By Heleen Van Geest
As glum Russian fishermen haul in their net, just two small sturgeon are splashing about among the daily catch.
The scene on the Volga River has become commonplace in modern Russia, where caviar poaching has decimated the species considered a national pride.
"In the old days, we would catch sturgeon each weighing 40 to 50 kg, or 60 kg (132 lb)," sighed Pavel Syzranov, the head of the once thriving Lenin fishery in southern Russia.
"Now there are no sturgeon left of that size," he said after the two immature fish, known as sterlets, were released back into the Volga.
The relentless hunt for the so-called "Czar fish" and its precious eggs has acquired such huge proportions in post-Soviet Russia that the prehistoric creature, which outlived the dinosaurs, has itself now been pushed to the edge of extinction.
Russia's wild capitalism and murky reforms of the 1990s dealt a severe blow to fisheries like the one in Zelenga, a tiny, once-flourishing town in the Volga Delta, where sturgeon come to spawn after maturing in the Caspian Sea.
Two hours by boat from the regional capital Astrakhan, dust swirls in the hot wind, and streets dotted mainly with decrepit wood huts look almost deserted. A drunken man sleeps right by the side of a potholed road.
Poverty and rampant unemployment push many people to try their luck at poaching. Some of their fellow-villagers still cannot believe it has taken the sturgeon so little time to disappear. More....