As Russian bombs and bullets have shattered buildings and ended lives, Ukrainian scientists have scrambled to catalog the war’s effects on the country’s natural biodiversity. Darting outside to check on bat colonies, frogs, or endangered plants, many have risked safety to map hot spots and secure data. Ukraine’s wildlands boast a diverse landscape of dense forests, alpine meadows, grasslands, wetlands, and marine estuaries, which house animals such as bears, wolves, lynx, gophers, grouse, storks, sturgeon, dolphins, and the furry blind mole rat. The country serves as an important waypoint for many species of migrating birds.

If anything, an environment’s value increases as war destroys what was once available, sometimes permanently. Damage to Ukraine’s air, water, plants, and animals will likely persist long after its cities are rebuilt. One day, the information Ukrainian scientists are collecting now may provide evidence for Russia’s environmental crimes. Russia should pay for this environmental devastation. If only the legal system could wake up to reality.

The war is taking its toll on Ukrainian wildlife. “A lot of animals are scared by the noise, by the vibration,” says Oleksii Marushchak, a conservation biologist based in Kyiv. Nesting places for birds have been ruined. Military vehicles have sunk into rivers and lakes, and with them untold tons of oil and other harmful chemicals. “They will destroy the food base for small animals like insects. No insects means no frogs; no frogs means no cranes.”

Fires, explosions, and collapsing buildings have filled Ukrainian air, water, and soil with harmful particulates and nitric acid. Poisoned resources can take decades to remediate.

The Ukrainian habitat of the marbled polecat, a rare and gorgeous animal that looks like a gold-speckled ferret is now entirely a war zone. In a national nature park in south-east Ukraine, Russian military crushed a rare and threatened crocus-like flower, the spring meadow saffron. In the Black Sea, military activity is reportedly killing dolphins. At Chernobyl, the Russians have burned over 37,000 acres of forest. According to the Ukrainian Nature Conservation Group, 44 percent of Ukraine’s protected natural lands have suffered damage due to the war.

Global ecosystems depend on biodiversity to survive in times of stress. Before the war, the country was already short on resources devoted to conservation. Whenever the war is over, the Ukrainians will need healthy soil for crops, clean water for drinking and fishing, forests for cooling, and natural spaces to rebuild their biodiversity and for some, mental health. Croplands hollowed out by bombs and poisoned by contaminants will take several years to rake out and replace. Toxic pollutants in rivers and streams will kill fish and their food, and what is left will likely be unsafe to eat. Forests not directly destroyed by bombs, bullets, or fire will be logged for rebuilding, and unexploded munitions will make walks unsafe. More than a decade after the war in Iraq, its effects on environmental infrastructure are evident in sewage filled roads and brackish tap water.

“Facilities like plants, shops, or McDonald's can be restored with some proper investment,” says Oleh Prylutskyi, a mycologist and professor at Ukraine’s Kharkiv National University, “But natural scientific and cultural heritage can be lost forever.”

Russia must be held accountable for the environmental destruction it’s inflicting. Environmental harm robs a country of its cultural and natural artifacts and creates hardship for its civilians. If no one is held accountable for these acts, they will be perceived as acceptable.

Though there’s no question who’s at fault for this illegal war, getting a court to decree Russia’s environmental destruction a war crime will be a tall order. According to the definition set out by the 1949 Geneva Convention and upheld by the International Criminal Court, war crimes are committed by individuals, not states. Putin is an easy target, but to meet the requirement of a war crime the “attack would have to intentionally cause widespread, long-term, and severe damage to the natural environment,” says Doug Weir, research and policy director of the Conflict Environment Observatory. “Not just one, but all three.” Ukrainians could argue that each of these are satisfied by the actions of the Russian military. History suggests that bar may be too high to clear.

During the Gulf War in 1991, Iraq set fire to 900 oil wells, which burned for months, created a cloud of smoke that extended for 800 miles, an oil slick in the Persian Gulf nearly 9 miles long, destroyed marshes and mangroves, and killed 50 to 90 percent of animals in the area. Scientists reported seeing goats and birds drown in the oil. The soot melted glaciers in the Himalayas. But not even that was tried in court, despite repeated insistence from the international law community.

Since then, the legal environment to prosecute environmental crimes has slightly evolved. In 2016 the International Criminal Court published a policy paper stating that the organization would cooperate with national governments to help prosecute, among other things, the destruction of the environment, which it considered a “serious crime under national law.” The paper states that “the Office will give particular consideration to prosecuting crimes committed by means of destruction of the environment, the illegal exploitation of natural resources or the illegal dispossession of land.’’

Even if Russia’s environmental destruction is criminal, it may not be the best way to get reparations. “So great, get Vladimir Putin there at the International Criminal Court. Highly unlikely, but say you did,” says Rutgers University law professor and global environmental law expert Cymie Payne. “So what? He's not going to be able to pay for all the damage. Unless we can, you know, find his looted billions.”

The place to push, Weir and Payne say, is not in criminal court, but through civil action. Rather than say, You are a criminal, it’s much easier to say, You broke it. Now you have to fix it. Payne points to the work of the UN Compensation Commission’s work after the war in Iraq, noting that $85 billion in environmental damages were claimed against Iraq, $5.4 billion of which was awarded and paid.

This May, the UN International Law Commission adopted the final form of its draft principles on the Protection of the Environment in Relation to Armed Conflicts. This is a set of best practices based on multiple international laws and precedents. Principle 9 states, “An internationally wrongful act of a State, in relation to an armed conflict, that causes damage to the environment entails the international responsibility of that State, which is under an obligation to make full reparation for such damage.”

It's now legally and technically feasible to force Russia to pay for harm to the Ukrainian environment. But Weir says, “The question is whether it's politically feasible and what the implications would be.” For example, if the US and UK were to become involved in Iraq again, would they want the precedent to be set that the UN general assembly could set up a compensation tribunal to try claims against them? Would the UK and the US and others be happy to set a precedent that assets could be frozen?

Regardless, Ukraine is keeping records for when the time comes. NGOs in the country are creating and maintaining lists of environmental harm and the cost of the damage. The world is watching to see if it is able to extract this compensation. But one thing is for sure: If Russia is allowed to get away with these harms without paying reparations, it and other countries will be emboldened to push further.