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Helicopter Hunting a Favorite With Elite Poachers

Published: January 27, 2009 (Issue # 1443)



  • A game warden examining a hunters license in Primorye in the Far East.?
    Photo: Vladimir Filonov / The St. Petersburg Times

  • The Mi-171 helicopter that crashed Jan. 9, killing several state officials.
    Photo: altapress.ru

MOSCOW 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 countrys 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 Russias rarest animals, and hunting it is 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 republics top official charged with protecting the regions 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 and red deer.

Over the last decade, Altai has become a place where helicopter hunting has become rather common, said Alexei Vaisman, head of WWF-Russias anti-animal trafficking program.

The officials in the fatal expedition had hunting licences for Siberian goats and red deer, Yelena Kobzeva, a spokeswoman for the 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.

Remains of what ecologists say are argali sheep at the Altai crash site.

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