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Poaching and Organized Crime in Russia

A recent story in the New York Times described how African elephants may soon face extinction as poachers hunt them down with automatic weapons, GPS tracking devices, and Land Rovers. Seeking to satisfy seemingly insatiable Chinese demand for ivory, poachers attack elephant herds with murderous viciousness, hacking out ivory tusks from mortally wounded animals. An extensive organized crime network, greased by sophisticated bribery schemes, facilitates shipment of ivory to Chinese markets.
While poaching in Russia lacks the same sensational subject as the African elephant, the environmental group Greenpeace estimates that poaching costs the Russian economy $5 billion annually. Broadly speaking, environmental crime in Russia is an increasingly serious problem. From illegal logging to extensive domestic illegal markets of the environment, Russia’s natural resources are threatened by asset stripping by organized crime groups. Writing in Demokratizatsiya, Louise Shelley suggests that environmental damage, such as was perpetrated in the Soviet period, has the potential to continue, because the organized crime groups involved are more concerned with short-term profits than long-term consequences.
A report by Ekaterina Kuraeva, an advanced criminal law student at Orenburg State University and a TraCCC Saratov Center grantee, draws attention to the egotistical, consumer market-based relations between people and nature around the world. Kuraeva notes how people treat nature as an essentially inexhaustible resource, which has led to shrinking ecological diversity, if not the outright extinction of many wild plants and animals. Even as mass extinctions and sustained environmental damage have encouraged many to reassess how humans relate to the environment, this has not stopped poachers from hunting “nature’s bounty.” The logic of the market, as it were, dictates that rare species fetch high prices.
Kuraeva describes modern poaching as the hunting of animals and/or birds in violation of laws and environmental protection regulations. Moreover, modern poaching, as suggested in the case of the African elephants, employs all available technical means, including high-powered automatic rifles, grenades, GPS tracking devices, satellite communication instruments, high-speed vehicles, and helicopters.
Broadly speaking, the factors contributing to high levels of poaching in Russia include the economic benefits and increasing sophistication of organization crime groups operating in this area. Kuraeva highlights how the costs of poaching are relatively unknown among the Russian public, in part due to weak media coverage, even though one or another law enforcement agency is arresting poachers. That said, statistics provided by Russian lawyer A.C. Kurmanov suggest that 95% of poaching crimes go unreported to authorities. It follows then that poachers assume that they can engage in illegal activities without a credible threat of criminal punishment by the state.
An anecdote from Russian environmental scholar V.E Boreiko helps to illustrate the intersection of Russian beliefs about the environment and market forces. Recently, instructions for building electro-magnetic pulse devices have become increasingly sought after in Russia, often for use in fishing. Although these devices greatly improve fishing yields, they destroy fish stocks and prevent natural replenishment. Boreiko notes how a few years ago, local fisherman in Ekaterinburg learned that bookstores in their cities were selling instruction manuals for building the electro-magnetic pulse devices. In an effort to save their livelihood, the fisherman bought the entire stock of manuals and publicly burnt them.
When poaching moves from local malcontents building electro-magnetic pulse devices to sophisticated organized crime groups, the problem becomes drastically more serious. S.N. Lyapustin, a Russian scholar and author of “Combating contraband flora and fauna in Russia’s Far East,” provides a number of insights in this area. According to Lyapustin, wild animals and plants are transported across borders, either by avoiding customs controls, passing customs with false certification documents, or making false or insufficient customs declarations. Poachers generally fail to observe federal regulations pertaining to the transportation of wild animals and plants, while also failing to report any currency earnings. Generally, organized crime groups facilitate transport of poached animals and plants to borders, where customs officials, border guards, or other state officials are enticed through bribery to assist. It follows that direct involvement in transport of poached animals and plants involves state transportation officials, truck drivers, railway workers, and baggage workers, many of whom are willing to supplement their meager incomes with side payments.
In seeking to address the problem of poaching in Russia, Kuraeva argues that both state and society can make worthwhile contributions. First, it should be noted that much of the burden for combating poaching lies with state agencies tasked with monitoring hunting. In particular, Kuraeva posits that these agencies will become more effective if they are given the authority to initiate criminal cases against poachers as well as carry out independent investigations. Additionally, it is seen as essential to raise legal guarantees of protection for hunting oversight agency officials to those of law enforcement personnel. Kuraeva indicates that proper provision of resources and more effective training programs for hunting oversight agencies will yield benefits.
As poaching is a crime punishable by law, Kuraeva suggests that it is important to improve coordination between natural resource management agencies and law enforcement. Moreover, the expansion of environmental police divisions across the country, mirroring those that currently exist in Nizhni Novgorod, Moscow, St. Petersburg, Leningrad, and other locales, would help.
Finally, Kuraeva assigns an important role to civil society organizations, which have already made substantive contributions to the fight against environmental crime. By bringing together citizens, hunters, fishing interests, and other relevant actors, civil society groups can build popular pressure for more robust state protection of the environment. However, at a more basic level, civil society groups can work towards building public knowledge about and concern for the environment, which will help influence the way Russians treat their country’s immense natural beauty.