The Dark Side of Radějov Deer Park

Businessman Leoš Novotný's acquisition of protected land raises worrying questions

The man who emerges from a stone house in the protected Bílé Karpaty (White Carpathians) forest is dressed like a hunter ready to face adverse conditions. Formerly the owner of the food company Hamé Babice, Leoš Novotný bought the Cossack-like fur cap he is wearing in Russia. His lace-up fur boots were made in Mongolia.

The 50-year-old is in good spirits as he takes us to a lodge called Krokva, which he bought from state-run forestry management company Lesy Česká republika (Lesy ČR) some years ago. He's since carried out a major reconstruction of the building, turning it into a tasteful country residence. The house stands on the edge of the Radějov fallow deer park, which he rented from Lesy ČR in 2003 and which he eventually bought last year. And it's here that the story of a passionate hunter begins.

There's a crackling fireplace, a number of hunting trophies, a mounted leopard and imitation Aztec cave pictures on one wall of a spacious room. There's also a chandelier made of antlers. Underneath, puffing on a cigarette, Novotný jokes and talks openly about his passion for nature, his desire to raise game for trophy-hunting, and the troubles he's having with a wild boar that likes to dig under the park fence.

But with one slightly provocative question, the convivial joker turns into a hard-faced man barely able to control his anger. That's because there's a dark side to the Radějov deer park -- the manner in which it was sold to Mr. Novotný raises a number of questions. The sale illustrates the way local authorities and politicians can bypass rules and present public property to influential businessmen on a silver plate.

Only last year, the state, represented by Lesy ČR, was the sole owner of nearly 1,100 hectares of forest and meadow in the deer park. Novotný had rented the land for seven years and talked openly of his desire to own it one day. Although it wasn't possible to privatize the land directly, he and the authorities found a way to move it into private ownership: he bought areas of forest around the country then traded this land with Lesy ČR for the Radějov deer park. The transaction, the first of its kind, was approved by Prime Minister Jan Fischer's interim government.

Warning signs
Novotný began preparing for this complicated transaction in 2007. At that time, members of the public and local politicians were expressing their disquiet at the way he was running the park. He allowed the deer to over-multiply -- the population rose from a maximum of 490 animals to 1,300, with a terrible impact on local flora. The deer trampled and urinated on the flora, and fed on tree bark. Environmentalists warned that some native species of herbs and orchids were disappearing.

In 2009, Novotný was forced to reduce the number of deer, resulting in the massacre of around 800 animals. The sight of 800 deer carcasses sickened even experienced hunters.

"At that time I realized the only way to avoid trouble was to own the park," says Novotný. "It was Petr Gandalovič who was the minister of agriculture then. The people I communicated with told me it was possible to do it via a trade-off."

The CHKO (Protected Landscape Area) administration wanted to prevent the sale and asked Lesy ČR to hand the protected area over to the Agentura ochrany přírody a krajiny České republiky (Nature and Landscape Protection Agency of the Czech Republic). But they received a negative response. Lesy ČR then exchanged the six forests Novotný had bought for the Radějov deer park, arguing that the newly acquired land would benefit the organization.

"The opposite is true," says Zdeněk Valný, a former Lesy ČR specialist. "They lost a unique piece of land. It is unprecedented in the history of Lesy ČR."

"An ordinary man wouldn't get the chance to trade like that," he adds, alluding to Novotný's excellent political connections.

Here's another controversy: According to official figures, the Radějov park should have cost 419 million crowns but the trade price was only 367 million. Why did the new owner get a discount of 52 million crowns?

According to locals, it's the good contacts that Leoš Novotný has at the Agriculture Ministry and at Lesy ČR. "I used to be the boss of an international company that exported goods to 31 countries around the world, which also meant meeting various people," says Novotný, somewhat evasively. In 1992, Novotný privatized a state-run company called Biofruct and turned it into a giant of the food industry. Later, he opened Hamé Babice factories in Russia and Romania. Shortly before the global economic crisis, an Icelandic company, Nordic Partners, purchased Hamé Babice for 4.5 billion crowns.

It was former Agriculture Minister Jaroslav Palas who opened the factory in Russia. And it was during Palas's tenure that Novotný acquired Radějov's park. Novotný has also been good friends with Palas's successor, Jakub Šebesta, for 20 years. Palas and Šebesta are among the guests that come to Radějov to shoot deer for free.

Shooting deer normally costs around 10,000 crowns. It is practically impossible to track down the names of people who get invited to hunt free of charge. By law, the park owner has to submit a register of guests but Novotný's register simply says "guest" rather than giving names. This isn't illegal but it makes it look as if he is trying to hide something. "I don't ask you what friends you have," says Novotný.

In five years
Novotný's former employee, Josef Hrbáček, likes to talk about friends. "It is a conspiracy involving Mr. Novotný and his friends, Lesy ČR's management, the state veterinary administration and the environment inspectorate," he says angrily. "It is clear corruption by means of [offering] hunting for free."

Hrbáček worked for Novotný until 2005. "Here, for example, is the director of the state veterinary administration," Hrbáček says, pointing out the name of a local authority employee who deletes guest names from the register at Novotný's request. "He was supposed to check Novotný's activities." He also points out the names of a local policeman and a representative of the land authority.

"If the names of the hunters were made public, we would have a complete list of the mafia that helped Novotný to get the [Radějov] park," adds Hrbáček, who fell out with Novotný several years ago. Shortly after he stopped working for Novotný, Hrbáček made it public that his former employer used to illegally bring animals to his park from Slovakia. It was Hrbáček who helped him do that. He was afraid of losing his salary but eventually couldn't take it anymore.

It is clear today that there is no way back. The local mayors who didn't want Novotný to run the deer park sent complaints to former Prime Minister Fischer. In reply, Fischer said he placed his trust in Šebesta, the agriculture minister at that time. "We have lost this one," says CHKO employee Jiří Němec. "The park belongs to Novotný. The tragedy is that this could be repeated."

Meanwhile, Novotný has promised to protect some botanically precious parts of the forest and to make the park more accessible to day-trippers. He has also abandoned plans to build a luxury residence in the park and will instead have a swimming pool installed in the basement of his existing house. "Come in five years and you will see things will be better here than they ever were before," he says.

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