When a helicopter carrying senior government officials crashed into a
remote Altai mountainside earlier this month, killing several
passengers, the accident appeared to be nothing more than a tragic
loss of life.
But photographs snapped at the crash site have thrown a spotlight on
what conservationists say is a disturbingly popular pastime among the
country’s political and business elite: the expensive sport of
poaching from helicopters.
One photograph published on an Altai region web site shows the
carcasses of endangered argali sheep among the wreckage of the Mi-171
helicopter that crashed Jan. 9. One of the sheep has a knife sticking
out of its haunches.
The wild sheep is one of
punishable by up to two years in prison. The photograph prompted
ecologists to press prosecutors to investigate whether the officials
were hunting illegally when their helicopter went down.
Among the seven federal, regional and local officials killed in the
crash was Viktor Kaimin, the Altai republic’s top official charged
with protecting the region’s wildlife and whose committee was
responsible for issuing hunting licenses.
Regional prosecutors say no formal investigation has been opened into
whether the officials were engaging in illegal hunting, though
regional environmental officials said they would push for a probe
into the circumstances of the incident, which some ecologists and
political commentators have dubbed “Altaigate.”
Conservationists say it is an open secret that officials come to
Altai for hunting trips in which they simply shoot at animals from
hovering helicopters, despite a ban on the practice.
With its remote mountains, the pristine Gorny Altai region is popular
with hunters, and hunting is legal in some areas for Siberian goat
“Over the last decade, Altai has become a place where helicopter
hunting has become rather common,” said Alexei Vaisman, head of WWF-
Russia’s anti-animal trafficking program.
The officials in the fatal expedition had hunting licences for
Siberian goats and
Altai government, told Interfax. The photographs published on the
AltaPress.ru web site, however, clearly show animals with round
curved horns, while Siberian goats have tall, slightly curved horns.
Vaisman, whose organization has been joined by Greenpeace and other
environmental groups in calling for an investigation, said WWF-Russia
does not “want anyone’s blood.”
“We don’t want anyone to be imprisoned,” Vaisman said. “The main aim
of our actions is to make a court give an official legal assessment
of what happened.”
Also killed in the crash were Alexander Kosopkin, the Kremlin’s envoy
to the State Duma, and Sergei Livishin, a senior member of the
Survivors included Anatoly Bannykh, deputy head of the
Duma’s Economic Policy Committee.
Gorny Altai attracts “VIP hunters,” said Oleg Mitvol, the outspoken
deputy head of Federal Inspection Service for Natural Resources Use.
“There are special lodges that can only be reached by helicopter,”
Mitvol said. “They are luxurious. Just imagine how much it costs to
Environmentalists say helicopter hunting trips cannot be organized
without the knowledge and support of local officials.
It’s “rather common” for regional officials to treat federal
officials to free hunting trips, Vaisman said. “It’s not a bribe,
it’s to make good relations, to get additional money to the region
from the federal center,” he said.
Low-level officials are often involved in organizing the trips too.
State game wardens receive “almost negligible” salaries of around
1,000 rubles ($32) per month, Vaisman said.
Such helicopter hunting trips are organized in Kamchatka, Magadan,
level officials and so-called New Russians, who think they are above
the law,” he said.
The targets can be mountain sheep, snow sheep, mountain goats, bears
or moose, Vaisman said. “They shoot directly from the helicopter and
then land to pick up any trophies,” he said.
Moscow Times by telephone that the officials who crashed earlier this
month were on a private trip and that no funds from the regional
budget were used to finance it. The administration has no information
on who ordered and paid for the trip, Kobzeva said.
Helicopter hunting trips even take place in nature reserves, said
Mikhail Paltsyn, a scientist with a UN-sponsored environmental
program called Biodiversity Conservation in the Russian Portion of
the Altai-Sayan Ecoregion.
“Helicopter hunts take place regularly for Siberian goats and
hunting is completely banned,” Paltsyn said in e-mailed comments. “On
practically all our expeditions to the
hunting helicopters and find traces of such hunting. Local residents
say that helicopters with hunters come to these places every month.”
Last February, conservationists spotted a helicopter on two
consecutive days circling and apparently firing at Siberian goats and
police. “The people responsible were never found,” Paltsyn said. “It
looks like the servants of the people were hunting again.”
Hiring a helicopter costs tens of thousands of rubles per hour, said
Anatoly Mozharov, the editor of Safari magazine for hunters. Mozharov
stressed, however, that legitimate hunters use helicopters to fly to
far-flung areas and then hunt from the ground.
Killing a protected animal is a crime in
two years. Relatively few poachers are ever convicted, however,
officials and environmentalists said.
“Very few investigations are ever opened regarding ecological
crimes,” Mitvol said. “Last year, practically none were opened.
Unfortunately, many VIP hunters take into account that no criminal
investigation will ever be opened against them.”
A spokeswoman for the Prosecutor General’s Office said the office had
no available data on the number of illegal hunting cases investigated
last year or the number of people convicted of poaching.
Convictions are rare in such cases because illegal hunting is “very,
very difficult to prove,” said Alexander Bondarev, head of the
Biodiversity Conservation in the Russian Portion of the Altai-Sayan
“Some people see a helicopter in the mountains, but it’s not possible
to determine which animal was shot,” he said.
In Gorny Altai, hunters often receive permission to shoot Siberian
goats — whose territory is close to that of the endangered argali
sheep, Bondarev said. The hunters can therefore claim that they are
shooting at the goats, not the wild sheep.
“The only possibility is to find the hunter near the animal,”
Bondarev said. “But it’s very difficult to prove that he killed this
Bondarev’s organization was one of the first to issue a statement
identifying the animals in the photograph as argali sheep. The
organization focuses on the conservation of argali and the snow
leopard, both of which are listed as endangered in
The argali sheep is one of the region’s rarest species, and its
The argali are the largest wild sheep in the world. Their large,
curly horns, weighing around 50 kilograms, are prized as trophies.
The area where the helicopter crashed is home to the largest group of
argali sheep in
could be 100-150, while in summer they number up to 400, Paltsyn said.
“The greatest threat for argali is poaching, including hunting by
some local residents and hunting for pleasure and trophies by
visiting hunters,” Paltsyn said.
It is unclear how many argali are killed illegally each year in
are poached annually.
Kaimin, the environmental official killed in the crash, was embroiled
in a scandal in 2003 after he was purportedly seen hunting argali
investigate the incident, though the case was later dropped.
A spokesman for the Altai newspaper that reported on the story,
Postskriptum, said in a telephone interview that the case was dropped
because it rested exclusively on statements from witnesses.
Attempts to reach the
use and reproduction of the animal world — which Kaimin headed up
before his death — were unsuccessful. The committee had only five
members, of whom only one was an inspector, Paltsyn said. Until
recently, it had no transport, funds for raids or inspector team, he
“If the fact of poaching is confirmed, then of course this
organization is just ineffective,” said Svetlana Shchegrina, head of
environmental education at the Altai regional nature reserve, which
also has a population of argali sheep. “It’s a terrible case.”