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Licence to kill on Lake Baikal

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The unique Baikal seal has a beautiful coat, which is its undoing. Poachers make good money by killing the babies and selling the furs in China. Despite a government ban, the seal’s numbers are declining dramatically. Gayane Petrosyan asks,“what is to be done?”

Gayane Petrosyan
8 October 2013

The beginning of April: over the frozen surface of the lake, men with guns and bags are carefully threading their way through a labyrinth of holes in the ice. They stop next to one of the holes, and haul out a net. An animal is thrashing about inside: a little Baikal seal, or nerpa, no more than six weeks old, is trying to get free. No chance, for this baby seal is what these men are seeking – they already have buyers for its beautiful skin.

The beginning of April: over the frozen surface of the lake, men with guns and bags are carefully threading their way through a labyrinth of holes in the ice. They stop next to one of the holes, and haul out a net. An animal is thrashing about inside: a little Baikal seal, or nerpa, no more than six weeks old, is trying to get free. No chance, for this baby seal is what these men are seeking – they already have buyers for its beautiful skin.

Seal poaching happens every spring on the ice of Lake Baikal in Siberia, the deepest and oldest lake in the world, at 1,637 metres deep and more than 25 million years old, it holds a fifth of all the planet’s freshwater reserves, so the state of its ecology is a matter of considerable significance for the whole of mankind.

Baikal is unique: of the 2,500 organisms found here, about 2,000 are endemic i.e. to be found nowhere else. One of these is the Baikal seal.

The Baikal seal

Scientists still do not know for certain how the Baikal seal, or nerpa, a marine animal, came to live in the fresh waters of Lake Baikal. One explanation dates its arrival to the Ice Age, coming from the Arctic Ocean along the Yenisei and Angara rivers. Today, the nerpa inhabits practically the whole of the lake. The main breeding grounds are at Ayaya Bay, the capes of Sagan-Khushun and Khoboi, and the Ushkany Islands, which are the biggest and best-known islands.

 All the poacher has to do is aim for the head with his first shot or blow

The nerpa has no natural predator, apart from man. Every April, the poachers’ hunting season opens on the frozen lake, which provides a kind of maternity home for the baby nerpa. The newborn seals are called ‘white-babies,’ because of their white furry coat; at six weeks they will be called kumatkan, when their coat darkens to grey with a beautiful silver sheen – the most tempting prize for the poachers. By that time, at the beginning of April, the spring sun melts their lairs and, under their mothers’ watchful eye, the little seals must start learning how to survive on their own.

The nerpa has very good hearing, picking up human footsteps at a distance of 200-400 metres, if the weather is good; and human scent at 1.5 – 2 km, if the wind is right. Nevertheless, it is not difficult to catch a seal lumbering on dry land. Seals cannot stay very long under water; and they scratch a hole through the melting ice so as to get out from underneath it. All the poacher has to do is aim for the head with his first shot or blow. The fur, meat and fat are immediately handed over to dealers, parked on the nearby motorways, ready to sell it on in China. 

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Newborn nerpa seals are called ‘white babies’ owing to their white fur coat. The furs have become prized targets for poachers. Photo CC2.0 Pacific Environment.

Gorbachev's fur hat

Nerpa fur does little to keep the head warm; and, before Mikhail Gorbachev, it was little used as a clothing item. Gorbachev probably had no idea of the contribution he made to the trade in Baikal sealskins, with his nerpa flat cap, but it was he who launched the seal fur fashion boom in Russia and the post-Soviet regions. Nerpa was soon used as an accessory for the Russian Olympic team members, and later the orders started coming in from wealthy “New Russians.”

Gamekeepers turned poachers

In 1994, a Russian count was made of the Baikal seal population, and the numbers established at upwards of 100,000. In 2000, Greenpeace organised an expedition on the ice, whose independent scientists stated that the population had shrunk considerably, to between 67,000 and 70,000.

It was Mikhail Gorbachev who launched the seal fur fashion boom 

Greenpeace has influence in Russia: when Baikalrybvod (the chief directorate of Baikal fish breeding) heard that Greenpeace was heading their way they reduced the quota for seal hunting licences from 6,000 to 3,500. This was not the good news that it seemed: the tragedy of the Baikal seal is that the people who should be protecting it are also destroying it. The hunters and inspectors cover up for the poachers; and, themselves having received a major part of the hunting licences, the inspectors become the hunters. They manage to obtain these licences because they enjoy good relations with Baikalrybvod. Greenpeace estimates that, of the 3,500 licences issued, approximately 3,000 were distributed amongst this “in-crowd.” Moreover, the peculiar maths used by Baikalrybvo means that 3000 licences might easily become 10,000 or 15,000. Worst of all: of these 15,000, about 90% were newborn pups, meaning that the number of animals able to reproduce, decreases every year.

Terrible as it may sound, many of the Russian scientists studying the nerpa, with very few exceptions, also hunt them

Terrible as it may sound, many of the Russian scientists studying the nerpa, with very few exceptions, also hunt them. Baikalrybvod has a thick file of applications to study the nerpa for ‘scientific purposes.’ Up to 800 licences per year used to be issued although now the number is slightly lower. Seals were killed so as to establish the ‘age, sex and numbers of pregnant females;’ a ‘humane’ practice (according to Baikalrybvod) that dates back to the 1970s.

The ‘all-out’ ban

 The Greenpeace report made it clear that poaching of the Baikal seal was exceeding permitted numbers by five times; and it was no longer possible to deny that the nerpa was in danger In 2006, a decision was taken at the highest level to introduce an all-out ban on commercial hunting of the Baikal seal. Only the Evenki and Buryat peoples, who live on the shores of Lake Baikal, were permitted to hunt small numbers of seals for their own needs as part of their traditional management of natural resources. Unlike the poaching gangs, however, their hunting had little real effect on the decline in seal numbers.

Unfortunately, poachers do not hunt by quota

The current hunting numbers are 2000 nerpa for the local indigenous population, and 500 for scientific purposes. Such a quota, in theory, should ensure the survival of the nerpa. Indeed, a Natural Resources Ministry report states that the seal population is no longer a matter for concern; and numbers recorded by the State Fisheries Research Centre show an increase to between 95,000 and 100,000. Commercial hunting is banned, and the seals are more often seen, even in quite populous places. 

Unfortunately, poachers do not hunt by quota. This spring the Russian Geographical Society and the Foundation for the Protection of Lake Baikal set up an expedition working on the ice. Their conclusions were far less encouraging than the government reports. Even the preliminary conclusions indicate that the poachers’ slaughter of the seals is on the increase, and the hunting of mostly baby seals means that the population is ageing As the expedition’s director, Sergei Sablin, says, ‘Every year the poachers come out on to the ice of Lake Baikal, as they always have. The demand for seal fur doesn’t fluctuate much from year to year – the price is 2,000-2,500 roubles (£38-£48) per animal. A team of three to four poachers can earn as much as 300,000-500,000 roubles (£5,700-£9,600) a month. In the two weeks we were there we encountered no less than twenty of them, and that’s only in the central section of the lake. 

No official organisation responsible for the wellbeing of the nerpa will accept these independent findings. Too many officials have an economic interest in poaching, to do anything about it.

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Lake Baikal is the largest freshwater lake in the world, containing 20% of the earth's fresh water. Photo SeaWiFS from nasa.gov

The paper mill

Another big ecological problem that threatens the nerpa is the Baikal Paper Mill. As far back as the 1990s, independent experts analysed samples from the fatty tissues of the Baikal seals, when great numbers of them perished as the result of an epidemic. They found traces of organochlorine, which originated in the paper mill, and had in all probability, led to the catastrophic decline in the seals’ immunity. The seals are the last link in the Baikal food chain, and therefore act as a litmus paper for the wellbeing of the lake.

There is talk of the mill being closed down, but, if it really does happen, one big questions remains: what will be done with the waste material that has accumulated over the decades the factory has been in operation? Approximately five million cubic metres of toxic sludge are being stored in containers, all in the littoral region of the lake.

Too many officials have an economic interest in poaching, to do anything about it.

Back to square one

Roman Vyazhenkov works for Greenpeace, and has been overseeing their Baikal ecology programme. There have been ecological raids on to the ice of Lake Baikal, which managed to save between eight and ten seals from the poachers’ nets, but many more continue to perish each year.

Vyazhenkov believes that the ban on commercial hunting of the Baikal seals is no solution to the problem because it changes nothing. The battle with the poachers has to be much more radical, starting with the need for the regulating bodies to put their houses in order. Is that really possible? When Vyazhenkov is asked about the Baikal seal situation today, he simply says ‘I think it’s all back to square one.’

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