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Russia Officials May Have Shot Endangered Sheep

Russian officials may have been hunting the rare Argali sheep when their helicopter crashed.
MOSCOW (Reuters) -- A hunting party of senior Russian officials may have illegally shot endangered mountain sheep from a helicopter before it crashed, environmental group WWF has said.

WWF said it sent a letter to prosecutors asking them to investigate the group -- which included President Dmitry Medvedev's envoy to the Russian parliament who was killed along with six others -- for hunting the endangered Argali sheep.

Russian prosecutors, officials from the Altai region in southern Siberia and Gazpromavia, which operated the helicopter that crashed and is owned by Russian gas company Gazprom, declined to comment on whether the party was hunting illegally.

"Photos from the accident site, which happened in the Altai region on January 9, give the initial impression that passengers in the crashed helicopters were hunting for Argali mountain sheep," WWF said in a statement. "Moreover, hunting from an aircraft is a clear breach of the law."

The photographs from the regional press agency's website showed the wreckage and the carcasses of two Argali sheep with bullet holes through their heads lying next to a rifle case.

There are only about 200 Argali living in Russia and it is illegal to hunt them, WWF said. Hunters often shoot Argali for their large corkscrew horns.

Rescuers took two days to find the crash site. Four people, including the deputy prime minister of the region survived.

"We think they were shooting from the air. This is not hunting, this is not poaching, this is killing," said Vladimir Krever, head of the WWF's biosphere program in Russia.

Although hunting from a helicopter is illegal in Russia, Krever said wealthy executives pay pilots to glide low across vast tracts of wilderness and pick off animals from the air.

"In some areas it is quite common, especially in the Altai region," he said. "It's very exclusive as one hour in a helicopter costs about $2,000."