Bears of South Kamchatka Sanctuary

Volcanoes, wild landscapes, thermal springs, wildlife…Kamchatka has it all! Protected from tourism until 1991 (as military area, until the year of the fall of Soviet Union), the peninsula preserved its natural beauty, to welcome now people all over the world in search for ever scarce untouched nature and its beauties! The wild space is vast, infrastructure is scarce, and its remoteness and cold weather still keep mass tourism at bay, which is all good news for preservation of the area. But the rewards are highest for few nature and wildlife lovers who make it through!

Although bears are very common (up to 15.000 bears call Kamchatka home) and they can be spotted easily outside protected areas of national parks of Kamchatka (rare thing in most countries nowadays, even if some pride themselves as symbols of wildlife), one place stand above all in terms of wildlife abundance and close encounters with bears: the South Kamchatka Sanctuary (established in 1983, recognized by UNESCO in 1996), managed by Kronotsky Federal Biosphere Nature Reserve, in very south of the peninsula, around Kuril lake and its rivers, a very rich in spawning salmons (up to 10 millions in some years, they say) lake of volcanic origins formed more than 8000 years ago (reachable by helicopter only).

Here (video) watching a young mother bear assisted by her 3 cubs (only few months old) trying to catch a fish (a race against time to accumulate enough fat during short summer to assure family survival during the long winter), from distance of few meters, can trigger our compassion and understanding for this remarkably intelligent and powerful species and its natural right to survive and thrive in its unspoiled environment! When she left her cubs waiting on the shore feeding from first salmon she caught, in close proximity of humans (probably she was brought in same place by her mother as a cub, learning this is safest place to trust the cubs while venturing in the water, main danger being the large male bears), I understand it is not greed driving the mother into the cold water (in fact she only picks as much fish as she and her family can eat), but necessity and a powerful maternal instinct, well known among people as well (here empathy kicks in)! Various bears have different techniques of catching fish, and while some are even diving, our mother seems to explore a wide range of tactics, not affording wasting much energy. She seems to anticipate well the move of the fish and she uses the environment to launch the quickest and most efficient attack, the most obvious signs of her intelligence! In these unique minutes I feel truly privileged to assist such spectacle of life, and to be trusted by a mother bear her most precious, her cubs. A mutual trust is then slowly building (now from humans side as well) and all seems so natural, man and bear accepting each other’s presence, in peaceful coexistence! (To note this moment was possible only because hunting has been forbidden here for long time, so bears learned over generations that this place is safe, not minding the human presence).

Unfortunately, we find here the same economic model as anywhere in the world, which puts pressure on its resources, and Kamchatka is no different. For now the governments (local and central) try to make everyone happy: the regular tourists/naturalists as well as the trophy hunters. The helicopter operators are happy to offer their services to both groups (not in same cargo), but while tourism is more seasonal, the bear hunting season is open here almost all year long (exceptions in June during short reproduction season and in Feb, when mothers give birth in dens). To this adds uncontrolled poaching (for both bears and salmons), which even if I didn’t observe myself any signs during the short visit, I am sure it is a reality here as well…

How long will then Kamchatka’s bears hang on? We can always make a difference and tip the balance favorably for the bears, by deciding to visit the place! The forces of economy then will dictate priorities for the local government, and this wild place and its bears will be protected for generations to come! I will always be available to inform of details of such trip, let me know!

More professional pictures here, enjoy!

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