Saving baby seals: one woman’s crusade

About the author
Mumin Shakirov is Moscow based former Liberty Radio journalist. He is also a book writer and film director

Russian seals

Safe again, since the Russian government's recent ban on hunting baby seals. "They look like living soft toys, they are fluffy and white with large black eyes." - Russian biologist Maria Vorontsova spent years campaigning to protect them. (Photo: courtesy of IFAW. All Rights Reserved. May not be reproduced without permission.)

When I met Vorontsova in her office in the centre of Moscow, I wanted to talk first of all about the rescued harp seals, but for the first half an hour we had to talk about falcons. A call from Kamchatka was to blame for this. Ornithologists had some pleasing news for Maria - three gyrfalcons confiscated from poachers in the Moscow Oblast had been released into the wild. Vorontsova told me the thrilling story of these rare birds. A rich Arab from the Emirates ordered six gyrfalcons for hunting. If there is an order, and there is money, the goods can always be found. Each bird costs around $50,000 on the black market. The criminals secretly delivered the birds directly from Petropavlovsk-Kamchatski to a military aerodrome in Chkalovsk, but there they got caught. "These goods are not transported through civilian airports, as the customs officers and police keep strict watch," Vorontsova explained. "But a military aerodrome is closed territory, and not everyone can get in. Evidently there was some well-coordinated work by FSB officers. They captured the live goods."

Unfortunately, the ornithologists were not able to save all the birds, as three of the six gyrfalcons had died during transportation. "Evidently the poachers fed them with pigeons, and pigeons carry herpes", Vorontsova says sadly. It is easy to understand Maria's concern. The gyrfalcon is a rare bird, and several specimens cost up to $100,000. They are the largest falcons in the world, with beautiful plumage varying from black to white. In a word, this is a magnificent bird that has been entered in the Red Book.

Vorontsova was destined to become an environmental specialist. She grew up surrounded by scientists and researchers.  As a child she accompanied her parents on expeditions all over Russia and the Central Asian republics of the USSR.  She followed in the footsteps of her father, the well-known Russian zoologist and geneticist Nikolai Vorontsov. He was an important scientist and later an influential official and public figure. "My father went down in the history of the USSR as the only minister without a Communist party ticket in his pocket," Maria says enthusiastically. "Under Gorbachev, he was the head of the Ministry of Natural Resources and the Environment."

Maria Vorontsova is just as enthusiastic about her main achievement of recent years as she is about her childhood. For fifteen years environmentalists fought an unequal battle with officials and hunters. The standoff came to an end in the spring with the ban on killing the harp seal pups up to one year old.

It had all started in March 1994, when Maria first saw these harmless creatures in Canada's Gulf of St. Lawrence. She was there with her father at the invitation of the directors of the International Fund for Animal Welfare.  At that time she was a post-doctoral researcher at Dalhousie University, Halifax, Canada.

While Vorontsova turns on the computer to show photos of the baby harp seals, I take a brochure from her table and read: "The majority of harp seals killed in industrial hunting are beaters aged from three weeks to three months. Whitecoats are also killed, which are even younger. They look like living soft toys - they're fluffy and white, with large black eyes. Their skins are used to manufacture hats and coats."

Indeed, the whitecoats on the monitor screen look like defenceless living toys; their eyes are moist, even teary, and their expression is sad. Maria continues: "We flew to the Gulf of St Lawrence by helicopter. We had been given smart bright red jumpsuits to wear, and we descended on to a large block of ice like astronauts, where thousands upon thousands of harp seals were warming themselves in the sun. It was a fantastic sight! We walked across the ice floe and stroked these fluffy whitecoat pups. The fat mother seals tactfully crawled to the side, letting us stroke their young. We didn't know at the time that they were being killed both in Canada and Russia. They are hunted in Russia by the Pomors, a ethnic Russian minority of just a few thousand, who live in the Arkhangel Oblast on the shores of the White Sea".

On returning to Russia, Maria decided to travel around all the Pomor villages. The real picture of the bloody industry was then revealed by famous Russian photographer Alexander Lyskin. He managed to get through to the Pomors and took some sensational photographs.  The bloody pictures of the slaughter of the whitecoats and the pyramids of dead seals got into the press. It turned out that it was mainly the residents of the village of Zimnyaya Zolotitsa in the Arkhangel Oblast who hunted the seals.

"In autumn 1994 my father and I, along with representatives of the IFAW, met the chairman of the collective farm at the village and told him directly that the industry must stop. He looked at us as if we were from another planet, and did not understand what we wanted from him.  After all, there was no official ban on hunting at the time, and furthermore the government set a quota for seal hunting each year. On average 30,000 whitecoats were killed annually," Maria says.

seals slaughter 

The Arctic snow would turn red when villagers of Zimnaya Zolotitsa did their seasonal seal hunt. Alexander Lyskin was the first Russian photographer to document the barbaric spectacle. (Photo: Alexander Lyskin, courtesy of IFAW. All Rights Reserved. May not be reproduced without permission.)

At the time, she was shocked not only by the barbarity, but also by the maths of the slaughter. Calculations showed that this bloody hunt was barely profitable. "For the skins, each one of which costs just $30 (now just $9?), tens of thousands of pups are killed every year. This means a mountain of meat which nobody eats, and this biomass is simply left near the area where the skinning has taken place. In spring it all rots and is a disgusting sight,"  frowns Vorontsova, evidently picturing this terrible scene vividly.  "But the profit is minimal. It's easy to calculate: $30 per skin is about $1 million, but minus the helicopter rent - and this is about 250 flying hours per year - transportation, and treating the skins, the pure profit is miniscule. The money is divided among several dozen people. That's all the business comes to, but it means rivers of blood."

The Pomors, like all the peoples of the North, get government grants for the fishing industry, but the money does not reach the hunters, as it is siphoned off by the chairmen of collective farms and a few fishery officials.   Environmentalists consider that the residents of Zimnyaya Zolotitsa have become hostages of this low-profit business. If the government funds were spent sensibly, then it would be easy to stop the killing and concentrate exclusively on the fishing industry and tourism.

"An alternative to hunting the whitecoats could be a ‘seal watch', taking people to look at the seals in their natural habitat," says Vorontsova. "This could also include diving under the ice. Money will also trickle down from the infrastructure: hotels and services.  In 1995 we made some calculations in IFAW: we came to the conclusion that eco-tourism needs to be developed, and that we would be prepared to finance this project."

In January 1995 Maria returned from Canada.  She became the IFAW representative in Russia and started her campaign to stop the hunting of baby harp seals in Russia's White Sea.  In March 1995 an international group from IFAW visited Zimnyaya Zolotitsa to document the hunt.  The expedition was successful and resulted in the publication of photographs and video footage of pyramids of dead whitecoats.

The Fund's activity in the Arkhangelsk Oblast meant that Vorontsova herself had difficulty in reaching the hunting area for a long time. She was openly refused access to Zimnyaya Zolotitsa, and received death threats when she appeared on the shore with a group of reporters. Once she escaped from hunters by fleeing through the forest and across a ravine.

Only in 1996 did she see for the first time what journalists had told her about. Local pilots took her on board a helicopter, covered her in blankets and secretly took her to the hunting ground. "The helicopter hovered over the ice floe and lowered the net.  When the hunters began gathering the corpses of the killed seal pups together in a heap, I got out of my hiding place, took out my camera and started taking pictures of this bloody scene. They immediately spotted me," Maria laughs. " ‘Look, it's Vorontsova! We have an emergency here!'  the chief hunter reported back to headquarters in Arkhangel.  There was a huge row and I became persona non grata in Zimnyaya Zolotitsa".

The Ministry of Fisheries stubbornly protected the Pomors and refused to listen to the environmentalists. All this continued until 1999. Vorontsova had to look for new allies in the battle against the extermination of the whitecoats. Another group of journalists, directors and even State Duma deputies joined in the attempt to raise awareness about the problem. As they say, constant dripping wears away a stone. "This year we finally had two victories: the ban on hunting baby seals and we were able to change the shipping routes," Maria says, pointing to the map of the North. "Tankers and icebreakers began to avoid the places where the seals live, so that the animals could give birth to their young on the ice floes, and this happens every spring. Thousands of seals used to die during the navigation period."

But this was only a half-measure.  In recent years there had been a sharp decline in the population of whitecoats and beaters.  In 2006 there was faint cause for hope, when it turned out that the Pomors could not afford to pay for helicopters. The hunting season was in danger of being disrupted, and it seemed as if fate had given the harp seals a real chance to increase their numbers.

But the Norwegians came unexpectedly to the aid of the hunters. Although in Norway itself hunting young seals is forbidden, in Russia it's allowed.  They financed the industry, and in April 2006 hunting beaters by boat replaced the seasonal hunting of whitecoats.  Vorontsova was shocked. This money came from the Innovation Norway fund and the Norway Fisheries Ministry. "They behaved in a very cynical and calculating way when they allocated money to the hunt," says Vorontsova. "The harp seal migrates from the White Sea to the Barents Sea, where the Norwegians fish cod and herring commercially. The Norwegian fishing industry claims the seals eat too many fish."

Environmentalists believe that the problem is not the seals, but the fact that bio-resources are being reduced by illegal over-fishing of all types of commercial fish in this zone.  "We realised that action had to be taken urgently," Vorontsova continues. "The Fund conducted a study and discovered that in 2008 only 114,000 pups were born.  At the end of the ‘90s and the beginning of ‘00s the figures were 300 -330,000 . This was an ecological disaster!"

In 2008 officials announced a record quota for hunting seal pups:  the hunters received a licence to kill 137,500 whitecoats and beaters.   This in effect permitted the slaughter of more baby seals than were actually born in 2008.  And this was a scientifically-based sustainable hunt?  

"We raised Cain and tried to get them to reduce this figure.  As a result the total allowable catch (TAC) was cut by four times in October 2008," Maria says.  They were helped by the well-known journalist Artemy Troitsky, who brought a group of celebrities from Moscow to the Pomors in Zimnyaya Zolotitsa and held a campaign to protect the whitecoats and beaters.

Seals campaign 

Many Russian celebrieties took part in the campaign to protect the harp seal pups. "Don't hit a creature when it's down!" was the catchy slogan devised by journalist and blogger Rustam Adagamov. (Photo: courtesy of IFAW. All Rights Reserved. May not be reproduced without permission.)

This spring, another major campaign was held in Moscow and other cities of Russia to protect the harp seal pups. "Don't hit a creature when it's down!" was the successful slogan devised by the journalist and blogger Rustam Adagamov. In a word, the officials were besieged from all sides. And a miracle occurred!

On 18 March this year, the Minister for Ecology and Natural Resources Yury Trutnev announced a ban on hunting harp seals under one year in age. This was a victory for the ecologists!   Vorontsova can only guess what actually caused a change in the situation at the top. "You know, in our country we have a vertical of power", she smiles mysteriously. "Evidently, Putin lost his patience when he was reminded once again about these bloody pictures, and he banged his fist on the table and decided the issue. The Minister of Fisheries obeyed and closed down the industry."

Along with saving the whitecoats, Maria and her team are responsible for several more victories. Several years ago the IFAW campaigned against the projects Sakhalin-1 and Sakhalin-2. Environmentalists literally forced Shell to pay the extra costs of extending the pipeline from the platforms in such a way as to avoid grey whale habitats. There were not more than 120 left of them living off the coasts of Sakhalin. "The whales feed in this zone for around six months (May to October), and then they swim south to their breeding grounds and hardly eat at all. So if they can't get into this zone, then they will simply die out," says Maria.

Environmentalists from IFAW Russia save all kinds of animals today: orphaned bears, homeless cats, dogs, elks that wander into towns etc. One of the anti-poaching brigades funded by IFAW protects the Amur tiger. "There are many orphans among these tigers, their mothers have been killed and the tiger cubs are left behind," Maria says, pointing to photos of the stripy cubs on the monitor. "Two years four tigers were rescued and rehabilitated near Vladivostok. There are few tigers left in the forest, around 500, and poachers kill around 40 of them every year. This is a large number, although tigers multiply almost like cats, with 2-3 cubs per year. They're not like the grey whale, which has one offspring once every two years. You won't believe it, but until recently poachers could be fined $50 for killing a tiger - now the fine is 500,000 roubles (about $16,000). We didn't fight for nothing!"

As a zoologist, Maria is worried that it is as difficult to fight poaching in Russia as it is to fight corruption. The problem is that not only ordinary citizens break the law, but that the lawmakers themselves do too. The January tragedy in the Altai, when a helicopter carrying high-ranking officials crashed, stunned society. It turned out that these officials were using automatic weapons at government expense to shoot mouflon, that are listed in the Red Book. Among the victims of the catastrophe was an authorised representative of the Russian president in the State Duma. The Russian press gave wide coverage to this "royal" hunt. A few weeks ago, at the beginning of May, the news came through of a helicopter crash in which the governor of Irkutsk Igor Yesipovsky and three others died.  The helicopter was being used for illegal bear hunting, according to one unconfirmed report.

There is also the old story involving former Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin (now the Russian ambassador to Ukraine) who killed two bear cubs in the Yaroslavl Oblast, but could not possibly be punished for it. An official of this rank is untouchable in Russia. But still, there are individual victories which give cause for optimism and hope. The example of the harp seal is indicative. Vorontsova has travelled almost all around the world and knows from personal experience that people and animals can exist in the same area, but not in Russia.   The IFAW slogan is "A better world for animals and people". 

"It's no secret that everyone who comes to our country is surprised at how difficult it is to see animals here, both in sanctuaries and in the wild," she says sadly. "This is mainly because of the poaching".

Special thanks to the Moscow Office of the International Fund for Animal Welfare for sharing their photos with us for this article.

(All photos: courtesy of IFAW. All Rights Reserved. May not be reproduced without permission.)