‘Falcon Case’ Exposes Russia’s Wildlife Drain

MOSCOW, December 7 (Alexey Eremenko, RIA Novosti) – The Russian authorities scored a high-profile success when they intercepted 49 rare falcons destined for two Arab sheikhs’ birdhouses, but the rate at which rare species are trafficked out of the country remains dangerously high, environmentalists say.

Rural poverty, corrupt law enforcement and, above all, an obsolete and incoherent legislative framework allow commercial poaching to thrive in Russia, wildlife experts told a conference in Moscow this week.

The 49 falcons found in this case are a small proportion of the total number trafficked out of the country in any one year, environmentalists stressed.

In turn, the 600 to 800 falcons that Russia loses are just one aspect of the wildlife losses the country suffers every year due to illegal trafficking, said Alexei Vaisman, who heads the Russian branch of the wildlife conservation group TRAFFIC.

Although the government is pushing for laws to be tightened, Russia still has a long way to go before it catches up with Namibia, which has eliminated poaching, Roland Melisch, head of TRAFFIC’s Africa and Europe programs, said.

“Russia is doing comparatively okay, but not super-good. It could improve,” Melisch said with a diplomatic smile when asked to evaluate the country’s performance.

The Falcon Case

The issue was thrown into the spotlight by this week’s media reports that two Arab sheikhs had traveled to Russia to show their falcons, apparently without any permits to transport or even own the birds.

The sheikhs promised to apply to the Federal Inspection Service for Natural Resource Use for the requisite permits and present them upon departure, Federal Customs Service spokesman Alexander Smelyakov told RIA Novosti on Friday.

But the watchdog could not immediately establish that all the birds had been obtained legally, and withheld their permits while they investigated, deputy chief Amirkhan Amirkhanov said on Wednesday.

At least nine of the falcons originally came from Russia, where they had been illegally caught and transported to Saudi Arabia, said the World Wildlife Fund’s (WWF) Natalya Dronova.

If the sheikhs could not prove the birds’ provenance, the falcons would be confiscated and reintroduced into the wild or housed in shelters, Dronova added.

Neither the Saudi Embassy in Moscow nor the sheikhs – identified in a customs memo as Mohammed Bin Turki Bin Saud al-Kabeer and Saud Bin Badr Bin Mohammed Bin Abdulrahman al-Saud – had commented as of Friday. Russia’s Foreign Ministry has, so far, made no public statement on the issue.

Environmentalists also raised concerns over the remaining 40 falcons, pointing out that rare birds are often smuggled out of Russia under fake passports identifying them as a different species or subspecies which do not require any special permits.

Falcons cost $1,000 to $1,200 in Russia, but fetch $30,000 to $50,000 in the Arab world, where men of status and property enjoy the ancient art of falconry, Oleg Mitvol, former environmental official-turned-populist politician, told the tabloid Lifenews.ru.

Russia’s law enforcement services prevented 152 protected falcons from being smuggled abroad in 2012, three times more than the previous year, WWF Russia noted on Friday, adding that the increase was fueled by the demand for falcons in the Arab world.

How to Make a Poacher Laugh

In 2010, law enforcement officials stopped a truck carrying 39 gyrfalcons, an endangered species, in the far eastern Kamchatka Region. The birds were confiscated, but the man behind the wheel got away with a fine of just 2,000 rubles ($65).

“He laughed in our faces as he paid the fine,” said Vaisman of TRAFFIC.

Russian environmental legislation, much of which dates back to Soviet times, makes commercial poaching nearly impossible to prove in court, environmental activists said.

The country is losing an estimated 20 to 40 Amur tigers a year to poachers, but only two men were convicted for killing tigers in 2009-2012. The most recent case, which ended in 14 months of correctional labor and a fine of 575,000 rubles ($18,000) for the offender last month, took six months to investigate.

Non-threatened species fare no better. Last summer, the customs service in the city of Blagoveshchensk, on the Chinese border, intercepted a shipment of 1,041 bear paws hidden under a load of scrap metal. This amounts to at least 261 dead bears, which may not be a threat to their population of 180,000, but is still too many, Vaisman said.

As it stands, transporting endangered species or their derivatives, i.e. beaks, bones, paws, hides etc., is, in most cases, punishable by a 2,000-ruble fine.
The law does not differentiate between killing an endangered animal and killing one that is not classified as endangered.

Luckily, both President Vladimir Putin and the head of the Kremlin executive office, Sergei Ivanov, are both big cat enthusiasts, spearheading separate efforts to save, respectively, the Amur tiger and the Amur leopard.

Putin has launched numerous environmental initiatives, and is notorious for getting down and dirty with the animals in question: he shot a tigress with a tranquilizer in front of the cameras in 2008, used a crossbow to tag a grey whale in 2010, and, most recently, took to the skies to lead a flock of rare Siberian white cranes in September.

WWF Russia and TRAFFIC have joined forces to prepare wide-ranging amendments to laws on wildlife trafficking. Their proposals have already won government backing and could become law as early as 2013, said Yekaterina Khmelyova from WWF Russia.

The Economy of Killing Animals

But experts point out that laws alone are not enough. Commercial poaching is fueled by market demand. And Russia neighbors China, with its population of 1.3 billion and 5,000-year-old tradition of using animal parts such as tiger bones and bear paws in its traditional medicine.

For many locals in Russia’s remote regions, poaching is their only way out of poverty. A set of horns from a saiga antelope fetches 8,000 rubles ($260) in Kalmykia, comparable with the average monthly salary in the impoverished republic, Vaisman said.

The saiga population has plummeted from 1 million to 10,000-15,000 over the past 20 years, with the remainder surviving thanks to tough policies implemented by the head of a local wildlife reserve, a former airborne trooper, he said.

“Poaching is difficult and dangerous work. Remove the demand for it, and it will disappear,” Vasiman said.

Conservation efforts have paid off in many countries, said TRAFFIC’s Melisch.

Namibia has completely stopped poaching on its territory, and Japan and Taiwan have all but eliminated the black market for wildlife products, he said.

China is also making a dramatic effort to stop wildlife trafficking, reporting daily seizures of derivatives and illegally transported animals, but the sheer size and population of the country hamper this effort, Melish said.

If it is to match Namibia’s success, Russia needs better coordination with its neighbors, but also improved collaboration among the numerous agencies combating wildlife trafficking within the country, said WWF’s Khmelyova.

The recent “falcon case” involved the customs service, the state environmental watchdog, the WWF and the Foreign Ministry, while the Investigative Committee, police service, border guards, and the Natural Resources Ministry also figure in wildlife-related probes.

But Vaisman warned that there would be no radical change as long as Russia remains plagued by corruption, which sees officials on the ground effectively endorse poaching and trafficking, instead of combating it.

Russia ranked 133rd out of 174 countries in Transparency International’s annual Corruption Perception Index presented in Moscow on Wednesday.

Even the ongoing “falcon case” could have been the fault of local customs officers, who chose to turn a blind eye to the lack of permits for reasons that the investigators have yet to establish, Vaisman said.

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