Poaching by Helicopter a Popular Pastime

MTA hunter aiming a shotgun out of a sports utility vehicle in the Tver region. Conservationists say illegal hunting is popular with the country's ruling elite.��
When a helicopter carrying senior government officials crashed into a remote Altai mountainside earlier this month, killing several passengers, the accident appeared to be nothing more than a tragic loss of life.

But photographs snapped at the crash site have thrown a spotlight on what conservationists say is a disturbingly popular pastime among the country's political and business elite: the expensive sport of poaching from helicopters.

One photograph published on an Altai region web site shows the carcasses of endangered argali sheep among the wreckage of the Mi-171 helicopter that crashed Jan. 9. One of the sheep has a knife sticking out of its haunches.

The wild sheep is one of Russia's rarest animals, and hunting it is punishable by up to two years in prison. The photograph prompted ecologists to press prosecutors to investigate whether the officials were hunting illegally when their helicopter went down.

Among the seven federal, regional and local officials killed in the crash was Viktor Kaimin, the Altai republic's top official charged with protecting the region's wildlife and whose committee was responsible for issuing hunting licenses.

Regional prosecutors say no formal investigation has been opened into whether the officials were engaging in illegal hunting, though regional environmental officials said they would push for a probe into the circumstances of the incident, which some ecologists and political commentators have dubbed "Altaigate."

Conservationists say it is an open secret that officials come to Altai for hunting trips in which they simply shoot at animals from hovering helicopters, despite a ban on the practice.

With its remote mountains, the pristine Gorny Altai region is popular with hunters, and hunting is legal in some areas for Siberian goat and red deer.

"Over the last decade, Altai has become a place where helicopter hunting has become rather common," said Alexei Vaisman, head of WWF-Russia's anti-animal trafficking program.

The officials in the fatal expedition had hunting licences for Siberian goats and red deer, Yelena Kobzeva, a spokeswoman for the Altai government, told Interfax. The photographs published on the AltaPress.ru web site, however, clearly show animals with round curved horns, while Siberian goats have tall, slightly curved horns.

Remains of what ecologists say are argali sheep at the Altai crash site.
Vaisman, whose organization has been joined by Greenpeace and other environmental groups in calling for an investigation, said WWF-Russia does not "want anyone's blood."

"We don't want anyone to be imprisoned," Vaisman said. "The main aim of our actions is to make a court give an official legal assessment of what happened."

Also killed in the crash were Alexander Kosopkin, the Kremlin's envoy to the State Duma, and Sergei Livishin, a senior member of the presidential administration.

Survivors included Anatoly Bannykh, deputy head of the Altai Republic's administration, and Nikolai Kopranov, an adviser to the Duma's Economic Policy Committee.

Gorny Altai attracts "VIP hunters," said Oleg Mitvol, the outspoken deputy head of Federal Inspection Service for Natural Resources Use. "There are special lodges that can only be reached by helicopter," Mitvol said. "They are luxurious. Just imagine how much it costs to stay there."

Environmentalists say helicopter hunting trips cannot be organized without the knowledge and support of local officials.

It's "rather common" for regional officials to treat federal officials to free hunting trips, Vaisman said. "It's not a bribe, it's to make good relations, to get additional money to the region from the federal center," he said.

Low-level officials are often involved in organizing the trips too. State game wardens receive "almost negligible" salaries of around 1,000 rubles ($32) per month, Vaisman said.

Such helicopter hunting trips are organized in Kamchatka, Magadan, Sakhalin and Primorye regions, Vaisman said. "It's popular among high-level officials and so-called New Russians, who think they are above the law," he said.

The targets can be mountain sheep, snow sheep, mountain goats, bears or moose, Vaisman said. "They shoot directly from the helicopter and then land to pick up any trophies," he said.

Kobzeva, the Altai Republic administration spokeswoman, told The Moscow Times by telephone that the officials who crashed earlier this month were on a private trip and that no funds from the regional budget were used to finance it. The administration has no information on who ordered and paid for the trip, Kobzeva said.

Helicopter hunting trips even take place in nature reserves, said Mikhail Paltsyn, a scientist with a UN-sponsored environmental program called Biodiversity Conservation in the Russian Portion of the Altai-Sayan Ecoregion.

Vladimir Filonov / MT
A game warden examining a hunter's license in Primorye in the Far East.
"Helicopter hunts take place regularly for Siberian goats and red deer in the Argut River valley, in Shavlinsky nature reserve, where hunting is completely banned," Paltsyn said in e-mailed comments. "On practically all our expeditions to the Argut River valley, we see hunting helicopters and find traces of such hunting. Local residents say that helicopters with hunters come to these places every month."

Last February, conservationists spotted a helicopter on two consecutive days circling and apparently firing at Siberian goats and red deer. They wrote down the number and contacted game wardens and police. "The people responsible were never found," Paltsyn said. "It looks like the servants of the people were hunting again."

Hiring a helicopter costs tens of thousands of rubles per hour, said Anatoly Mozharov, the editor of Safari magazine for hunters. Mozharov stressed, however, that legitimate hunters use helicopters to fly to far-flung areas and then hunt from the ground.

Killing a protected animal is a crime in Russia punishable by up to two years. Relatively few poachers are ever convicted, however, officials and environmentalists said.

"Very few investigations are ever opened regarding ecological crimes," Mitvol said. "Last year, practically none were opened. Unfortunately, many VIP hunters take into account that no criminal investigation will ever be opened against them."

A spokeswoman for the Prosecutor General's Office said the office had no available data on the number of illegal hunting cases investigated last year or the number of people convicted of poaching.

The Mi-171 helicopter that crashed Jan. 9, killing several state officials.
Convictions are rare in such cases because illegal hunting is "very, very difficult to prove," said Alexander Bondarev, head of the Biodiversity Conservation in the Russian Portion of the Altai-Sayan Ecoregion.

"Some people see a helicopter in the mountains, but it's not possible to determine which animal was shot," he said.

In Gorny Altai, hunters often receive permission to shoot Siberian goats — whose territory is close to that of the endangered argali sheep, Bondarev said. The hunters can therefore claim that they are shooting at the goats, not the wild sheep.

"The only possibility is to find the hunter near the animal," Bondarev said. "But it's very difficult to prove that he killed this animal."

Bondarev's organization was one of the first to issue a statement identifying the animals in the photograph as argali sheep. The organization focuses on the conservation of argali and the snow leopard, both of which are listed as endangered in Russia.

The argali sheep is one of the region's rarest species, and its population in Russia numbers only a few hundred.

The argali are the largest wild sheep in the world. Their large, curly horns, weighing around 50 kilograms, are prized as trophies.

The area where the helicopter crashed is home to the largest group of argali sheep in Russia. Since they migrate between Mongolia and Russia, it is difficult to say how many sheep remain. In winter it could be 100-150, while in summer they number up to 400, Paltsyn said.

"The greatest threat for argali is poaching, including hunting by some local residents and hunting for pleasure and trophies by visiting hunters," Paltsyn said.

It is unclear how many argali are killed illegally each year in Russia, Bondarev said. He estimated that around six of the animals are poached annually.

Kaimin, the environmental official killed in the crash, was embroiled in a scandal in 2003 after he was purportedly seen hunting argali sheep. Altai Republic lawmakers appealed to prosecutors to investigate the incident, though the case was later dropped.

A spokesman for the Altai newspaper that reported on the story, Postskriptum, said in a telephone interview that the case was dropped because it rested exclusively on statements from witnesses.

Attempts to reach the Altai Republic's committee for the protection, use and reproduction of the animal world — which Kaimin headed up before his death — were unsuccessful. The committee had only five members, of whom only one was an inspector, Paltsyn said. Until recently, it had no transport, funds for raids or inspector team, he said.

"If the fact of poaching is confirmed, then of course this organization is just ineffective," said Svetlana Shchegrina, head of environmental education at the Altai regional nature reserve, which also has a population of argali sheep. "It's a terrible case."