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VIP poachers acquitted in Russia

Allegations against seven who died and three survivors of illegal wildlife poaching in crashed helicopter.

A court in southern Siberia’s Altai Republic acquitted three high ranking Russian officials of hunting endangered animals when their helicopter crashed killing seven others in January 2009.

The case in the remote town of Koch Agash, has been over two years coming to court but Judge Nikolai Lubenitsky said yesterday the prosecution (which asked for one year jail terms) had failed to prove the defendants’ guilt.

The crash in Altai’s Chernaya mountain killed seven people, including the Russian president’s envoy to the State Duma, Alexander Kosopkin, and a federal environmental official, Viktor Kaymin, the chairman of the department of wildlife protection and management for the Altai Republic.

Trial of three high profile Russian survivors from Altai Russia helicopter crash. Allegations of illegal wildlife killing. Photo Photo Ria Novosti A. Kryeshev.

At the time WWF Russia called for an investigation when photos of the crash site revealed bodies of shot argali (rare and endangered wild sheep) amidst the helicopter ruins along with several hunting rifles. In Russia it has been illegal to hunt Argali since 1934. As well as being protected in their own right, Argali are also the main prey of the few remaining Russian endangered snow leopards living in this region. The future of both species lies in a precarious balance.

VIP poaching is rife in Russia and sadly often officials in law enforcement on the ground are afraid and powerless against wealthy people in official positions.

Three of the four survivors, including former republican Prime Minister Anatoly Bannykh, were charged with illegally hunting the protected animals.

Alexey Vaisman, Chief co-ordinator WWF Russia. “We were not looking for punishment. We want offical recognition from the courts there’s been a deliberate violation of the law from high ranking officials. There’s no point in them pointing fingers at each other, they are equally guiltly regardless of who was shooting and who was not , that’s what the law states.”

Unfortunately this recognition won’t happen now. The best we can hope for is that the huge media coverage given to these outlaw VIPs may help stop others from assuming they are above the law and can kill endangered wildlife for fun.

Read my Diary on Russia’s last remaining snow leopards after my visit to the Altai area in July 2010.

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