News: Russia’s “Man-Eating” Kamchatka Bears Face an Unsavory Fate
Text by Andrew Burmon
The summer snows on the Kamchatka Peninsula began to thaw last week just as the world press turned its spotlight on this oft-forgotten corner of Siberia. After the Russian news agency ITAR-Tass reported that two guards at the Koryakgeologia Mine near Khailino had been mauled to death by a rampaging gang of giant bears, the Associated Press picked up the story. Newspaper readers all over the world were left to gaze at the sordid headlines in bewilderment: Starving bears eat 2 men in Russia.
The articles could have been written by the Brothers Grimm. Thirty bears had surrounded Khailino and Korf, two sleepy hamlets where scared villagers refused to leave their homes. Viktor Leushkin, a Khailino town elder voiced his concern that the bears had developed a taste for human blood and the government of the Kamchatka Krai province sent out a team of hunters and snipers to quell the ursine rebellion.
If the shooting hasn’t already begun, it will begin soon. According to Gleb Raygorodetsky, who grew up in Korf and coordinated Kamchatkan Bear conservation for the Wildlife Conservation Society, there is no stigma attached to killing bears in Kamchatka. The bears are hunted for sport and poached for profit.
"They do not like the bears very much," says Raygorodetsky, "especially the miners."
The Kamchatkan antipathy towards bears is compounded by the fact that the Kamchatkan brown bears are not only the largest bear population on Earth but also, arguably, the largest subspecies on the planet.
"I’ll argue that," says Larry Van Daele, an Alaskan Fish and Wildlife Scientist who works with the Kodiak Bears in northwestern Alaska, "sometimes my bears are bigger. It all depends on how much vodka me and my Russian colleagues have had to drink—our bears are very similar."
Kodiak bears and Kamchatkan bears are both brown bears (Ursus arctos)—referred to as grizzlies when found inland. They are the solitary hunters, the rulers of the north woods.
"It would be unprecedented if these bears were working together," Van Daele says, "but the numbers are not surprising. Groups get to be that big when there are easily accessible food resources nearby."
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In Kamchatka, food for bears has grown scarce. Rising water temperatures have forced large salmon populations to move to the hospitable cold of the Arctic. Compounding the issue, fish poaching has become a cottage industry in this region. On "Fisher’s Day," a regional holiday celebrated two weeks ago, 250 kilograms of salmon and fish pie and 100 kilograms of salmon were served to the public in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, the region’s capital. The bears, meanwhile, have only gotten hungrier.
"Without salmon, the bears will come to the garbage near the towns," says Raygorodetsky. "In Korf, people just throw their garbage anywhere. So in July when there are no berries and no greens, the bears are looking for something to eat."
The bears around Korf and Khailino were seen feeding on trash. These sightings and the fact that the mine guards were mauled to death but left uneaten—an indication of that the bears saw the two men as a territorial threat, not prey—are unnerving evidence of a mounting conflict. As resources within the region are further diminished by global warming and overzealous fishing, these mighty bears will defend their territory from a rival that they see as similar to themselves.
But in this cold war, the Russians are winning the arms race. Most of the 30 bears will probably be killed and those that are not will face the same stresses next year.