Russian caviar under threat
Moscow - It can be a delicacy or status symbol, a cure-all, or even an aphrodisiac, but ecologists are warning that Russian caviar could disappear altogether as the Caspian Sea's sturgeon population reaches dangerously low levels.
The WWF conservation group has for the past few months waged a campaign to persuade Russians to give up their caviar habit for six years to allow sturgeon numbers time to recover.
"You wouldn't want your children to forget forever the taste of caviar would you? Then stop buying it for six years," is the message from the WWF, which says the sturgeon population of the Caspian Sea has dropped to just one fortieth of what it was 15 years ago.
Caviar, as much a symbol of Russia as "the balalaika, Russian dolls, vodka and the Kalashnikov", now risks extinction, the WWF warns.
Sturgeon numbers went into decline in the 1960s, when the Soviet Union embarked on a programme of dam-building, preventing the fish from reaching their breeding grounds and leading to a 25% drop in stocks.
Then in 1991, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the ensuing economic crisis led to a sharp increase in poaching in the Volga Delta, an activity the authorities largely turned a blind eye to.
The poachers, who paid little heed to the age and size of the fish they caught, caused a further sturgeon decline.
Today, Russians consume a 1000 tons of caviar a year, a massive 92% of it poached, according to figures provided by the WWF. Russia's agriculture ministry puts the figure at 1 200 tons, most of it acquired illegally.
A recent survey showed that Russians still view caviar, the subject of many old wives' tales, as a healthy food. It is rich in protein, has aphrodisiac qualities, slows the effects of alcohol and "improves life", Russians believe.
Orthodox Russia took to caviar as a replacement for meat during Lent in the Middle Ages, at a time when Europeans were still feeding it to their pigs, banning its consumption for 200 days of the year.
Long the preserve of poor Orthodox Russians, it was not until the era of Catherine the Great in the 18th century that caviar seduced the aristocracy.
The Bolsheviks nationalised its production in 1919.
During the Soviet era, Russia was responsible for 90% of the world's caviar and it was readily available to the country's citizens. But in the 1960s it disappeared from the shelves, becoming a "rare" delicacy reserved for the political elite.
Caviar increasingly expensive
"At that time with a tin of caviar you could get tickets to the Bolshoi or pay a surgeon," recalls Valeria Odesskaya, 70.
With the market economy, everything changed. Today, caviar is becoming increasingly expensive, but it is available everywhere, for $30 per 100 grams in the market or for $100 per 100 grams in luxury stores.
But Russians still believe in the magical health benefits of caviar. "It's written into our genetic memory," says Odesskaya, who declares herself proud to still be able to buy a tin of caviar from time to time, "thanks to my son".