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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Behind Sable Coat Stands a Siberian

ARZOMA KLYUCH, Western Siberia — Wearing a hat made from pelts of hunting dogs that had disappointed him, Valery Karnilov, a strapping former cattleman, had been stalking the foothills of the Sayan Mountains for only two weeks this winter when his huskies treed the first trophy of the season, a growling Barguzin sable with creamy golden fur and black tail.

Under a canopy of cedars and fir trees in the middle of the Siberian taiga, Karnilov took careful aim with his small-caliber carbine. As the dogs bayed to keep the sable frozen in fear with dagger teeth bared against the human predator, the hunter felled the animal with a single shot to the head. The best marksmen aim for the eyes to avoid damaging the fur.

"I knew he was mine as soon as I saw him," Karnilov said as he showed off his prize to visitors who reached this one-hut camp in mid-November on the banks of the Oka River about 350 kilometers west of Lake Baikal. By that time he had already bagged a second sable.

This is where it all begins for the most expensive wrap on the planet. When a woman bathes herself in a $100,000 sable coat from a salon in Milan, Paris or New York, she is not wearing "ranch" fur from sables raised in cages, because by far the most exquisite specimens of sable are still found only in the Russian wild.

After a decade of chaos and collapse in the Russian fur industry, the one great constant about the fur trade has been Russia's monopoly on the most sought-after pelts in the world, the kind Karnilov was holding by the nape of the neck: those from the Barguzin region of West Siberia.

"This sable has such a special energy and mystery in addition to being so light and warm and sexy that it is no wonder that a century ago there was a law that only the tsar and his family could wear this sable," said Helen Yarmack, a former mathematics teacher who has become one of Russia's leading fur designers.

The sable, resembling a cross between a cat and a weasel, is a cousin of both the weasel and the mink, but its fur surpasses all others in silky density and luminous hues of beige, brown, gold, silver and black.

In the calamitous post-Soviet economy, Russian hunters have become the mainstay of world sable production, reversing the balance from Soviet times when sable farming produced a majority of pelts. Now hunters, who head out into the taiga each fall, outproduce Russia's crumbling fur ranches by more than four to one, Russian fur industry experts say.

"After the Soviet Union collapsed, Russia went from having about 200 mink farms to about only 50 still operating today, and not all are good quality, and there are only five sable farms left," said Viktor Chipurnoi, deputy director of Soyuzpushnina, the fur association that in Soviet times monopolized every aspect of the industry but now buys and sells furs in competition with private traders.

"In the Soviet period we had the largest fur production in the world," Chipurnoi said, "but now the largest producer is Denmark, followed by the United States, Holland and Finland."

Still, Russian fur is a $1 billion industry by official figures, and if smuggling, poaching and unofficial trade that skirts regulation and tax collection are counted, the estimate reaches $2.5 billion, Chipurnoi said.

Just north of Moscow, the largest and most successful fur ranch in Russia, the Pushkinsky state farm, has just completed the slaughter of 15,000 sable by lethal injection, representing about half the 30,000 farm-grown sable slaughtered in Russia this year and sold at international auction to fashion houses in the United States, Europe and Japan.

"This animal is still considered a national asset and a national monopoly," said Pushkinsky's general director, Yevgeny Kazakov.

The sable monopoly has helped to sustain an extensive hunting culture in Russia. Today there are at least 10,000 licensed professional hunters. As many as 200,000 amateurs — and not a few poachers — have swelled the ranks.

In the season, from October to mid-February, they will shoot or trap up to 250,000 sables, along with millions of squirrel, mink and a host of other fur-bearing species.

And though hunters are suffering the economic dislocations that have befallen almost every post-Soviet institution, tens of thousands still respond to the call of the wild.

"For 20 years I worked as a bus driver, but as I sat there every day behind the wheel of that bus, all I did was dream about coming out here to the taiga," said Anatoly Kurkin, 42, who is spending his second season hunting with Karnilov, 37, on a boreal landscape of mountains and valleys near this bend in the river called Arzoma Klyuch.

"We come out here for our souls," said Alexander Shevchenko, the chief hunter who supervises Karnilov, Kurkin and four other men who lease the rights to hunt on hundreds of hectares of taiga. "I used to live in the city and I had a chance to stay in Irkutsk and become a manager," he said, "but I just rejected that life because my soul calls me back to the taiga."