Bear Kingdom – Russia’s Kamchatka peninsula

Home of the Great Classics of XIX century (Tolstoy, Dostoevsky,…), but also to one of the greatest wildlife diversities in the world, Russia is the right place to combine a culture rich vacation and to explore wild untamed nature! There is no other country in the world where the brown bear is not only found in healthy numbers across its vast territory, but also takes a special place in the heart of the Russian people, in its culture and folklore!

Знаменосцы стран-участниц XXII летних Олимпийских игр   Moscow painting
Misha, 1980 Olympics mascot in Moscow…also the place to start our journey, visiting museums while buying our time for Kamchatka flight, on the 12th of August 2018.

Follow us for the next weeks as we are about to explore nature at its best, in Russia’s  Kamchatka peninsula, one of the few true wildernesses left, home of biggest density of brown bears in the world, of not less than 29 active volcanoes, the spawning ground for about 8 Mil sockeye salmons (or 25% of its wild population), as we are about to explore this natural paradise, in the steps of famous naturalist Charlie Russell (blog here), who chose this place and dedicated big part of its life to reconcile the complicated relationship, across the world, between people and bears, breaking the myths of bears ferocity and impossibility of people and bears to peacefully coexist! This is a long battle far from won, as Charles Russel was about to discover (his letter “A Sad Update“), not only because of people fear, but also because of economic reasons (government allowing legal trophy hunting, for profit) and poaching (to satisfy a huge demand coming from China for bear bladder), and Kamchatka hasn’t been spared, as Charlie discovered in one of his returns to the peninsula, he finds more than 70 wild bears killed just for their bladders, including a generation of orphan bear cubs which he raised and educated to return to the wild! (more in the documentaries videos at end of this article)

But despite these set-backs, there is still hope in few places where bears still exist, and we need to make sure Charlie’s work has not been done in vain. “Most people fear bears because of a perpetual misunderstanding,” he says, “and bears fear people because of the mistreatment [they] receive due to this misunderstanding.” Same as in novels of the great Russian classics, which when reading one identifies himself with its characters, spending countless hours engaging with them – feeling from within what it is like to be someone else and seeing the world from the perspective of a different social class, gender, religion, culture, sexual orientation, moral understanding, or other features that define and differentiate human experience, same way, the naturalists need to live and show the bears’ life facts to the world, teach people the bears (and other species) perspective of the world, their wonderful inner nature, and what they can teach us and how we can co-exist. In novels or in the trips in nature, by living a character’s life or stepping in bears’ tracks and watching them in their natural world, you not only feel what they feel, but also reflect on those feelings, consider the character of the actions to which they lead, and, with practice, acquire the wisdom to appreciate real people or wildlife in all their initially miss-understood complexity! 

I start this trip with great hope that Russian people, who know better than many other nations what suffering and misunderstanding mean, as they lived through their recent history, they acquired the empathy and wisdom to understand the value of life (even of other species like the iconic brown bear), the role of bears in ecosystem (not only in folklore) and the value of unspoiled wilderness, to allow, support and cherry their continuous existence (where shamefully other nations already failed)!

Kamchatka map Next stop: Kamchatka peninsula, 13th of August 2018

To continue…

Few sources to learn more about Charlie’s work and about Kamchatka and its bears:

Did you know that…

the current airplane design has been inspired in early years from…wild birds?

And birds still continue to inspire aircraft design, as NASA (article here) or major airplane producers look to make flights more efficient? One example, as per Biomimeticsummit, sea birds have the ability to sense gust loads in the air with their beaks and react by adjusting the shape of their wing feathers to suppress lift. The nose of the new Airbus A350XWB contains probes which can detect gusts and deploy movable wing surfaces for more efficient flight. This helps reduce fuel consumption and emissions. 

Many more ongoing examples here, however it may started as early as Leonardo da Vinci who researched the wing design of birds and designed a man-powered aircraft in his Codex on the Flight of Birds (1502), which begins with an examination of the flight behavior of birds and proposes mechanisms for flight by machines. In year 2018, we cannot conceive our current or future world without airplanes, as per flightradar24.com, a new record of number of flights is recorded all too often, last one I know counted more than 19.000 airplanes flying in same time as of 1st of July 2018, and a total number of 202.157 were flying that day (actually this record may have been already beaten)!

airplane

But let’s have a look how did we reward our mentors? As per BIP (The Biodiversity Indicators Partnership), the Wild Bird Index (WBI) is the average trend in relative abundance of a group of bird species during the breeding season, often grouped by their association and dependence on a particular habitat. It is particularly suited to tracking trends in the condition of habitats through obligate or specialist species. Birds are recognized as good indicators of environmental change and as useful proxies of wider changes in nature. The Wild Bird Index measures average population trends of a suite of representative wild birds as an indicator of the general health of the environment.

Below graph, as well as other sources (at the end of the article), shows an accelerated decline in number of wild birds, some as low as 60%! The most recent stabilization shown I believe is temporary, as human global population is poised to reach 10 bn, pressure on environment is tremendous! Among reasons for birds population drop is destruction of habitat, loss of nesting sites, pollution of their feeding grounds, pesticides and herbicides used in agriculture that impacts their main food source – the insects, and the climate change and intensive urbanization and industrialization of the agriculture.

WBI

To be reminded, the disappearance of a population, subspecies, or species represents the permanent loss of a range of genes.

seagull

Needless to say, it doesn’t have to be like this! I hope it is not too late for these masters of the skies, and they can withstand the recent turbulence created by humankind, while we try to regain our wisdom and learn how to live in harmony with nature and its wonderful species, from which we continue to learn!

Other sources:

EUROSTAT

BioOne

The Biodiversity Indicators Partnership

Trade of Wildlife

TRAFFIC, the Wildlife Trade Monitoring Network, is the leading non-governmental organization working globally on the trade of wild animals and plants in the context of both biodiversity and sustainable development. As per their definition, “Wildlife trade is any sale or exchange of wild animal and plant resources by people. This can involve live animals and plants or a diverse range of products needed or prized by humans—including skins, medicinal ingredients, tourist curios, timber, fish and other food products”.

As per their data as well as other official sources ,illegal wildlife trade is widespread and constitutes one of the major illegal economic activities, comparable to the traffic of drugs and weapons. In the early 1990s, crimes against wildlife were rampant in certain parts of the United States, and poaching may have equaled or exceeded the number of animals hunted legally (report). In other parts of the world, things get even worse, with entire trans-national supply chains and organized crime behind, from the field poachers to white collar intermediaries and further to consumers, trading the rare species (dead or alive) from wilderness on various continents to insatiable consumer markets in Asia, mainly China and Vietnam. The best known are the notorious ivory trade (with long history of various consumer countries introducing import-bans, sometimes removing them – as in case of relaxation of legislation in debate during Trump administration, or producer countries as Kenya/Tanzania burning the confiscated stocks) and rhino-horns trade, also mentioned in Misha Glenny‘s Mc Mafia book, notes @Facts.

In the zone I am more familiar with, Eastern Europe, I could say, with minimum risk of generalizing, that every person with a legal license for hunting has been at least once in his lifetime a poacher. And not only persons having a gun, but also the ones setting snares in the forest, that trap wildlife for consumption, their own, their families and friends, and even for small scale skin trade on local markets (unless a more influencing middlemen is involved, that can have cross-border connections to reach foreign customers). The profile of a such an opportunistic poacher in the region is of a man (18-70 years old), poor by local economic standards, with minimum education and no stable income, living at periphery of a forest (striking similarity with Frederic Rouge’s painting, dating couple of hundreds years ago, proving some people and practices may not have changed much meanwhile).

Le_braconnier_par_Frédéric_Rouge      The Poacher by Frédéric Rouge

Legal wildlife trade is regulated by the United Nations’ Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), which currently has 183 member countries called Parties, and protects species listed under Appendix I threatened with extinction, with commercial trade in wild-caught specimens, or products derived from them, being prohibited. This rule applies to all species threatened with extinction, except in exceptional circumstances (and also explains what we have learned at Sigean, that they no longer host elephants in the park because they cannot import anymore).

TRAFFIC data:

From 2005 – 2009 the legal trade corresponded with these numbers:

  • 317,000 live birds
  • More than 2 million live reptiles
  • 2.5 million crocodile skins
  • 2.1 million snake skins
  • 73 tons of caviar
  • 1.1 million beaver skins
  • Millions of pieces of coral
  • 20,000 mammalian hunting trophies

In the 1990s the annual trade of legal animal products was $160 billion annually. In 2009 the estimated value almost doubled to $300 billion. This is a huge industry by any standard, and painful to see the scale of it and the trend evolution (even knowing that any ban, as in case of drugs, alcohol and cigarettes would just boost the black market)!

The way I see it, legal or illegal, there is no morality, or justification for exploiting other fellow species with which we are share the planet, to obtain material profit (remember less than 200 years ago, during mercantile capitalism times, even trade with human beings and slavery were considered acceptable and even encouraged for economic benefit of land lords and aristocrats, being practiced for over 250 years). Various parties are sharing the blame, with consumers at top. But once again, the main blame I assign to the current unsustainable economic system, which from birth encourages consumption, competition for resources, accumulation of wealth and prestige, and inequality among people. This, coupled with human nature, craving to have more and to sit above its peers, is a formula for disaster. Ignore this affirmation as you wish, especially the ones happy with current status quo, but in the end it will impact you, one way or the other, if we don’t start paying attention to environment, to its wildlife, and to our own consumption habits! Empathy, responsibility, accountability, conscience and compassion (for all around us, not only for yourself and peers) should define all society, not ease and oneself material interest, social status and power!

Wildlife parts, confiscated from smugglers or tourists, at display in Warsaw International Airport.

The European bison of Białowieża Forest, Poland – part 2

We returned to Białowieża National Park in June 2018, after almost 5 years (2013 first trip) to track the mighty King of the Polish Nordic forests, the European bison! But we couldn’t help noticing some of the accelerated impact the globalization and climate change had on the forest, here to share with you.

Firstly, in the 84% of the semi-protected area took place heavy wood exploitation, on the grounds of a local culprit, a little insect whose larvae are raised under bark of a single type of tree, which due to recent warmer drier summer, it could reproduce 5 times instead of regular 3 yearly cycles, and authorities responded with license to cut all these type of trees (even if the areas are mono-culture type of forests, there surely is impact on wildlife, as it uses the forest for shelter). But government didn’t miss the chance to make some money, even here, the most famous natural reserve in this part of Europe, and even if only an insignificant dot on the map of Poland!

Secondly, weather pattern become atypical here in last 5 years, our guides showed us many places in forecast which used to have permanent water (as the one below), but they dried out, again with impact on wildlife behavior, pushing their survival skills further to limit!

drout

Thirdly, following a threat of a type of swine flu originating from Cameroon, Africa, authorities decided to kill all wild boars (sick or healthy), including in the 16% strictly protected primeval forest (UNESCO site)! This type of flu is indeed deadly for pigs, wild or domestic, and unless mutated, it doesn’t impact any type of animals, including man. But reason for killing the wild boars was the easy way to protect economic reasons of industrial farms, a risk if growing such huge number of animals for consumption, in crowded spaces! ( to read Why being vegetarian is good for you, for the planet and its wildlife and Impact of today’s industrialized agriculture on Wildlife). Poor wild-boars!

wildboar Bialowieza

However, we spent a fabulous week searching for the famous European bison, including guided night tours , spotting many wildlife, and many bison tracks as well as other tracks (including wolves, and this is very good sign, as presence of top predator assures the sustainability of this ecosystem), but still no bison visible. With each day passing we became more ambitious in our goal, determined to see one of the 650 bison living in this side of the forest, on Polish side of the border!

In the end, we did spot the King, just before getting dark, after 9 pm local time, in the last day of our staying, even if for less than a minute as he was changing residence from a nearby forest to next one, but having to step in the open field in the meantime. A magnificent moment that cannot be described in words, a real privilege and a relief to see this wonderful animal alive and free (semi-free actually, due to dependence on winter feeding grounds, to avoid a natural migration of the heard), knowing that all living European bison today are grandsons and granddaughters of a small heard of only 7 individuals!

zubr 2

Hope also for more places as Białowieża forests to be protected, as the model proves perfectly sustainable for communities and acceptable for wildlife (preferable to closed zoo model), there is a big local community leaving from tourism in the area (around 200 K tourists per year) and great place to learn about wildlife (there is also a famous university, which wrote an excellent book The art of tracking animals! Enjoy your visit!

P.S. In the meantime, Polish national team’s trainer claims among other reasons the hot climate that his team had to face during its game with Colombia where they lost 3 – 0 during 2018 Football championship in Russia (another Nordic country facing warmer than ever climate)…Not sure here what to believe, if this can be counted as a reason 🙂

Réserve Africaine de Sigean, a different type of ZOO

Accommodating some 3800 animals from more than 160 species, on a surface of about 300 hectares, Sigean (Aude, south of France, close to Spanish border) is a different type of zoo, where you can drive through the large enclosures, or you can walk outside others, in total covering at least half a day and in our case almost 14.000 steps ( www address here ).

new-logo-sigean

A very educational visit we recommend, animals being organized as they would be in the wild, with larger space to move than in a regular standard zoo, and no notice of stress behavior displayed during the one day trip we had. Also we enjoyed the educational sessions over various animals organized by the zoo, where we were pleased to notice children were particularly interested and they were asking many questions about their favorite wild animals. Enjoy the few photos we took, before you organize your own visit!

 

For more pictures, pls browse through the TripAdvisor page here ! Enjoy!

Why being vegetarian is good for you, for the planet and its wildlife

A very complete, very well documented and very convincing guide to all of you who care about the planet, about its wildlife diversity and ultimately about your own and your families health! Or for the ones wanting to learn more about the truth…

As per the author, being a vegetarian is a personal choice, and he is not directly trying to convince you to become one, but he offers the cold facts following extensive research and analysis of how/what the world is fed today (mostly by meat produced by factory farms, but as well as industrial irresponsible fishing), the inefficiency of the system, the misery and abuses incurred to animals all over the world (but mostly in developed world), the real cost of cheap meat and the growing ecological debt, how the biodiversity is killed in the process, how the “farmed” meat is impacting your health (author got motivated investigating and writing this book when learning he would become a father)…and this can only lead to clear conclusions (quotes from the book):

” The factory farm will come to an end because of its absurd economics someday. It is radically unsustainable. The earth will eventually shake off factory farming like a dog shakes off flees; the only question is weather we will get shaken off along with it…

There is something quite sinister about the scorched-earth style of “harvesting” sea animals. The average trawling operation throws 80 to 90 percent of the sea animals it captures as by-catch overboard. The least efficient operations actually throw more than 98 percent of captured sea animals, dead, back in the ocean.

The question of eating animals is ultimately driven by our own intuitions about what it means to reach an ideal we have named, perhaps incorrectly, “being humane”

To accept factory farm, to feed the food it produces to feed my family, to support it with my money – would make me less myself, less my grand-mother’s grandson, less my son’s father

Compassion is a muscle that gets stronger with use, and the regular exercise of choosing kindness over cruelty would change us…Choosing leaf over flesh, factory farm over family farm, does not in itself change the world, but teaching ourselves, our children, our local communities and our nation to choose conscience over ease can…

We cannot plead ignorance, only indifference. Those alive today are the generations that came to know better. We have the burden and opportunity of living in the moment when the critique of factory farming broke into the popular conscience.  We are the ones of whom it will be fairly asked, What did you do when you learned the truth about eating animals?”

Eating animals cover

And adding to the ethical, moral and ecological parts of the topic, is the scientific medical one as well. Do remember: “You ARE what you EAT” ! (click for the animation video for better understanding).

Think for yourself, if you are eating genetically modified, artificially fed (including pesticides), hormones injected and antibiotics saturated “farmed” animals with broken immune systems that are not even able to reproduce themselves, aren’t you passing all this to your body? There are diseases today which relate to what we eat that never existed before, and they don’t exist in the last tribes of people living in the forests (juvenile diabetes, inflammatory and autoimmune diseases, allergies, asthma, obesity, …). Thanks God we are still having Olympics – to keep the standard visible – and some people who care – like author Jonathan Safran Foer and others – otherwise we would simply take new reality as is, becoming ourselves “farmed” people, in a world where individual doesn’t matter, for the sake of “progress” of the specie (and material benefit of few others), not being even able anymore to judge for ourselves what governments and corporations are telling us and how that impacts us personally! As not only our health is compromised, but also our ability to judge, easily measured by the well known IQ coefficient, which continues to drop generation after generation. Among causes, as per this study issued by World Economic Forum, we cannot blame genetics for kids being less intelligent than parents, but quality of food and environment, and today’s technological gadgets and changing culture, that take away from us the challenging environment one needs to think, and the high quality food and clean air to assure the fuel for our brain cells! To remember that our ancestors increased brain sized when fire was discovered, allowing them to move to a high quality protein diet that could be assimilated by our digestive systems,  within an environment full of competition where only the most intelligent survived by outsmarting the other predators and allowed catching their pray, in hunter-gatherers type of culture/environment. Today, as Yuval Noah Harari, the author of Sapiens puts it, just because we know how to scroll down the screen of a smart phone doesn’t make us more intellectually-challenged than a hunter-gatherer that lived more than 70.000 years ago, trying to escape predators and catch his prey, with his senses sharpen at maximum moving through and mastering its environment in his favor!

More summary and quotes from the books, specific to wildlife, in the Facts area!

Famous Wildlife migrations

Birds do it. Fish and mammals do it, even insects and reptiles do it. Animals across the globe fly, swim or walk in their effort to find food or a more hospitable climate or places to breed. To be counted as a true migration, the movement of the animals should be an annual or seasonal occurrence. Migrants can use the sun, the stars, reflected light, the Earth’s magnetic field and their sense of smell to find their way.

The longest migration record is held by a bird, the Arctic terns, weighing in at less than 4.5 ounces (125 grams), flying around 25,000 miles (40,000 kilometers) from their Arctic breeding grounds to the Antarctic and back. But a few years ago, researchers fitted birds with miniature geolocators and discovered that some of them traveled more than 50,000 miles (80,000 km) in a year because of the meandering routes they took to exploit prevailing wind systems!

Arctic terns

Also famous in birds world, the Alaskan bar-tailed godwit, which apparently makes its eight-day, 6,835-mile autumn migration (11,000 km) from Alaska to New Zealand in one step, with no stopovers to rest or refuel!

The longest migration made by a land mammal is that of the caribou, which can travel 3,000 miles annually, in North America!

SAM_3795

In Africa, migrating wildebeest know there’s strength in numbers. They travel close to 1000 miles in a herd of over 1.5 million individuals, along with hundreds of thousands of zebra and gazelles, between Kenya and Tanzania.

On the other hand, the world’s largest mammal migration (in terms of numbers of individuals) occurs every October through December, when up to 10 million straw-coloured fruit bats migrate from the Congo to Zambia’s Kasanka National Park.

According to Guinness World Records, the leatherback sea turtle holds the record for the longest migration of any reptile. Astoundingly, a tagged turtle reportedly took 647 days to travel from its nesting site on the beaches of Papua, Indonesia, to its feeding grounds off the coast of Oregon in the United States.

Salmon fishes have one of most impressive migratory power in animal kingdom, they traverse between freshwater and saltwater. After hatching of eggs salmons remain in river waters for 2-3 years. During that time salmons undergo many physiological changes. These changes help them to migrate to seas waters without facing much obstacles. For next 3-4 years they prefer to live within salt water. Reproductive capacity within this species of fish will develop during that time. Then they migrate back to fresh water, the exact river where they born, return to home for spawning. The exceptional navigation power itself help salmons to make their return journey from saltwater to freshwater, their brain can detect exact magnetic field of their birth place. Their ability in jumping and sense of smell also help them during their extreme migration, will cover up to 3800 kilometers in a complete migration. You could then truly say the salmon’s live is one long migration route, with few preparation and transformation stages!

 

Demoiselle cranes have to take one of the toughest migrations in the world. In late August through September, they gather in flocks of up to 400 individuals and prepare for their flight to their winter range. During their migratory flight south reaching altitudes of 16,000–26,000 feet (4,900–7,900 metres), and along their arduous journey they have to cross the world’s highest mountains (Himalaya) to get to their over-wintering grounds in India.

DemoisselleCrane

Like nomadic humans, animals migrate because it’s often difficult to survive if you remain in the same place all year long. By moving from one place to another, these animals also give their environments time to rebound as well. Food supplies are often more plentiful when the animals return after a long absence. Migrations may be one way that ecosystems keep themselves in balance.

Migrations are the true animal kingdom marathons and triathlons, proving one more time that each living individual is a survivor and a champion of its specie, each year betting their lives on it, whereas in human world only few take lower scale equivalent of long distance body and mind endurance challenges! This is one extra reason for all humans to respect wildlife and try to learn from, and to assure the survival of these champion species in a natural unspoiled environment, and a continuity of their migratory way of life, saving their most important spots for feeding and breeding along these essential for survival migratory routes!

World’s most amazing migrations images HERE, and their amazing record keepers, by CNN. Enjoy!