neuter the animals.

It is a very difficult and energy-consuming process, because it is almost impossible to catch a wild dog or a wild cat quickly. We catch them and carry out all the important veterinary procedures on the tame animals that interact with us," Valentyna explains.

The State Service for Food Safety and Consumer Protection has also reported an increase in the number of rabies infections. As a result of the war, the agency cannot vaccinate wild animals against rabies. Therefore, it asks pet owners to vaccinate their pets against the highly infectious and fatal disease. They also urge anyone who encounters an animal with signs of rabies to report it to the agency as soon as possible.

The harm to both wild and domestic animals is representative of the catastrophic environmental damage wrought by Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Many advocacy organizations have accused Russia of ecocide, as they have carried out acts causing colossal damage to Ukraine's natural environment in violation of both the Fourth Geneva Conventions of 1949 and the three Additional Protocols regulating belligerents' conduct during armed conflicts.

In addition to these violations, Russia has also been systematically violating the UN Convention on the Prohibition of Military or Any Other Hostile Influence on the Natural Environment, to which they are a signatory.

The material was prepared as part of the competition Environmental Chronicles of War: Record, Research, and Tell Stories implemented by the NGO "Internews-Ukraine" with the financial support of Journalismfund.eu.