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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Reported Tiger Gift Outrages Ecologists

VLADIVOSTOK, Far East -- Environmentalists and government ecological organizations are in uproar after Primorksy territory Governor Yevgeny Nazdratenko reportedly gave the skin of a rare Siberian Tiger to Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko.

Environmentalists say the gift, which a local newspaper said was made during Lukashenko's visit to Vladivostok this week, is a violation of both Russian law and international treaties: Only about 450 of the world's largest cats remain in the wild, many of them in the Primorsky territory around Vladivostok.

One critic has alleged that the skin was evidence in a criminal case, making the gift a violation of criminal law.

At a reception for Lukashenko on Feb. 24, the governor urged the visiting president to take inspiration from the tiger's fangs as he fights opponents in Minsk and in Moscow, according to the daily Vladivostok, a newspaper allied with the governor. The paper said the cat had been killed legally and was accompanied by necessary documentation.

Lukashenko and Nazdratenko are kindred spirits, both sharing a Soviet-style approach to government and dubious human rights records.

The regional administration's press center said it did not know if the gift had occurred and could not comment on the matter.

The press center, however, has issued no denial of the newspaper report or a demand for a retraction, as is its usual practice. A witness who was at the reception said he had seen Nazdratenko hand over the skin to Lukashenko.

Vladimir Schetinin, head of the tiger department of the State Committee on Ecology, said he was shocked to learn of the gift. Approval for such an action could only have been given by the committee, he said, and he and his superiors knew nothing about it.

"We only read about it in the newspaper," he said.

"I already gave evidence to the prosecutor's office. I had nothing to do with this gift, and I think Nazdratenko caused harm to the environment, to himself, and to my organization."he said. "This could only have been done over my dead body, and the dead bodies of three people in Moscow."

Barbara Chisholm, a spokeswoman for the environmental group ISAR-Clearinghouse for Grassroots Environmental Organizations, said the skin might have been confiscated in a criminal case in Olga, in northern Primorsky territory. The court case hasn't concluded, but a skin disappeared from the Olga police department and may have "somehow ended up in Nazdratenko's hands," she said.

Chisholm said she didn't know Lukashenko's schedule or whether he had taken the tiger skin with him back to Belarus.

"His own border guards probably won't arrest him, but it is a violation of international law," she said.

Lukashenko's press office was not responding to telephone calls Friday.

Transporting a tiger skin across borders could run afoul of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, or CITES, said Vasily Solkin, a researcher with the Geographic Institute who studies tigers. CITES is an agreement among more than 120 nations to eliminate illegal trade in animals and plants.

"It's a big political mistake by the governor's team," Solkin said. "His advisers should be more competent."

Nazdratenko's administration has tripped up on the subject of tigers before. In spite of the rarity of the species, administration officials last year called for a government program to shoot some of them. This prompted Britain's Prince Philip to cancel a trip to the Primorsky territory during a visit to Russia in March 1997.

Tigers are illegally killed by poachers, who sell their parts in other Asian countries, and by rural hunters, who detest the dangerous creatures. The government occasionally authorizes the killing of man-eaters, which appear in the Primorsky territory once or twice a year.