By Scott Mayer
Safari Magazine, July/August 2016
SCI International Life Member Sergey Yastrzhembskiy is one of SCI’s most recent recipients of the World Hunting Award ring. He is a former diplomat for the Soviet Union and Russian Federation, journalist and now an award-winning filmmaker of documentaries chronicling hunting, poaching and the lives of indigenous people around the world.
I recently had the pleasure of meeting him at SCI Headquarters where he made a stop to also tour the museum and meet with SCI’s Record Book and World Hunting Award staff. During our meeting, I discovered that the odds were stacked against him becoming an international hunter, “It was the Cold War,” he tells me, “and in the Soviet mind, everyone was against Communism and Communism was against everybody. The country was completely closed, so very few people could travel the world.” To get some idea how closed things were, the first Russian to take the Big Five did so at the beginning of the 1990s.
But travelling the world called to Yastrzhembskiy, who tells me that to do so his career choices were limited to being a journalist, diplomat or spy. After graduating from the Moscow Institute of International Relations, he went to the Department of Foreign Ministry and prepared for a diplomatic career. “After the end of studies, I was invited to work for the big magazine of all Communist parties of the world called Problems of Peace and Socialism, headquartered in Prague,” he says when explaining how he ended up in journalism and beginning his travels.
His diplomatic career began in 1992 and, in 1993, was nominated as the first Russian Ambassador to the Slovak Republic where his hunting career also began. “A friend of mine who was the Premier of Tourism took me wild boar hunting,” Yastrzhembskiy recalls. He didn’t carry a gun on that hunt, but did help skin the boar. His friend saw a future hunter in Yastrzhembskiy and they started hunting in the Slovak Republic together. “I got from him for my birthday my first rifle—a CZ .30-06 and my first three trophies were wild boar, European red stag and roe buck.”
Following his ambassadorship, Yastrzhembskiy joined the presidential administration of Boris Yeltsin. “I made my first safari in August 1997 in Selous,” he tells me. “I got from Yeltsin only one week…and I was very successful to take buffalo, leopard plus some plains game.” According to Yastrzhembskiy, Yeltsin was also an enthusiastic big game hunter who died before realizing his dream of going on safari. Following his service in the Yeltsin administration, Yastrzhembskiy served eight years as assistant and advisor to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
When discussing hunting in today’s Russia, Yastrzhembskiy describes an improving situation. Previously under Communism, “the animals are the property of the state and…property of the state is the property of everybody. If it is state property, it is nobody’s property and that was one of the problems of the Communist system,” he says when explaining the thinking of Soviet hunters. “Today [hunting] is more or less like many countries in Europe,” he says, adding that trophy hunting is relatively new to Russia. “There wasn’t even a Russian word for it,” he says, but that hunters—especially young ones—are coming around and not taking females and young males. “Russia has embraced science-based wildlife management…I am sure that Russia with its potential and its number of species can be one of the best places for hunting.”
Like many international hunters I’ve spoken with, Yastrzhembskiy describes hunting not as an opportunity for taking game, but as a means to discover the world and have contact with new cultures. “Without hunting, I wouldn’t even visit in Russia many of our regions,” he confides, adding that he would have never seen the Kuril Islands, Kamchatka or Yakutia. And while he accepts that the ultimate result of hunting—the actual kill—is important, it is the hunt that is more important, with his favorite type of hunting being with trackers.
That discovery has since led Yastrzhembskiy to his latest efforts in filmmaking, “I made an analysis of National Geographic and Discovery and found this big hole in the content,” he explains. “They are talking about everything, but not the [indigenous] people.” Yastrzhembskiy’s idea was to show the vanishing traditions, first with the tribes in Africa such as the Maasai, Pygmy, and Bushmen and lesser-known ones such as El Morro who hunt crocodile at night with harpoons in northern Kenya on Lake Turkana or the Hamar and Surma people of Ethiopia. “We were the first international group making a movie in Southern Sudan after the split with Northern Sudan,” he says when sharing his experience filming the Dinka tribe.
In addition to Africa, Yastrzhembskiy has filmed tribes in India, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, shamanic people in Siberia, Bolivia and Peru and more. Much of what Yastrzhembskiy has documented may be the last recorded history of many of these tribes. “I couldn’t repeat some of these because in some of these countries these traditions are officially prohibited…I think in some 40 to 100 years, it will be interesting because it is a different side of life that will not exist on this planet.”
It’s not just indigenous people and their customs Yastrzhembskiy is afraid of losing—his next movie is on ivory poaching. “I was absolutely crushed when I was in some countries and I saw the results of some poaching. I saw the crisis, and three years ago decided to make a movie around the world from the beginning to the end [showing] the poaching and the smuggling and the consuming from Africa to Asia,” he tells me when describing the film, “Ivory. A Crime Story.” Sometimes using spy cameras and at great personal risk, Yastrzhembskiy films smugglers, warlords and even interviews an Al Shabaab commander on how poached ivory is transferred into money to achieve terrorism goals. “In our movie you can find poachers, interviewed poachers, arrested poachers, forces of night and day, smugglers, and in China we filmed in the factory where the people use not only mammoth ivory, which is legal, but elephant which is not.”
Yastrzhembskiy also discovered reason for hope while filming the poaching crisis as he found “fantastic” people fighting against poaching--people from a dozen African countries, Israel, Czech Republic, Britain and America working every day against poaching by arresting poachers and smugglers. “They do so much more than many governments, unfortunately,” he laments. “And without these people, I can say the problem would be much worse.
His next movie will be about hunting and conservation. He did not want to include the important role hunting plays in conserving wildlife in his ivory film as he did not want to confuse un- or ill-informed people who do not understand or do not want to understand the difference between hunting and poaching. “It is very difficult for many people, especially if you see the ultra radical points of view of some of the green movement, which doesn’t understand anything about conservation,” he says.
Things can and do change over time. Poaching of wildlife was the topic of discussion that day in the desert where a small group of us went out for a morning of jackrabbit hunting near a decommissioned and demolished missile silo in the desert. It seemed a bit surreal.
The bond of hunting brought us together as it has for so many and for millennia. With SCI’s and Yastrzhembskiy’s commitment to educating and advocating on behalf of science-based wildlife management, the future of hunting and the defeat of poaching seem promising.