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November 2023

Iberian Desman Workshop

Iberian Desman workshop participants 2023

The Iberian Desman

Desmans are semi-aquatic small mammals that are members of the Talpidae mole family. The Iberian Desman (Galemys pyrenaicus) is endemic to the Iberian Peninsula, where it is restricted to Andorra, France, northern and central Spain, and northern Portugal. It is one of only two species that still exist, the other being the Russian Desman (Desmana moschata), that is found in areas of Russia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan.

The species is extremely well adapted to a semiaquatic lifestyle, where it mainly lives in fast-flowing mountain streams. The species favours watercourses where the margins offer some shelter, and it requires clean and well oxygenated water, mostly due to the requirements of its main prey, aquatic macroinvertebrates. It is therefore a good indicator species for healthy river systems.

Galemys pyrenaicus

Galemys pyrenaicus, photo credit: L. Quaglietta

In recent decades, the Iberian Desman has experienced significant declines across most of its range, resulting in its current IUCN Red List status of Endangered. Unfortunately, the species is affected by a number of threats. The construction of weirs, dams and other infrastructure has isolated populations to the point of high levels of inbreeding and low levels of genetic diversity. The introduction of an invasive predator to many of Europe’s waterways, the American Mink (Neogale vison), has also proven deadly. Further pressure is added by climate change and human activities such as fishing.

The Workshop

Iberian Desman workshop 2023 sign

Iberian Desman workshop 2023 sign

In late November 2023, the IUCN Centre for Mediterranean Cooperation organised a workshop in Andorra La Vella, Andorra, titled “Towards a transboundary conservation strategy for the Iberian desman (Galemys pyrenaicus)“. This meeting brought together species experts from the four range countries. The workshop was made possible thanks to the generous support and hosting of the event by the Ministry of the Environment, Agriculture and Agriculture of the Government of AndorraFacilitation of the sessions was undertaken by the IUCN SSC Conservation Planning Specialist Group.

On the final day, participants visited a local hydroelectric plant and dam on the outskirts of Andorra La Vella to find out about the ongoing desman survey work that is taking place and about various mitigations activities to reduce the impact of the infrastructure on the desman population.


Iberian Desman workshop participants 2023

Iberian Desman workshop participants 2023

Iberian Desman workshop presentation 2023

Iberian Desman workshop presentation 2023


Iberian Desman workshop 2023 field trip

Iberian Desman workshop 2023 field trip

Iberian Desman workshop 2023 activity

Iberian Desman workshop 2023 activity

What’s next?

The workshop was the first stage needed to do the groundwork, such as identifying relevant stakeholders for the planning process, in anticipation of a longer action planning exercise which will hopefully take place in 2024.

Russian Desman project in Kazakhstan: Conserving a mole-mermaid!

Russian Desman (Photo credit Klaus Rudloff)

Recently, we heard someone trying to describe what a Russian Desman (Desmana moschata) looks like and the delightful response was that it resembled a mole-mermaid!  Unfortunately, life is no fairytale for this species. Currently listed as Endangered on the IUCN Red List, it is expected that the species will be moved to Critically Endangered later this year due to continuing severe declines. Conservation attention is desperately needed, so the SMSG is pleased to be supporting a new conservation project in Kazakhstan. We hope this work, in collaboration with experts across the species’ native range, will contribute to the understanding of the threats to the species and be instrumental in developing conservation actions.  

Russian Desman (Photo credit Klaus Rudloff)

So, what exactly is a Russian Desman?

The Russian Desman (Desmana moschata), an aquatic member of the mole family, is endemic to waterways in European Russia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan. The species is pretty unusual, indeed, it features high up on ZSL’s EDGE Mammal List. To get an idea of what this unusual animal is like check out this video. The species is in severe decline, probably due to a number of factors ranging from loss and degradation of lakes and rivers, through to getting snagged up as bycatch in fishing nets.

Abandoned fishing net in lake

Abandoned fishing net in lake (Photo credit: R. Kennerley)

June expedition

In June of 2023, Dr Ros Kennerley (SMSG Co-Chair) and Prof. Sam Turvey (SMSG Conservation Coordinator) visited the stunning rivers and oxbow lakes that surround the Ural river in northwestern Kazakhstan to start a conservation project in the region.  The in-country partners for this project are the Association for the Conservation of Biodiversity of Kazakhstan (ACBK) and researchers at North Kazakhstan University. One of the project fieldsites is Kirsanov Nature Sanctuary, which is a vast expanse of meandering rivers and lakes with wooded banks that borders Russia.

Kazakhstan Russian Desman team

Kazakhstan Russian Desman team – Dr Ros Kennerley, Prof. Sam Turvey, Dr Alyona Koshkina and Michail Shpigelman

Fieldwork in Kirsanov Nature Sanctuary in Northwest Kazakhstan (photo credit: R. Kennerley)

Visiting an oxbow lake

Visiting an oxbow lake (Photo credit: A. Koshkina)


What is happening? 

Field staff have been trained up and are currently out and about testing novel ways to collect the essential data needed to monitor and inform conservation actions. Interview surveys with local water users and environmental DNA screening are being trialled in known desman landscapes, and the results of these will be compared with data collected using traditional methods to monitor desmans by counting active burrows. The project aims to determine which approach is most efficient, cost- and labour-effective, and easy to conduct by local researchers.

Trailling a Local Ecological Knowledge questionnaire

Trialing a Local Ecological Knowledge questionnaire (photo credit: R. Kennerley)

Next steps

While we await the data and analyses from the trials, the project will examine the historical distributions of the species across the country and use various mapping data layers to unpick the likely causes of decline in Kazakhstan. Ultimately, the project aims to develop a long-term conservation monitoring and management plan with agreed goals, visions, milestones and stakeholder responsibilities, at both national and landscape levels.


We would like to express our huge thanks to our three funders for this project: The Mohamed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund, SSC EDGE Internal Grant, and Stiftung Artenschutz. We are also grateful for the support to our SMSG core costs from Re:wild, the Zoological Society of London and Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust.