Russian Ministry of Natural Resources Wants to Delist Argali Sheep and Allow Trophy-hunting

Novaya Gazeta published this article on 7 July. There has been fairly extensive media coverage in other outlets, and Greenpeace-Russia has laid out its views on the issue as well.


(Translation by Jennifer Castner)

Defenseless sheep at gunpoint again with the top brass
Russian Ministry of Natural Resources wants to allow hunting for Red-Book listed Altai mountain sheep

On July 8, the Public Council of the Ministry of Nature will collect proposals to permit trophy-hunting for Altai mountain sheep (argali) and, accordingly, to remove the species from the Red Book. This despite the fact that officials have data attesting ungulate species (such as antelope, argali and gazelle) have low populations and require special attention from the state.

More recently, in October 2013, the Russian government approved a “List of valuable wildlife and water resources belonging to the species listed in the Russian Federation Red Book and/or protected by international treaties” – that is, a list of animals, the illegal killing of which is punishable by imprisonment for up to seven years, and for smuggling – up to twelve. Altai argali is the first species in the list!

Concurrently, President Putin required the development of effective measures to protect each of the twenty species of animals contained in the “List”. Despite this, the Ministry of Natural Resources now proposes the “removal of argali sheep from the Russian Red Book and trophy-hunting of mature males with a plan to “engage local residents in sustainable use””  as an urgent conservation measure.

The Altai argali subspecies is one of the rarest mountain sheep in the world. According to IUCN, the largest population resides in Mongolia, but there it numbers no more than a few thousand individuals. In Russia, according to the IUCN, the number of argali is only a few hundred animals. Naturally, allowing trophy-hunting will lead to serious degradation of the population and, as a consequence, to the eventual destruction of the species in Russia.

Supporters of trophy-hunting for rare animals refer to successful experience in Asian and African nations reducing poaching of elephants and antelopes by allowing local tribes to organize trophy-hunting for foreigners. According to Ilya Smelyansky, program coordinator at Siberian Environmental Center with more than 15 years experience in the region, such a measure could only be seriously considered in cases where the animal is primarily threatened by local poachers. Although local residents do occasionally hunt argali, it is less dangerous than the threat posed by hunting elites. Therefore, in real Russian conditions, the proposed measure does not make sense as it fails to prevent any of the dangers threatening the argali, and instead creates new ones.

Delisting argali sheep from Russia’s Red Book will reduce the severity of penalties for poaching and greatly complicate enforcement for illicit trafficking of trophies. The proposed changes will also permit the destruction of critical argali habitat and thus constitute a major threat to the Russian population. This includes mining companies seeking to develop new fields. Argali have nothing to gain from this weakened status. It is therefore unacceptable to allow hunting for the world’s rich and powerful of this world with the false slogan “participation of local communities in revenue-sharing.” “Knowing the realities of our country and the region, we have to expect that, in practice, everything will occur in the worst way, and will only give lip service to locals, without any benefit whatsoever. Enforcement will not improve; all that will occur is legalized hunting “- says the Siberian scientist-conservationist.

Just 150 kilometers from Ulaan-Baatar in Mongolia, where there are many potential trophy hunters, local herder communities protect the easternmost population of argali in the Keruluen River gorge, developing world-class eco-tourism in a specially organized reserve, Gunn-Galuut.

For Telengits, an indigenous people in southern Altaian (living in argali habitat), it is a sacred animal, and hunting the sheep is taboo. Permitting the killing of mature males (and in fact – legalization of poaching) will lead to massive protests by local residents. These protests against illegal argali hunting have been ongoing in the region since 2009. “Altaigate”, the tragic case of a Gazpromavia helicopter crash in Kosh-Agach (Altai Republic) that killed senior officials and businessmen resulted in huge public outcry. In 2012, a hunter in Altai [Krai’s] Kislukhinsky Refuge witnessed the shooting of a moose from the air and photographed the helicopter (strongly resembling a «Robinson R44»), but the identity of its owner could not be determined. The matter was hushed up again.

“Altaigate” has been a symbol of discord between society and government in Altai. Over 250 people (including those from outside the region) gathered in the most recent protest at noon on January 11, 2014 on Lenin Square in Gorno-Altaisk on the day of that Berdnikov was to be reappointed head of Altai Republic for a third term. “The purpose of the public event is to express their opinon about the January 9, 2009 helicopter crash of high-ranking passengers engaged in poaching in the Black Mountain area of Kosh-Agach district and the results of investigations of the authorities’ response to this situation,” – stated the description in the protest’s permit application.

The proposal being made to the MNR Public Council states that these “urgent measures” … in no way reflect the real threats to argali habitat associated with plans to build the Altai gas pipeline through Ukok Nature Park (part of the Golden Mountains of Altai” World Heritage Site). However, this proposal will not only destroy the habitats of such unique species as argali and snow leopard, but will also result in the inclusion of World Heritage Site on the list of “World Heritage in Danger”, a disgrace for any civilized country. And everyone knows that all these ills can be easily avoided by laying the pipeline on level ground along existing roads through the territory of Mongolia.

In recent years the Ministry of Natural Resources has been methodically trying to make decisions leading to the destruction of endangered animal species and the legalization of barbaric hunting methods. In 2012, MNR adopted new hunting rules actually legalizing hunting from helicopters and vehicles. Only mass appeals by citizens forced MNR officials to amend these rules.

In 2013, the Ministry of Natural Resources permitted the use of steel hunting snares (a method that was always completely prohibited) in many regions of Russia. This despite the fact that scientists believe that snare hunting (in particular, for musk deer and wolves) is a major threat to the survival of snow leopards in Russia. Snare hunting is the leading cause of destruction of tigers, leopards, and their prey in forests on the Russian-Chinese border. Nearly 70,000 Russian citizens have called for a complete ban on snare-hunting, but officials are in no hurry to resolve these errors. And now they are proposing open hunting for Altai argali.