Exclusive interview with the Brown Bear

Wildlife-Reporter: Wow, I see you have put on same weight since we last met! What happened?

Mr. Bear: Well, this is nothing, you should see my cousin from Kodiak, twice my size! It’s winter time and as you know, food is more scarce, so we have been gorging during the summer, eating pretty much everything, from grass to salmons, from insects to wild flowers, from forest raspberries to wild honey, from…

W-R: Never mind, before I get hungry…we invited you for an exclusive interview, as you are our nomination for 2018 most famous wildlife icon! And we promise not to keep you long, as we know you must be on your way to winter residence for the long hibernation sleeps! How have you been?

Mr. B: We, bears, are creatures of habit, shy and peaceful, so we try not to capture much attention, while getting on with our routine! That is why we acquired some nocturnal habits, to avoid company of men. And as always, we are mostly busy with… surviving! That involves storing enough fat for winter, raising our cubs and avoiding humans!

W-R: And how well do you manage to… survive?

Mr. B: We are pretty good at that, our kind evolved to be one of the most competitive large species in nature! We out-strong or out-smart our natural enemies, we have keen senses, we eat pretty much everything and we are very creative in finding the food, we can endure harshest weather conditions and our organism is adapted to recycling the nitrogen from our waste during the winter sleep and turning it into muscle building proteins thus coming stronger in spring and ready to resume activity immediately! We have no real natural predators, except for our own kind, large males which may be a threat to our cubs! But we are doing rather poor when coming to avoiding impact from human activity, our real protection here is the weather, while before modern human society we inhabited most of the planet (from African continent to North Pole, from Tibet to Mexico and up all the way to Alaska), now we retrieved to colder Northern regions or very remote mountain locations!

W-R: Which are the main human related threats, if I may ask?

Mr. B: Direct threats like trophy hunting, but also indirect ones through destruction of our main habitats, global warming (mainly for the Polar cousin) or poaching for our bladder, an organ of zero nutritional value to humans, but highly appreciated in Chinese culture, for its presumed magical powers! To these bile eaters I say one thing: If you want to be strong as a bear, don’t eat parts of the bear, but live like a bear, as only the strongest survive in our environment!

W-R: What about the human protection you get in the national parks?

Mr. B: We do appreciate the national parks, and we thank all our fans to come and see us, and teach their children and friends about us and about the places where we live! If it wouldn’t be for such places, we would have no presence in many places which we have always inhabited. Thanks to our fans and the boost that the local tourism gets, we are allowed to exist under protection and do what we know best, to survive, as wild bears! But these national parks cannot be our only home, nature doesn’t work like this, we need space, we sometimes need to migrate to other regions to avoid isolation and in-breeding, we need to live by nature’s law where strongest males father the new generations rather then decorating the wall of a rich hunter! We are the symbol itself of all there is, wild and free!

W-R: What should people learn, why it is so important for bears to continue being part of this new world, which is changing too fast under our own eyes?

Mr. B: Humans need to understand that bears, as well as other large carnivores, represent the top-chain of healthy ecosystems, that are providing free services worth trillions to human kind, but which are sensitive and whose resources are not able to regenerate faster than current exploitation levels! There cannot be a healthy ecosystem without carnivores, and there cannot be human kind in long run without a sustainable ecosystem! We are all part of this world, as we know it, remove one piece, and this world will turn into something else, totally different, with many unpredictable consequences!

W-R: Thank you Mr. Bear, we cannot agree more! And to conclude with, a poem for all to read, from one of your fans! And for those fans who would like to see you “live” in action, fishing salmons in Katmai/Alaska (during season), here is access to the parks video cameras: Live from Katmai

“I am bear. I am not just “a” bear. I am the forest. I am the fragile ecosystem. I am the running streams, the canopy of the pines, the whistling winds, the fertile soil, and the radiant sun. I am everything that is natural, beautiful, and mysterious in the universe. I am not one of many. I am all that is one. I am bear.” Poem by Jennifer S. Clayburg

bear-cubs-grizzly-bears

Planting trees is good for wildlife and environment

Dedicating few hours and calories on a weekend, you can greatly help environment through an activity that is available to anyone interested: planting trees! Initiated by WWF Barcelona, one of the activities I joined had the purpose to “reclaim” (on behalf of nature) a riverbed (from humans habits and invasive species, apparently), as apart from planting local species of trees, we also had to participate in the removal of an invasive species of plant, called American cane (although it arrived here from Asia), which grows so tall and can take over full territories out-growing the smaller local plants, and also to collect the ubiquitous plastic waste, left by barbecue lovers in the area.

activityactivity 2me with WWF Bcn

Especially in proximity of cities, these places are equivalents of oasis in the desert for many species of birds and insects, used as shelter, resting and feeding grounds, and even as home for this handsome pheasant!

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Either you are planting trees in your own garden, or in a friend’s garden, or in public spaces, it does help nature and wildlife! You may never be able to replace a pristine forest, or be as efficient as nature is (when not disturbed by human activity), but people can be a true force as well, if each of us contributes, considering the large population today, number do counts, especially closer to urban areas! Don’t hesitate, join a larger group if you have to, there are plenty organizations willing to accept your volunteering! I am sure you will enjoy, as I did!

group photo

Pollinators: what’s all the buzz about?

Pollination is the transfer of pollen from a male part of a plant to a female part of a plant, enabling later fertilization and the production of fruits and/or seeds. According to latest Living Planet Report 2018 by WWF, the majority of flowering plants need pollination, as much as “from an average of 78% in temperate-zone communities to 94% in tropical communities“!

Between 100,000 and 200,000 species of animal act as pollinators of the world’s 250,000 species of flowering plant, as per Wikipedia. The majority of these pollinators are insects (more than 20,000 species of bees, many other types of insects e.g. flies, butterflies, moths, wasps and beetles), but about 1,500 species of birds and mammals also visit flowers and may transfer pollen between them. Our food production depends heavily upon these pollinators – more than 75% of the leading global food crops. From economic point of view, pollination increases the global value of crop production by US$235-577 billion per year to growers alone and keeps prices down for consumers by ensuring stable supplies.

Agricultural intensification (through use of pesticides) and urban expansion is one of a number of key drivers of pollinator loss, especially when natural areas, that provide foraging and nesting resources, are degraded or disappear. The abundance, diversity and health of pollinators is also threatened by a number of other drivers including a changing climate, air and noise pollution, invasive species and emerging diseases and pathogens (as I learned in a local crash-course I recently attended – photos here -, domestic bees in Europe are now entirely dependent on humans for medication and protection from invasive parasites, from which they have no natural immunity).

Pollinators are the foundation for a stable ecosystem. If only a few species of plants depended on pollinators the overall effect would not be as devastating however, but this is not the case! As the artistic graffiti shows below, this is bad news for all ecosystem, including wildlife and people, the world as we know it would vanish! In this regard, to help humans be more environmentally responsible, we made few suggestions to follow (on our @Eco page) in our daily lives, to avoid such a terrible probability, knowing the risk is real and time is running out!

population counts.jpg

Famous quote to remember: “If humans were to suddenly disappear, the Earth would regenerate back to the rich state of equilibrium that existed 10.000 years ago. But if insects were to vanish, the environment would collapse into chaos.” – Edward O. Wilson

Power of example

There is nothing more pleasant than a walk in the country side, on a sunny autumn day! Very fast you come to accept the slower pace of life – meaning the normal pace of life, the one that exists outside office and city life but you are not very familiar with lately – and you come to terms with nature, which gets along its way regardless. This time of year, trees and wildlife prepare for the colder season, already the lower temperature at night and shorter days have turned the leaves yellow or red, just before falling on the ground and turning into rich black soil, from which fresh life will flourish next spring, resuming relentlessly the cycle of life! The sheep are coming down from the mountains to lower winter grounds, a nice spectacle to watch, still unfolding in many corners of the world, whereas some wildlife species have their underground borrows ready, storing latest provisions from the rich autumn menu – forest fruits, acorn, nuts, herbs etc, in preparation for hibernation!

clean path 3sheepclean path 2

yellow treeburrowred tree

However one thing disturbed the picture and my peace of mind, the plastics left behind by the ubiquitous consumer. But I did come prepared, as this is not something new I come across in nature, so I rolled my sleeves, dived in, and almost filled the two large bags I brought with me, leaving behind a clean trail, and making sure I showed my capture to all the passer-by, existing consumer and maybe, future environmentalists! Power of example, you find it in any specialty books, and doesn’t apply to office activities only, nature can also benefit, if you are willing to contribute!

garbage

Ideally this plastic can now be recycled, but at least it wont turn into micro-plastic to be swollen by births or fish, once it reaches rivers and eventually seas and oceans!

At the end of the day, I was very happy I could turn a favor to the Nature, after spending such a wonderful day outdoor, so I not only relaxed, but also came back home with a great sense of satisfaction! Try it sometimes, you will understand what I mean! 😉

Wildlife crossings

During the early 20th century, with the development of the internal combustion engine and the automobile, infrastructure had to be adapted. As Wendell Berry puts it in his “The World-Ending Fire” book, we moved FROM paths, described as a little more than a habit that comes with knowledge of a place, a sort of ritual of familiarity, a form of contact with a known landscape TO roads, whose reason is not simply the necessity for movement, but haste, wishing to avoid contact with landscape, seeking to go over the country rather than through it, its tendency being to translate place into space in order to traverse it with least effort. A road is destructive, seeking to remove or destroy all obstacles in its way.

FROM paths:

path1path 2

Today’s road infrastructure looks as science-fiction already, keeping us disconnected from life beyond the windshields and, as Wendell Berry mentions, a road advances by destruction of forest, or in case of modern roads, by destruction of topography.

TO roads:

Moscow infraThailand infra 2

The development of roads affects wildlife by altering and isolating habitat and populations, deterring the movement of wildlife, and resulting in extensive wildlife mortality, roadkill becoming a common sight in most industrialized nations. Very large numbers of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and invertebrates are killed on the world’s roads every day, the number in the United States being estimated at a million per day, an estimated 1.25 million insurance claims are filed annually due to collisions with deer, elk, or moose, amounting to 1 out of 169 collision damage claims. About 350,000 to 27 million birds are estimated to be killed on European roads each year. Not to mention the number of reptiles and insects as well…This is important because of the animal suffering, loss of wild animals (paving the way to extinction for many endangered species), road safety, and the economic impact on both drivers and road management. 

What can be done? As a driver always respect the speed limit and pay attention to the warning signs, in non-urban areas. Politicians could do even more, by including in the infrastructure budgets the so called wildlife crossings, which again, are a must, considering how much asset damage and suffering can avoid not only for wildlife, but also to their voters.

deer-crossinggreen corridorsman-made-wildlife-crossing-over-highway

Have a safe drive!

Autumn in Coma Pedrosa National Park, Andorra’s Pirinei mountains

Autumn arrived in the Northern hemisphere, and this is best time to consider reconnecting with the nature, while weather is still warm and you get a free spectacle of colors from planet’s best designer, the nature itself! We have chosen a national park in the mountains, closest to our location, and this was Coma Pedrosa National Park in the Pirinei, in the Principality of Andorra, between France and Spain. After 22 km of hiking in one day and a good night sleep, I felt alive again (far from office virtual reality) and with recharged battery and another perspective over life!

parc naturalautumn 1autumn 2

All along, above the 2900 m peaks around us, the symbol of the wild and free, the Griffon vultures, were our company. Masters of the sky, using the warm air to float with minimum energy, these giants are luckily still a common sight in the mountains, helping the ecosystems by cleaning it, as feeding with wild carrion as well as dead sheep left behind by shepherds. They are known for their excellent sight and sense of small, detecting their food from kilometers away! Magnificent wild birds!

vulturebuitre leonado-coma pedrosa

Don’t hesitate, visit your closest national park, the seasonal wild fruits, mushrooms and autumn colors are a yearly spectacle not to be missed! Fun and relax guaranteed!

autumn 3wild mashroom

The Salmons of the North

Salmon is the common name for several species of ray-finned fish in the family Salmonidae (including trouts). Typically, salmon are anadromous: they hatch in fresh water, migrate to the ocean, then return to fresh water to reproduce, usually in same place where they were born (1 to 5 years cycle), using on of Nature’s finest built-in Global Positioning Systems (using possibly 3 sensory tools to work at full capacity: geomagnetic sense, smell and possibly vision). Prior to spawning, depending on the species, salmon undergo changes, they may grow a hump, develop canine-like teeth, or develop a kype (a pronounced curvature of the jaws in male salmon) – below table (Kamchatka) shows how different an individual of same local species may show in the main life periods.

salmon types

Salmon can make amazing journeys, sometimes moving hundreds of miles upstream against strong currents and rapids to reproduce. Condition tends to deteriorate the longer the fish remain in fresh water, and they then deteriorate further after they spawn, most of them dying after the reproduction cycle finishes.

The importance of the salmon in the ecosystem is paramount! A large number of predators benefit from the annual salmon migrations, best known are the bears and the eagles, but it has been proven that even the forest is benefiting the nutritious substances released in the water by the decomposing bodies, in British Colombia’s rivers in Canada, the trees growing next to river are much taller than others, and the phosphor and other substances from fish have left their positive marks in the composition and rings of the those trees.

According to Wikipedia, of 435 wild stocks of salmon and steelhead, only 187 of them were classified as healthy; 113 had an unknown status, one was extinct, 12 were in critical condition and 122 were experiencing depressed populations. Over-fishing and climate change effects may impact the most the salmon populations in future, and the artificial measure taken by man may not be enough to save some salmon species, and that in return may impact many ecosystems. Among the measures taken, as noticed in Russia’s Kamchatka, are artificial spawning places and release of the baby salmons into the rivers. Fingers crossed for this magnificent species and symbol of the wild, to win the survival race!

Marine wildlife – the Fishes

We recently earned our Open Water Diving certification, which allows us to explore the marine wildlife more in detail. It is the beginning of a long journey to discover the secrets of a vast space, almost 72% of our planet being water! The Ocean is producing 85% of the planet’s oxygen, which links us all directly or indirectly to it! We first learned during the course to respect the Ocean as an ecosystem, as it remains today an extremely important source of life, specifically because it is home for many of the first links in the Earth’s food supply chain, photosynthesis in plans creating oxygen in the oceans just as it does on land (estimated that plant production in oceans may be 10 times more than on land), and this initiates the process of creating organic nutrients which serve to feed more complex organisms, which in turn are fed by larger organisms, and so on… Animal waste and plant and animal decomposition complete the food cycle by replenishing the sea’s basic nutrients and starting the chain of life all over again. One of the most exciting things about exploring the underwater world is that here are less people, as my girlfriend and diving buddy answer when asked, which is true judging by the fact that the marine wildlife has not yet learned to fear us and so they don’t avoid contact with us…yet.

We will keep you posted on our journeys by the means of this blog, but first I would like to recommend an excellent new book I was reading, to learn more about the fishes, one of most diverse, misunderstood and under-appreciated (unless grilled on a plate) of the wildlife species, yet one of the most explored by humans today! Jonathan Balcombe, a life long passionate, ethologist and activist, through his book What a fish knows does and excellent job building the case on the beauty and intelligence of the fishes, their superbly adaptive features making them masters of their environment, but also on the immense pressure on their environment as well as the dangers of the ways we humans irresponsibly chase with ever evolving technology the last remaining half of once thought “unlimited” supply of food on the bottoms of the oceans, and the pain caused by the existing methods of fish exploitation today, understanding what it means to be a fish in a today’s human world! (some quotes from the book in the Facts section).

What a fish knows

Famous related quotes by Jacques Cousteau, one of the early fathers of modern day diving science (“oceanographic technician”, as he liked to refer to himself), as well as one great environmentalist and naturalist:

“From birth, man carries the weight of gravity on his shoulders. He is bolted to Earth. But man has only to sink beneath the surface and he is free”

“The sea, the great unifier, is man’s only hope. Now, as never before, the old phrase has a literal meaning: We are all in the same boat.”

“The happiness of the bee and the dolphin is to exist. For man it is to know that and to wonder at it”

“We forget that the water cycle and the life cycle are one!”

Jean-Michel Cousteau: “Protect the ocean and you protect yourself!”

plastic underwater world

Above a picture from Moscow Aquarium, to help visitors visualize human impact on the Oceans and raise awareness!

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!

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! Russia scores higher in terms of official wildlife conservation as well, not only through land surface allocated but for the approach itself, for example whereas first National Parks in U.S. where created on behalf of humans for their relaxation, in Russia special national parks (zapovednik) were created specially on behalf of wildlife, to be protected from human presence, and to keep the nature and its processes unspoiled! There is no other country in the world where, an iconic species, 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 Russell 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 bile, 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 Kamchatka mapNext stop: Kamchatka peninsula, 13th of August 2018

To continue…

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