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10 Mar, 2009 06:55

Eco-groups call for hunt on high profile poachers

Wild life activists in Russia are calling on the government to punish officials who they claim were poaching rare animals in Siberia. The practice only came to light after a helicopter carrying the hunters crashed.

Argali, a rare species of mountain sheep, are close to extinction in Russia, and hunting them is illegal. It was only when a helicopter-load of men chasing a flock of these sheep crashed, killing seven people, that the story made the headlines.

Irrespective of the hunt, what made the story even more scandalous was the fact that the rifles were not fired by ordinary poachers. On board the helicopter were officials from the Russian Republic of Altay in Siberia, where the hunt took place.

Among them were the deputy Prime Minister of the Republic, who survived the crash, and a representative of the Russian President, who did not.

Official comments have been scarce. The deputy PM, named Anatoly Bannyh, has supposedly resigned – but no criminal investigation has formally been launched.

Organizations such as Greenpeace and the WWF worry that the high profile status of the hunters will shut this case down altogether.

“We got together with the WWF and filed a report with the General Prosecution, but almost one month on, there has been no reply. This has happened in Russia many times, but never has there been an official investigation, never has a VIP been publicly reprimanded for his actions,” said Greenpeace activist Mikhail Kreindlin.

Various eco-groups have held protests, demanding action be taken against the surviving hunters. Their cry to separate the black sheep from the flock has so far gone unheard, but they're not giving up hope:

“The media has really picked up on this story and it helps. These are beautiful, rare animals that are deeply respected by the locals. Nothing could make them take a shot at the argali – they are almost sacred,” Kreindlin said.

Following the helicopter crash, the ensuing media scrutiny has uncovered many similar crimes.

Game warden Sergey Matveev tried to stop a high-ranking official from hunting deer out of season. Matveev said:

“When I drove up, and saw several deer and hares lying dead in the snow, I asked to see their documents. They told me, in no uncertain terms, what would happen to me if I didn’t let them go or made a fuss about it.”

Hunting has always been a status symbol in Russia, but while there are millions of officials in Russia, there are only about 30,000 of argali left in the country. The hunters on the chopper had reportedly shot 28 of them.

The scandal generated by the crash may indeed prove to be the saviour of the beautiful animals.