Most of Ukraine’s territory is hunting country—the best of it already bagged by various calibers of politicos and bureaurats
Nearly 80% of Ukraine’s territory, 46.5mn ha of a total 60.3mn ha, qualifies as hunting ground. By law, it cannot be sold into private hands, only leased. That hasn’t stopped Ukraine’s rich and powerful from grabbing the best holdings, where they can satisfy their appetite for killing.
Keep Out! (This means you)
The hunting grounds of one official whose family is from Donetsk span 8,500 hectares along the left bank of the Kyiv Sea. Our guide is the local ranger, Anton, driving a Niva service car. Around us are tall pines and stillness. The dirt road we drive along ends near a huge fence, the height of three or four men. When we get to the gate, a burly man in camouflage silently opens it for us.
This side of the fence, the woods are much denser than outside, a real thicket. “Our master likes everything, as he puts it, intact, both women and nature,” Anton explains without a smile. “So, we’re running this little ‘taiga’ here for him. He bought the land and dreamed of bringing in bears. Wasn’t easy to convince him not to do that. He loves shooting elk, so we bring new animals in every two years. And he never comes alone, always with companions. They aren’t so much hunters, it’s more that they like to get drunk and shoot a lot. When they get too crazy, they start banging away at everything in sight. We often have to buy more game, especially boars.”
According to Anton, the owner spends UAH 10nm a year on his hunting grounds. That covers everything, from animals to equipment. This winter animals ate nearly 400 t of grain. The rangers are paid UAH 4,500 every month when on duty which lasts three months without leaving the area.
We pull over to the guesthouse for the owner and his companions. “Sorry, we can’t go in, the staff could give us away,” the ranger says. “But believe me, it’s very hot. First time I ever saw a real marble toilet. Honestly, I don’t understand what this is all for. They do all their drinking and hanging out in the forest and sauna anyway.”
Another ranger, Pavlo, gets into the car. “I’ve been working here since the 90s with breaks, before the land became private. In 2006, our boss finally got his hands this property, which he had been crazy about for some time. Rumors have it that he paid US $180,000, not including a few ‘gifts’ for county council deputies.”
We drive on. Where there is no fence, the woods are so thick a car can’t get through. Some of the forest trails we cross are dug up and menacing spikes stick out of the sand. “These aren’t meant for poachers,” Pavlo explains. “Those guys aren’t that stupid. They know what happens to nyone who tries to shoot something here. One guy had all his ribs broken and they took his shotgun, too, without any warrants. The paths are blocked mostly against mushroom pickers and picnickers. They need to understand that this is private property and they’re not welcome.”
I ask where the animals are and why we haven’t seen any wildlife. “Last time the master was here, he shot an awful lot of game,” Anton says. “The animals have been hiding ever since. But it’s not as violent here as at Shentsev’s1 place. It’s a bloody war every season on his 50,000 hectares. I worked there for several seasons and I saw the barbarism.”
Poaching with dignity
The state-owned Kaharlytske hunting preserve is next to Kaharlyk in southern Kyiv Oblast. We meet Director Oleksiy Isayev, who takes us to a pretty wooden cabin. It doesn’t look flashy, but it’s rich in hunting trophies. “I killed this boar myself,” Oleksiy says proudly. “It was that big because we bred it properly: we let it grow big enough to become an interesting prey. And we always try to arrange hunting so that only the right kind of game gets killed.”
“Mykola Rudkovskiy owns the land next to ours,” our ranger says, pointing outside. “Compared to many others, they run their grounds properly. They organize big shooting parties and civilized hunts. But most privately-owned preserves are beyond control. The owners can do whatever they want, shoot anything, anytime.”
We notice a herd of roes off to our left. “29, 30, 35,” Isayev and the ranger count. “They’re running too fast, something must have scared them.” The ranger looks carefully at the horizon and points to some bushes. We see a car moving and in no time we pull up next to it. A couple of healthy-looking fellows in camouflage, with weather-beaten faces and sharp eyes are fussing around the white Zhyguli. But they’ve only got brush in their hands. The men and the rangers look at each other in a challenging manner. They do look like ordinary poachers and the director recognized one as we pulled closer: a local jacklighter Isayev has caught red-handed several times. But right now, there’s nothing to blame them for: no dead game, no weapons.
“Actually, the real problem is not the locals who hunt for meat,” the ranger admits. “It’s the high-flying poachers on quads, SUVs and even hang-gliders. They cause three times more damage than any villager with his shotgun. One of these dudes told me once that hunting was more fun, not just shooting where you weren’t supposed to, but being chased down. So what do we do with him, even if we catch him? Fine him UAH 1,000?”
Money talks for paper owners
“The hunting system in Ukraine has been adapted to the rich—those who prefer to do their shooting beyond others’ eyes and rules,” says Serhiy Lipynskiy,2 a former official of the State Forestry Committee. “Decision-makers aren’t bothered by the fact that this is ruining the hunting environment, that wildlife is disappearing, and the country is being turned into feudal state.” Experts, industry employees and hunters surveyed by Ukrainskiy Tyzhden unanimously stated that not a single hunting preserve has been leased fairly in the years of independence.
“You won’t find a clearly described procedure for leasing such grounds anywhere,” explains Stanislav Synchuk, Editor-in-Chief of Hunting and Fishing magazine, “because nobody wants clarity in this situation. The law requires all users to pay contributions to a special state fund for the right to use the land. But I don’t remember anyone ever doing that and I’m sure no one ever will. The rich don’t want to part with their money.”
Nearly all hunting grounds in Ukraine are effectively privately-owned, even though they are still officially state-owned because the law does not allow ownership to be registered on such land. An organization called the Ukrainian Society of Hunters and Fishers has been the main user of hunting grounds since soviet times. Officially, 382 regional organizations of the USHF own 31.85mn ha. This is almost 70% of the total hunting area. In private conversations, employees of the State Agency for Forest Resources themselves admit that the hunting business is unprofitable in Ukraine. The government invests nothing in it, so in theory it should be interested in handing the lands over to an effective operator. In practice, however, kleptocrats and government hangers-on have grabbed the best bits—and no one really cares about the rest.
“The Society stopped being a public organization a long time ago, although it remains so on paper,” says Synchuk. “It’s similar to a kolhosp, a collective farm. Officially, it’s unprofitable but, in fact, organizations like that make money hand over fist. Most hunting grounds in Ukraine have been abandoned and 95% of the time are only managed on paper.”
Synchuk describes a standard scheme to actually transfer land into private hands: the Society starts running a preserve jointly with some entity whose member of the Board of Directors or Supervisory Board will eventually become the owner. Eventually, nobody but the co-administrator will be able to set foot on the territory. “You find out who is the fixer at the local hunting office and talk to this person—with the right amount of cash in your hands,” says Synchuk. “But you need personal references or a high position. Money alone won’t do the trick.”
“A few years ago I worked for the State Forestry Committee in Chernihiv Oblast,” says Serhiy Lipynskiy. “One day, the deputy administrator of the local tax office—let’s call him Ivan—comes and says that they want to register the preserve in their names—11,000 hectares at US $15,000 a hectare. Later, Ivan meets with my bosses at a sauna, where he brings a suitcaseful of cash. Two months later, the Oblast Council Resolution passes a resolution to lease the land. 60% of that bribe goes to the State Forestry administration, while the rest is distributed among the other institutions involved. The only good thing I can say about this former tax official is that he really keeps the preserve in a more-or-less proper state: he’s hired more rangers and brought in game several times. But no one’s allowed in there. And this scheme is used everywhere.”
Ukrainskiy Tyzhden sent an inquiry to the Society of Hunters and Fishers, with no luck. The door was locked at both regional departments of the Society when our reporters visited and nobody would talk to the journalists from the main office at vul. Honchara in Kyiv.
The price of poached land
Ukrainskiy Tyzhden sources say that the price for the use of 1,000 ha of hunting ground starts at US $30,000. Rumors have it that a reserve along the Kyiv Sea recently went for US $80,000/ha. The requirements are that the minimum hunting preserve should be 3,000 ha, while the average is at least 5,000 ha. Simple math shows that a good preserve will cost at least US $250,000. The land is actually considered sold for this money, even though officially it’s only been leased for temporary use. Once the bribe is paid, the owner only has to come and pick up the ready documents.
“It’s a status thing for the rich, for deputies, for governors and prosecutors,” says ecologist Volodymyr Boreyko. “A private hunting preserve is a ‘must,’ just like a dacha by the Dnipro, a dacha in Crimea, a sauna, a mistress, and an SUV. At one point, Ihor Bakai actually rented Trakhtemyriv Island and arranged a hunting preserve there.
“Leonid Kravchuk, too, was allowed to use a state-owned preserve in Chernihiv Oblast jointly with Viktor Medvedchuk,” Boreyko continues. “He later turned it into a society for nature lovers. Then there’s Mr. Shentsev with his private 50,000 ha of hunting ground, the place where Kushnariov was murdered. And, of course, the President and his Sukholuchchia, Mykola Rudkovskiy, Nestor Shufrych, and Viktor Lozinskiy. Name anyone and they all have at least a tiny piece of their own land for hunting.”
Synchuk notes, “The most expensive hunting grounds are close to Kyiv, of course, especially between the Dnipro and Desna rivers. Most private territories are in Kyiv and Chernihiv Oblasts, where there are fantastic woods close to the capital. There are good preserves in Crimea, too, but there are few private preserves in the West. It’s too far, only for real hunters. Our elite hunts mostly boar and deer.”
The worst thing about all this is that people who want to start a hunting business in Ukraine have no chance. “I’m a hunter myself and we always go to this one reserve with friends,” says Lipynskiy. “We buy birds for our own money to hunt them later. It costs us UAH 9-10,000 annually. A year ago, we decided to take on this land to arrange a hunting spot and sell hunting licenses for it. Our minimum estimates were that we would have to spend at least UAH 500,000 a year to support the preserve. This doesn’t include the bribe we would have to pay officials to get all the necessary permits and be sure that the oblast council will allocate this land to us. We weighed all the pros and cons and realized that it would take us at least 100 years to make back all our costs. Naturally, we gave up on the idea.”
TROPHIES FOR SHOW. Oleksandr Volkov, ex-advisor to President Kuchma, and one of the few high-ranking hunters who doesn’t hide his passion for big-time game
A FATAL PASSION. Yevhen Kushnariov, one-time PR Deputy, and head of the 2006 PR election team. Killed while hunting at Dmytro Shentsev’s preserve.
PARTY TRADITION. Leonid Kravchuk “can relax and not think about politics” when hunting.
Sharing the pie
Hunting areas include forests, farmland and wetlands. According to official data from the State Agency for Forest Resources, known until recently as the State Forestry Committee, 31.85mn ha of hunting ground are distributed among 382 organizations of the Ukrainian Society of Hunters and Fishers; 818,000 ha are used by 25 preserves of the Society of Military Hunters and Fishers; another 8.2mn ha are exploited by other users, such as hunting clubs, organizations, associations, including 229 privately-owned companies; and 5.6mn ha are rented by 213 branches of the State Forestry Committee.
President of Ukraine, Dniprovsko-Teterivske forest and hunting preserve,
Kyiv Oblast. 30,400 ha.
Former VR Deputy, Poltava Oblast, in the Sula-Dnipro delta.
VR Deputy (PR), Hai hunting reserve,
Kharkiv Oblast. 17,500-50,000 ha.
Former Transport Minister TOV Oksamyt Service, Kaharlyk County,
Kyiv Oblast. 35,000 ha.
Former Chair of State Affairs Administration
ZAT Trakhtemyriv on the Kyiv-Chernihiv border. 11,000 ha.
Former Emergencies Minister
Kreminka hunting reserve, Zakarpattia. 30,000 ha.
Former VR Deputy
Holovanivske hunting reserve, Kirovohrad Oblast.
At a campaign rally in Iowa, President Donald Trump cited an unsubstantiated news report to revive a widely debunked false narrative about Joe Biden’s work in Ukraine on behalf of the Obama administration