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Where has all the wildlife gone in Siberia?

Widderkopf_B CC Hajotthu Crop.jpg

Poaching is drastically reducing numbers of many wildlife species in Siberia, and government at national and regional level doesn’t seem to care. на русском языке

Natalya Yakovleva
25 February 2015

Last year, environmental campaigners from the Siberian city of Tomsk made regular trips along the Ob river, looking at the levels of poaching in the surrounding forest; and produced a report on its effects in different localities. 

Top of the table was the small town of Krasny Yar. There used to be an enormous logging plant here, and the local shops stocked red caviar even at times of dire shortage elsewhere (the locals fished for the black variety themselves – the Ob was full of starlet and sturgeon then). Krasny Yar is only 80km from Tomsk as the crow flies – but it has to fly over impassable swamps. By road it’s more like 300km. In winter the journey involves a half-hour drive over the frozen Ob; the bus disgorges its passengers so that it can drive safely on the ice. In the summer there’s a ferry, but in spring and autumn the town is only connected to the outside world by occasional flights in ‘cropduster’ planes.

The locals liked it this way – everyone knew everyone else; very few strangers ever came. It was here that I first held a shotgun in my hands. My father, a teacher and keen hunter, decided that at 15 I was old enough, and we would shoot grouse and muskrats all year round; shooting seasons meant nothing to us then. At school I would spend breaks with the boys, all of us boasting about our catches. And a year and a half later it was poachers like us that felled first an elk and then a new forest ranger, the father of one of my classmates. We kept quiet about it, but not for long: nobody saw anything wrong in poaching, as long as you didn’t get caught, so we could see how it could have happened. The crime remained unsolved; nobody tried very hard to solve it.

Nobody saw anything wrong in poaching, as long as you didn’t get caught.

Paradise lost

Thirty years later, the logging plant has fallen into ruins, and the population has halved from its then 14,000 – people have left in search of a better life. But the amount of illegal hunting has not fallen in the area, or anywhere else in Siberia for that matter. The difference is that then we shot animals for fun, whereas now it’s for food and to earn a living. The situation is so serious that Sergei Zhvachkin, the governor of Tomsk, decided a few months ago to create a special flying squad to combat poaching and its concealment, recruiting people from various law enforcement bodies, including even the FSB. According to the website of the Ministry of Natural Resources and the Environment, 50,000 illegal hunting incidents take place annually, but even the Minister, Sergei Donskoi, admits that this figure represents a mere 10% of the real scale of the problem; and regards poaching as on a level with the drug and arms trades. Ecologists meanwhile consider killing wildlife for food even more serious than doing it for money, as it is ubiquitous and extremely methodical.

The Mouflon, one of many species of megafauna in Siberia is a large horned sheep.

The Mouflon, one of many species of megafauna in Siberia. CC Jörg Hempel

But now there is yet another problem in the form of organised trips for VIPs, where animals are hunted from helicopters. A court case over the wounding of a businessman during one of these jollies (organised by a deputy governor) came to nothing. In 2011, Anatoly Bannykh, the deputy prime minister of the Altai region; Boris Belinsky, CEO of the Ineko investment group, and Nikolai Kapranov, deputy director of the Moscow Institute of Economics and Law were acquitted by a court on charges of killing mouflon – wild sheep protected by law in Russia. The helicopter carrying these VIPs and their rifles crashed, killing seven people including Aleksandr Kosopkin, the Presidential Envoy to the Duma. Interestingly, after this incident the press stopped reporting on the exploits of ‘fun-loving’ officials, apart from such flagrant examples as the refusal of the courts to charge United Russia Duma deputy Nikolai Baluyev with illegal hunting of bears, ducks and beavers. So have the ‘big shots’ really laid down their arms?

Helicopters are out of fashion now, but now poachers have the latest and fastest snowmobiles.

‘No, they haven’t,’ says Andrei Badanov, a Novosibirsk forest ranger who testified at the ‘mouflon trial’. ‘Vehicles are used in 80% of poaching activities, but it’s less obvious. Helicopters are out of fashion, but now they have the latest and fastest snowmobiles, whereas mine is ancient, and my bosses won’t even give me enough diesel for my 20-year-old 4x4. But you don’t need a helicopter to kill elk and roe deer. You don’t even need a gun. The herds always migrate along the same routes, and in temperatures of minus 30 degrees, which are common enough here, they try to move as little as they can. They forage on woody shrubs, and need large quantities of this to keep alive, so they find a patch of undergrowth and eat through it systematically, hardly moving about. If you startle them they’ll run off, but that uses up a lot of energy. Last year, for example, two poachers knifed nine roe deer that they had just followed on skis. And they lay wire across known elk routes and then chase them down on snowmobiles.’

The scale of the killing

Poaching has become a real disaster for Siberia; and nobody believes the official figures on illegal hunting. ‘I have been looking closely at the situation with a number of animal species, to discover how much the statistics are being falsified’, says Boris Kassal, an Omsk veterinary specialist and professor at the Russian Academy of Natural History. ‘I’ve discovered, for example, that the published figures for beaver poaching represent just 1.5% of the real total – that’s not even the 10% the minister talks about. I also know that the number of bears in the Omsk Region was reduced in the figures from the real 1000 to just 300, to lower the hunting quota, allowing many more to be slaughtered unofficially, without any documentation. And it’s all because people can get away with it: if they were sent to prison for poaching there would be a lot less of it going on.’

The Siberian roe deer is another popular target for poachers.

The Siberian roe deer is another popular target for poachers. CC Kun530

There is a grey area in the law, so defendants with a good lawyer are usually let off with a fine.

According to lawyer Mikhail Zavyalov, there is a grey area in the law relating to illegal hunting, between a minor infringement and a criminal case, so defendants with a good lawyer are usually let off with a fine, and nobody is actually sent to jail for poaching – a handy loophole for anyone with money.

‘Almost all of Siberia’s large animals and birds have gone’, Boris Kassal tells me. ‘When we hear about sightings of rare and protected types of duck and goose it almost always turns out that they have been shot. And it’s not just duck: a black vulture, also on the national protected species list, was shot in the Omsk Region in 2011. The forest rangers and game managers knew the culprits, but nobody reported them to the police. Most of Europe has already banned the shooting of waterfowl in spring. Spring is when ducks pair off; the females sit on the nest while the drakes protect the area around it, only flying off to moult and change their plumage when the eggs are laid. But a spring hunting season allows drakes to be shot. For me, that’s like a killer sitting opposite a registry office and shooting bridegrooms. We know that ducks can separate from their mates, but without a permanent mate they can’t breed properly. And with geese it’s even worse – they mate for life.’

The official response

At the end of 2014, the hunting of elk, roe deer, wood grouse and waterfowl was banned in 12 areas of the Novosibirsk Region. Members of its wildlife conservation department have complained that they also tried to reach an agreement with neighbouring regions – animals, after all, don’t respect administrative boundaries – but without success. The fauna of Western Siberia has been little studied in general. The best-researched region is Tyumen, which has oil and therefore money for science. In Omsk and Tomsk, cities built at the time of the Second World War as military-industrial centres, nature study is only for geeks and enthusiasts. The services that regulate and manage hunting and shooting, collect information on wildlife populations but there is no one to collate it. Things are a bit better in places, such as Novosibirsk, where there are academic institutions, but even there, there is more interest in birds than animals, and it is more commercial and works in conjunction with game managers.

Another problem is that according to Vladimir Kashin, a member of the Russian Academy of Agricultural Sciences, there are now 25 times fewer forest rangers than there were in 1990. Each ranger is responsible for 3 square kilometres of forest, with clapped-out equipment and a laughably low salary that is below average even for this remote area. Any assessment of renewable resources, including wildlife, is pure guesswork.

‘Almost all our large mammals and birds are on the brink of extinction.’

‘If you can’t mobilise an army of rangers and stamp out poaching, then you can’t run licensed hunting; instead, you need to start by taking on people to feed the animals to increase their fertility’, says Boris Kassal. ‘It could mean thinning out aspen wood, spreading branches and twigs on the forest floor, deliberately leaving root vegetables in fields. Almost all our large mammals and birds are on the brink of extinction. Wild boars, for example, were hunted down since the time of Yermak [a Cossack who led the Russian conquest of Siberia in the reign of Ivan the Terrible, 450 years ago]. Before the Russians came they lived in peace; the local Muslim and pagan population didn’t eat pork. Then of course they were quickly hunted to extinction, and all that remains of them are a few names of lakes and villages. In the early 1980s they began re-introducing boars of unknown provenance from game farms around Moscow, and they started breeding again, but then African swine fever arrived in European Russia and the Caucasus, and now they are simply exterminating them there to avoid the infection of other animals. The only reason it didn’t spread here is that our extreme climate hampers the spread of disease. Also their main source of food was historically semi-aquatic plants, but in Soviet times that changed to vegetables grown on local farms. Now the planted area is much smaller, so their numbers have dropped steeply.

The elk situation is even worse. Archaeological finds show that these animals lived in Siberia up to the 18th century, but the local Turkic princes hunted them down for sport, and they died out very fast. In the 1970s they began to be re-introduced from the Altai, and they escaped from the game farms and spread throughout the area. Those that came to Novosibirsk were placed on the regional protected species list, but in Omsk this didn’t happen and as their status has still not been finally decided, a few head can be still killed each year.’

No wildlife conservation strategy

Despite this parlous state of affairs, hunting is actively promoted as a sport; masses of publications are devoted to it, both at regional and national level. Psychologist Yulia Lashchinskaya sees this as proof that humans are still animals underneath: hunters may differ in their motivation and behaviour, but what they all have in common is a desire for pleasure at the killing of a living creature.

But young people have little or no environmental awareness. Protected species lists are published throughout the regions and distributed to schools, and... ‘And it all stops there’, says Professor Fyodor Novikov of the Russian Academy of Natural History, one of the central figures in the children’s hiking movement in Siberia. ‘It’s only local environmental enthusiasts that talk to children about protecting wildlife; environmental issues have no place in the curriculum even at regional level. Children have little enough experience of nature as it is; many of them no longer have grannies living in villages, especially as the villages themselves are an endangered species.'

Environmental issues have no place in the school curriculum

‘You can only fall in love with what you have seen for yourself, touched with your hands, measured with your feet… In the 1970s we managed to get a walking enthusiast into every school and every local children’s club, but nobody cares about that sort of thing now; teachers know nothing about it and don’t want to take children off to walk in the forests. So young people coming to study natural history at university are only interested in getting a degree, not conserving nature. And environmental initiatives by ministries and other official bodies have nothing to do with educating the public, preferring to set up photo opportunities such as planting seedlings – that then usually die.'

Putin and associates in fatigues pose with a tiger that has been tranquilized and tagged.

Putin has made conservation a priority, but not all species enjoy the same legal protections as the Amur tiger. via Kremlin.ru

‘Nothing has changed in 30 years. The government should have set up a wildlife conservation strategy long ago, such as those that exist to protect the Siberian tiger and the Amur leopard, or the recovery programmes for the European bison and Przewalski's horse. These are endangered species, but why should we wait until elks, roe deer and bears also start to die out? And it was a matter of luck that those other animals were given protection – they got stroked by the president, so the officials sat up and paid attention to them.’

‘The government should have set up a wildlife conservation strategy long ago’

‘Unfortunately, professional incompetence has become endemic at all levels of government in Russia’, says Professor Boris Kassal. ‘Salaries are a good indicator of how people are valued, and what they show is that our rulers don’t need scientists, environmental specialists or forest rangers, but just bureaucrats, who are totally unproductive both materially and morally. Our bureaucrats have neither the knowledge nor the desire to protect our natural heritage. If we can’t change, we will end up killing all our wildlife and end up with just those species that can adapt to anything – rats, cockroaches, pigeons and crows.’

Standfirst image: Mouflon ram. CC Hajotthu.      

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