According to news sources, it wasn’t until after an air crash carrying senior government officials crashed into a remote Altai mountainside earlier this month that photographs snapped at the scene told a devastating story beyond the obvious loss of life of some of those on board the doomed helicopter.
Photographs taken at the scene of the crash have appalled conservationists for they revealed an elitist pastime that is fast becoming disturbingly popular; namely, the expensive sport of poaching from helicopters. One photo shows the carcasses of many argali sheep, a Russian endangered species and one of the poor animals has a knife protruding from one of its haunches! This species of wild sheep is one of the rarest animals in Russia and hunting one is punishable by up to two years in prison.
Ecologists have demanded to know whether the officials were hunting illegally when their helicopter went down. Seven federal, regional and local officials were killed in the crash. Among them was Viktor Kaimin who was ironically the Altai republic’s top official in charge of protecting the region’s wildlife and whose committee was responsible for issuing hunting licenses.
The remote location of the pristine Gorny Altai mountain region is popular with hunters, and hunting is legal in some areas for Siberian goat and red deer. It is no secret that officials have come to the area for hunting trips in which they simply shoot at animals from hovering helicopters, despite a ban on the practice. Getting caught in the act, however, is a horse of another color.
Some ecologists and political commentators have dubbed the situation, “Altaigate” and no official investigation has been opened to date as to whether or not the officials were engaging in illegal hunting. Regional environmental officials have stated that they would continue to push for a probe into the matter.
In the words of Alexei Vaisman, head of WWF-Russia’s anti-animal trafficking program:
“Over the last decade, Altai has become a place where helicopter hunting has become rather common. They shoot directly from the helicopter and then land to pick up any trophies. We don’t want anyone to be imprisoned. The main aim of our actions is to make a court give an official legal assessment of what happened. Regional officials often treat federal officials to free hunting trips. It’s not a bribe, it’s to make good relations, to get additional money to the region from the federal center.”
Russian environmentalists claim that there is no way these helicopter hunting trips can be organized without the knowledge and support of local officials. Killing a protected animal is a crime, but due to the fact that illegal hunting is very difficult to prove, relatively few poachers are ever convicted.
One can only hope that this new incident will incite some legal protection for the poor animals being killed in Russia. Poaching is a terrible, unnecessary and very cruel waste of life.