Bishkek Officials Caught Smuggling Rare Animals

Kyrgyzstan detectives catch four officials dealing in one of the most endangered species in the world, raising fears of widespread corruption.

Bishkek Officials Caught Smuggling Rare Animals

Kyrgyzstan detectives catch four officials dealing in one of the most endangered species in the world, raising fears of widespread corruption.

The snow leopard cubs were locked into small metal boxes and placed in the boot of an Audi car, ready to be sold for thousands of US dollars. At this point, the prospective buyers revealed they were interior ministry officials and promptly arrested the smugglers. The latter were shocked - but not as shocked as the authorities when they discovered the identities of the men in their custody.

The eight detained men included Andrei Sheiko, a military counterintelligence officer in the national security service, and three other government officials - Ruslanbek Jamanov, also of the counterintelligence agency, Tolkunbek Taiguronov, a leader of the Tokmak Society of Hunters and Fishermen and an official from the governmental committee for architecture and construction whose identity has yet to be confirmed.

The press, the public and international organisations based in Kyrgyzstan are now wondering how public servants charged with the task of fighting crime could have become criminals themselves.

The snow leopard is Kyrgyzstan's national symbol and the country was once home to one of the largest populations in the world. As recently as ten years ago, there were between 1,200 and 1,400 of them in the country, but their number has been steadily falling and no one knows how many of them are left today.

"If hunting for the snow leopard continues at its present rate, these magnificent animals will soon disappear," said Thorsten Harder, coordinator for the Kyrgyz-German Snow Leopard Project. "People who think they can cash in on snow leopards have no idea what they are doing. There is no market for these animals anywhere in the world. If you try to offer one for sale in Europe, you are going to go to jail immediately."

The Kyrgyz ministry of ecology and emergencies and the German Association for Environmental Protection, NABU, launched the project in 1998 in a bid to deter the trade in snow leopards and other endangered species. Two Kyrgyz police officers, Roman Kalmakov and Aman Rakhmanov, are working alongside the environmental scientists.

"We were tipped off about some poachers trying to sell snow leopards," recalled Jambul Janybaev, a senior Kyrgyz police official. "According to our operation plan, Kalmakov and Rakhmanov contacted the intermediaries, posing as prospective buyers."

The smugglers were asking for 24,000 US dollars for the two cubs - one of which had lost half a paw in the trap set by its poacher - but the buyers got them to agree to half this amount. The poachers had demanded only 5,000 dollars per cub but the price had gone up to include the commissions of countless intermediaries.

The female cubs are now staying at a rehabilitation centre for endangered species, recently opened by the snow leopard project team and are expected to remain there for a while. The cub with the injured paw was named Alsu, the other Bagira. One project staff member said, "They were both afraid of us at first but now they are getting better. They are calm and we feed them well."

The interior ministry is currently investigating the case, and the national security service has fired Sheiko and Jamanov for "actions besmearing the dignity of a security officer".

This is not the only incidence of public servants becoming involved in criminal dealings. The Kyrgyz public recently learned about foreign hunters preying on the endangered Marco Polo mountain goats with the connivance of the authorities. Officials at the ministry of ecology and emergencies have allegedly been issuing illegal hunting permits in exchange for bribes.

Chairman of the Kyrgyz parliament's environmental sub-committee, Ishenbai Moldotashev, noted that widespread cases of leopard smuggling among officials - whose duty is to protect endangered species - indicate that corruption has taken deep root in the government.

"I believe it is time to make tougher laws," said Moldotashev. "Our existing penal code provides for three years in prison or a fine for those who cause irreparable damage to our fauna. The poachers can afford that kind of fine very easily. What kind of punishment is that? I am convinced we should increase both the prison term and the fine for leopard hunting. We should also educate the people, perhaps even introduce a course on rare animals into the school curriculum."

Moldotashev said he would be lobbying for tougher animal protection laws in the parliament. However, ex-minister of ecology and emergencies, Kulubek Bokonbaev, does not believe tougher laws or higher fines will change anything.

"Poverty is everywhere," he said. "Public servants in Kyrgyzstan are paid a pittance. Impoverished government officials will always take bribes because desperate people will do anything to make a living - kill endangered animals, ravish natural resources and so on. Economic hardship is the real root of evil."

Kubat Otorbaev is an independent journalist Kyrgyzstan

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