Russian officials cleared of poaching charges (shooting argali from helicopter in Altai)

Russian officials cleared of poaching charges

23 May 2011
A court in southern Siberia’s Altai Republic on Monday acquitted three high-ranking officials whose hunting of endangered animals led to a deadly helicopter crash two years ago.

Judge Nikolai Lubenitsky said the prosecution had failed to prove the defendants’ guilt. He also said all the three men could claim compensation for damages sustained as a result of the prosecution.

A Mi-17 helicopter carrying government officials crashed near Altai’s Chernaya mountain in January 2009, killing seven people, including the Russian president’s envoy to the State Duma, Alexander Kosopkin, and a federal environmental official.

It was subsequently alleged that the officials had been hunting endangered mountain sheep.

Four people survived the crash, including the republic’s deputy prime minister, Anatoly Bannykh, who resigned after the crash; deputy head of the Institute of Economics and Law Nikolai Kapranov, and State Duma official and businessman Boris Belinsky.

The three officials were charged with illegal hunting and faced up to two years in prison if found guilty.

KOSH-AGACH (Altai Republic), May 23 (RIA Novosti)

Transboundary reserve to be established in Altai

14 Jan 2011

The Russian Federation’s Cabinet of Ministers approved an agreement between the governments of Russia and Kazakhstan to establish the “Altai Transboundary Reserve.” A corresponding decree was signed by Vladimir Putin, Russia’s Prime Minister, on 27 December 2010.

The draft agreement states that the Altai Transboundary Reserve is being established with the goals of protection wildlife and landscape diversity in mountainous Altai, facilitating bilateral cooperation in environmental conservation and rational natural resource use with the consideration of ecological, social, and cultural perspectives.

RIA Novosti reports plans for conducting environmental monitoring and research on natural habitats and sites in Altai, increasing environmental education outreach to the local population, and ecotourism.

The transboundary reserve will include Katunsky State Biosphere Reserve (Russian Federation) and Katon-Karagaysky National Nature Park (Republic of Kazakhstan).

Translation by Jennifer Castner

Initial hearings take place in the argali hunting case (Altai Republic)

13 Jan 2011

The rare species argali hunting case will begin on January 26. This decision was taken at a hearing held on 13 January presided over by Nikolai Lubenitsky, chairman of the Kosh-Agach Rayon court, which is hearing this case.

The subject of these preliminary hearings (generally used for hearing processual questions, evidentiary issues, etc.) is not known. All of the accused traveled to Kosh-Agach to participate in these hearings – businessman and former vice-governor of Altai Republic Anatoly Bannykh, general director of Ineko Boris Belinsky, and vice director of the Moscow’s Institute of Economics and Law Nikolai Karpanov.

They stand accused under Part 2, Article 258 of the Russian Federal Criminal Code (collusion to illegally hunt by a group for animals whose killing is completely forbidden, with the infliction of gross harm and the use of airborne transport), the penalty for which ranges from a fine up to two years’ imprisonment. The accused in the case are pleading not guilty to the charges.


Translation by Jennifer Castner

Altaisky Zapovednik press release: snow leopard habitat study in the Argut River Valley (Altai Republic)

PRESS RELEASE – Altaisky Zapovednik
Mikhail Paltsyn,

09 December 2010

On November 30, Altaisky Zapovednik finished an expedition to study snow leopard habitat in the Argut River Valley (Altai Republic). The expedition was organized as part of the UNDP/GEF project. Zapovednik staff, local residents from Inegen, and two Mongolian snow leopard specialists participated in the work.

Field work occurred in the lower portion of the Argut River watershed to the Shavla River, as well as the left bank of the Argut River between the mouths of the Shavla and Koir Rivers. The main goals of the expedition were to search for evidence of snow leopard activity and to survey population numbers for Siberian mountain goats in the given area. During the work, both traditional means (searching evidence of life: claw-rakes, scrapes, scent-markings, and pugmarks) and camera-trapping were used. Ungulate population levels were assessed visually on study routes. Across the entire research area, over 600 Siberian mountain goats were counted, numbers that are comparable to data gathered in 2007 and 2008 at this same site.

Over the course of the study more than 18 camera-traps installed in early October along the left bank of the Argut River between the Koir and Shavla Rivers were checked. The camera-traps were set up along intersections of mountain paths (narrow, low ridges, cliff ledges, and ravine passages) that are unavoidable for local species passing through the area. It should be noted that in these specific places the team found traces of old poaching snares. In addition to numerous mountain goats, the camera-traps recorded images of practically all the animal representatives of the Argut Valley including maral deer, musk deer, sable, and foxes. The automatic cameras photographed four different lynx and even captured three instances of the extremely cautious wolf. However, no snow leopard was photographed. The camera traps were distributed at optimal density for discovering the existence of snow leopard (1 camera per 10-16 sq. km) and they were left in place for over 30 days. For these reasons, we are confident that there are essentially no snow leopards in the research area between the mouths of the Koir and Shavla Rivers. The absence of snow leopards in the given area is further supported by the fact that no verifiable traces of this predator’s life activities were discovered here either.

The right banks of the Argut River between the Shavla and Koir Rivers were not yet possible to study, because the river ice is not yet thick enough, rendering a crossing there either impossible or extremely dangerous. This area, as well as the the Koir and Yungur Rivers basins, will be studied using camera traps in December 2010-March 2011. To date since October 2010, only a small portion of snow leopard habitat in the Argut watershed has been studied (the area below the mouth of the Shavla River and the left bank of the Argut River between the mouths of the Shavla and Koir Rivers). The rare predator has not yet been found in the region despite excellent snow leopard habitat and high populations of Siberian mountain goat – a primary prey animal for snow leopards.

The fieldwork was supported by WWF, Panthera Foundation, Altai
Assistance Project, and The Altai Project.

Snow Leopard Day children’s eco-festival took place in Altai Republic (Russian language)

19 May 2010

The WWF, FSDA, Ukok Nature Park and Altaisky Zapovednik organized event was on May 26 was for all school children. They learned about snow leopard, their prey, and habitat with a decided conservation slant. Drawing competitions, arts & crafts, etc. Organizers specifically selected Kosh-Agach Rayon for conducting the event, as the region is home to important snow leopard habitat.

Thank you to SLN member Jennifer Castner for this English-language summary.

Illegal January 2009 argali helicopter hunting case in the Altai Republic reopened

Illegal Hunting Case Reopened After Huff

12 November 2009By Maria Antonova

Investigative Committee chief Alexander Bastrykin reopened an investigation Wednesday into whether charges should be filed against survivors of a party of government officials who were illegally hunting endangered sheep when their helicopter crashed in January.

Bastrykin’s announcement came as an outcry grew over his decision to quietly close the investigation in August and embarrassingly just a day after his committee awarded Altai Governor Alexander Berdnikov, whose deputy is a suspect in the case, with a medal for cooperating with investigators.The Investigative Committee first opened an investigation into the illegal hunt of argali sheep in the Altai republic in April, about three months after the crash of the helicopter carrying Altai Deputy Governor Anatoly Bannykh and the president’s envoy to the State Duma, Alexander Kosopkin. While Bannykh was among the four survivors, Kosopkin was one of seven people who died in the crash.The investigation was closed in August because “all the people who can be charged in this case … died during the crash,” while the survivors, including Bannykh, “did not take any actions to pursue or shoot the animals,” Bastrykin said in a written statement sent to the Altai legislature after local lawmakers asked him for an update on the investigation in September.

The statement, a copy of which was obtained by The Moscow Times, lists five deceased people as suspects of illegal hunting by helicopter, is dated Oct. 13 and is signed by Bastrykin himself.

The statement only surfaced last weekend, inciting public outrage over Bastrykin’s decision to blame only the dead for breaking the law.

Moreover, Berdnikov, the Altai governor who also has been implicated in the hunting trip by national media, received a medal from the Investigative Committee on Tuesday during Police Day celebrations. The medal, “For Cooperation,” was presented to Berdnikov by Bastrykin’s deputy Andrei Mushatov for Berdnikov’s “cooperation in the effective work of investigators,” according to a statement on the regional government’s official web site.

On Wednesday, the Investigative Committee suddenly showed interest in the case again, with Bastrykin ordering “procedural control authorities to closely look at the case’s materials … and check the completeness of the investigation,” according to a statement posted on the committee’s web site.

In response to a phone inquiry of what this means and whether the case had been reopened, a spokeswoman refused to comment and hung up.

A few hours later, the committee posted a statement on the web site saying Bastrykin had reopened the case.

Environmentalists, whose efforts helped prompt investigators to open a criminal case in the first place, criticized Bastrykin’s explanation to Altai lawmakers that the surviving passengers were not part of the hunt. “Kosopkin and Bannykh were the two most highly placed officials on the helicopter, and the hunt never would have happened if they had opposed pursuing the animals,” said Alexei Vaisman, a researcher with the World Wildlife Fund.

But reopening the case at the height of a public outcry smacks of a public relations stunt, said security analyst Andrei Soldatov. “They are likely to close the case again when the situation quiets down again, like they did after reopening the case of Shchekochikhin,”

Soldatov said, referring to the mysterious death of Novaya Gazeta reporter and State Duma Deputy Yury Shchekochikhin in 2003.

Alexei Gribkov, an environmentalist from Barnaul in the neighboring Altai region, said a thorough investigation was unlikely because it would probably “unravel many nasty details implicating people from beyond the region, like Kosopkin’s superiors.”

He said it was still not clear who had financed the hunt in the Gazpromavia-owned helicopter. “For us, it is very important to set a precedent with this … hunt because it was certainly not the first incident,” he said by telephone.

Berdnikov, whose term expires in January, flew to Moscow on Wednesday to attend President Dmitry Medvedev’s state-of-the nation address Thursday. He was unavailable for comment, said a woman who answered the phone at Altai’s representative office in Moscow.