By Natalya Yakovleva
Poaching is drastically reducing numbers of many wildlife species in Siberia, and government at national and regional level doesn’t seem to care.
Last year, environmental campaigners from the Siberian city of Tomsk made regular trips along the Ob river, looking at the levels of poaching in the surrounding forest; and produced a report on its effects in different localities.
Top of the table was the small town of Krasny Yar. There used to be an enormous logging plant here, and the local shops stocked red caviar even at times of dire shortage elsewhere (the locals fished for the black variety themselves – the Ob was full of starlet and sturgeon then). Krasny Yar is only 80km from Tomsk as the crow flies – but it has to fly over impassable swamps. By road it’s more like 300km. In winter the journey involves a half-hour drive over the frozen Ob; the bus disgorges its passengers so that it can drive safely on the ice. In the summer there’s a ferry, but in spring and autumn the town is only connected to the outside world by occasional flights in ‘cropduster’ planes.
The locals liked it this way – everyone knew everyone else; very few strangers ever came. It was here that I first held a shotgun in my hands. My father, a teacher and keen hunter, decided that at 15 I was old enough, and we would shoot grouse and muskrats all year round; shooting seasons meant nothing to us then. At school I would spend breaks with the boys, all of us boasting about our catches. And a year and a half later it was poachers like us that felled first an elk and then a new forest ranger, the father of one of my classmates. We kept quiet about it, but not for long: nobody saw anything wrong in poaching, as long as you didn’t get caught, so we could see how it could have happened. The crime remained unsolved; nobody tried very hard to solve it.
Thirty years later, the logging plant has fallen into ruins, and the population has halved from its then 14,000 – people have left in search of a better life. But the amount of illegal hunting has not fallen in the area, or anywhere else in Siberia for that matter. The difference is that then we shot animals for fun, whereas now it’s for food and to earn a living. The situation is so serious that Sergei Zhvachkin, the governor of Tomsk, decided a few months ago to create a special flying squad to combat poaching and its concealment, recruiting people from various law enforcement bodies, including even the FSB. According to the website of the Ministry of Natural Resources and the Environment, 50,000 illegal hunting incidents take place annually, but even the Minister, Sergei Donskoi, admits that this figure represents a mere 10% of the real scale of the problem; and regards poaching as on a level with the drug and arms trades. Ecologists meanwhile consider killing wildlife for food even more serious than doing it for money, as it is ubiquitous and extremely methodical.
But now there is yet another problem in the form of organised trips for VIPs, where animals are hunted from helicopters. A court case over the wounding of a businessman during one of these jollies (organised by a deputy governor) came to nothing. In 2011, Anatoly Bannykh, the deputy prime minister of the Altai region; Boris Belinsky, CEO of the Ineko investment group, and Nikolai Kapranov, deputy director of the Moscow Institute of Economics and Law were acquitted by a court on charges of killing mouflon – wild sheep protected by law in Russia. The helicopter carrying these VIPs and their rifles crashed, killing seven people including Aleksandr Kosopkin, the Presidential Envoy to the Duma. Interestingly, after this incident the press stopped reporting on the exploits of ‘fun-loving’ officials, apart from such flagrant examples as the refusal of the courts to charge United Russia Duma deputy Nikolai Baluyev with illegal hunting of bears, ducks and beavers. So have the ‘big shots’ really laid down their arms?
‘No, they haven’t,’ says Andrei Badanov, a Novosibirsk forest ranger who testified at the ‘mouflon trial’. ‘Vehicles are used in 80% of poaching activities, but it’s less obvious. Helicopters are out of fashion, but now they have the latest and fastest snowmobiles, whereas mine is ancient, and my bosses won’t even give me enough diesel for my 20-year-old 4x4. But you don’t need a helicopter to kill elk and roe deer. You don’t even need a gun. The herds always migrate along the same routes, and in temperatures of minus 30 degrees, which are common enough here, they try to move as little as they can. They forage on woody shrubs, and need large quantities of this to keep alive, so they find a patch of undergrowth and eat through it systematically, hardly moving about. If you startle them they’ll run off, but that uses up a lot of energy. Last year, for example, two poachers knifed nine roe deer that they had just followed on skis. And they lay wire across known elk routes and then chase them down on snowmobiles.’
The scale of the killing
Poaching has become a real disaster for Siberia; and nobody believes the official figures on illegal hunting. ‘I have been looking closely at the situation with a number of animal species, to discover how much the statistics are being falsified’, says Boris Kassal, an Omsk veterinary specialist and professor at the Russian Academy of Natural History. ‘I’ve discovered, for example, that the published figures for beaver poaching represent just 1.5% of the real total – that’s not even the 10% the minister talks about. I also know that the number of bears in the Omsk Region was reduced in the figures from the real 1000 to just 300, to lower the hunting quota, allowing many more to be slaughtered unofficially, without any documentation. And it’s all because people can get away with it: if they were sent to prison for poaching there would be a lot less of it going on.’
According to lawyer Mikhail Zavyalov, there is a grey area in the law relating to illegal hunting, between a minor infringement and a criminal case, so defendants with a good lawyer are usually let off with a fine, and nobody is actually sent to jail for poaching – a handy loophole for anyone with money.
‘Almost all of Siberia’s large animals and birds have gone’, Boris Kassal tells me. ‘When we hear about sightings of rare and protected types of duck and goose it almost always turns out that they have been shot. And it’s not just duck: a black vulture, also on the national protected species list, was shot in the Omsk Region in 2011. The forest rangers and game managers knew the culprits, but nobody reported them to the police. Most of Europe has already banned the shooting of waterfowl in spring. Spring is when ducks pair off; the females sit on the nest while the drakes protect the area around it, only flying off to moult and change their plumage when the eggs are laid. But a spring hunting season allows drakes to be shot. For me, that’s like a killer sitting opposite a registry office and shooting bridegrooms. We know that ducks can separate from their mates, but without a permanent mate they can’t breed properly. And with geese it’s even worse – they mate for life.’
The official response
At the end of 2014, the hunting of elk, roe deer, wood grouse and waterfowl was banned in 12 areas of the Novosibirsk Region. Members of its wildlife conservation department have complained that they also tried to reach an agreement with neighbouring regions – animals, after all, don’t respect administrative boundaries – but without success. The fauna of Western Siberia has been little studied in general. The best-researched region is Tyumen, which has oil and therefore money for science. In Omsk and Tomsk, cities built at the time of the Second World War as military-industrial centres, nature study is only for geeks and enthusiasts. The services that regulate and manage hunting and shooting, collect information on wildlife populations but there is no one to collate it. Things are a bit better in places, such as Novosibirsk, where there are academic institutions, but even there, there is more interest in birds than animals, and it is more commercial and works in conjunction with game managers. More....