Bears of South Kamchatka Sanctuary – part 2

We are back in Russia, where unfortunately massive wildfires are ongoing in several regions of Siberia, at a scale never seen before, covering million of hectares of pristine forest, sparked by unusually dry weather conditions. The coverage though gets so little attention in other parts of the world, where is business as usual, with everyone out for vacations in major cities, failing to grasp the meaning of this and other climate change effects, for all of us, regardless the location…Climate change can wait, vacations not!

In Russia’s Kamchatka peninsula however bears are just preparing for another feast, in anticipation for the yearly salmon run, which as of early July, didn’t yet start! Visibly skinnier after the long winter season, the bears still put safety before hunger, when a large boar makes his appearance on this beach, that is enough to send some even adult bears up in a tree (as heavy bulk is not an issue in early summer days)! Besides, this is an excellent spot for watching both neighbors and coming salmons!

Enjoy some of the great photos taken in July 2019 at Kuril Lake, South Kamchatka Sanctuary!

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!

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: