Courtesy AltaPress, www.altapress.ru
An environmental official and a Kremlin envoy shooting endangered sheep from a helicopter in a wildlife refuge? You can’t make this stuff up. In Russia, unfortunately, such flagrant violation of environmental regulations is all too common, and occasionally results in disaster for all concerned.
On January 9, seven people died in a helicopter crash in the snowy mountains of the remote Republic of Altai near Russia’s border with China and Mongolia. The evidence that has trickled out since then – including an incriminating photo – reveals the corruption and abuse of power that is a hallmark of Russian governance.
The eight passengers on board the helicopter had permits to hunt red deer and mountain goats in the Altai Mountains. But it appears they may have been after different quarry. A photo of the crash site shows among the wreckage at least two carcasses bearing the heavy, tightly curled horns of an argali.
Renting helicopters to reach remote regions and hunt elusive (often protected) animals has become popular with Russia’s elite. Often, regional officials are involved, arranging such trips to earn money and curry political favor with Moscow. Among those killed in the January crash were the Altai Chair of the Committee on Protection of Fauna (whose office is in charge of issuing hunting licenses), the Kremlin’s envoy to the Duma, and another senior member of the presidential administration.
The helicopter went down in the heart of argali habitat, the Shavlinsky Wildlife Reserve. The argali is the world’s largest mountain sheep and has been listed as an endangered species for decades. There are only a few hundred argali left in Russia, and hunting them is strictly forbidden.
Emerging data shows the passengers may have been shooting from the helicopter itself, an illegal luxury “sport” common in some regions. Residents and reserve rangers in the Altai Mountains frequently see helicopters circling and firing, but rarely is anyone held accountable. “It’s popular among high-level officials and so-called New Russians, who think they are above the law,” says Aleksei Vaisman of the World Wildlife Federation’s (WWF) Russia office.
The dead argali at the site reportedly bear bullet wounds entering from above. And an analysis of the black box retrieved from the helicopter shows that just before the aircraft struck the mountainside, a voice urged the pilots, “Lower… even lower.”
Apparently the hunters were well aware they were breaking the law and did not want their activities known. Search parties sent out to find the aircraft were unsuccessful because they had no data to follow from the helicopter’s tracking beacon. After the surviving pilot hiked 25 miles through the frozen wilderness to a border guard station, rescuers finally found the crash. When investigators arrived at the crash site, they flicked on the tracking beacon to test whether it was broken. The device immediately began transmitting an SOS; it had simply been switched off.
WWF-Russia and Greenpeace have called for a federal investigation of the crash and the poaching allegations, which, if proven, are punishable by up to two years of prison time and a fine. Other international nonprofits, including Altai Project, are watching the issue closely in order to offer assistance if needed. Our partners in Altai will need more support than ever if they are to bring to justice the many helicopter hunters circling wildlife every month in Altai.
—Jennifer Castner and Alyson Ewald
The Altai Project works to reduce poaching in protected areas like the one where the crash took place, an area that is also home to the endangered snow leopard, which suffers from human encroachment and poaching.To learn more about our work, visit altaiproject.org.
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