When Vladimir Potekhin spotted a small three-month-old brown bear in the Nizhny Novgorod region of western Russia, he waited and watched the cub, hoping the mother would return. When the mother bear never came, Potekhin told Russian wildlife officials he was so moved that he took the bear into his home, feeding it condensed milk and oatmeal.
(Potekhin declined an interview for this story.)
He eventually called the region's local wildlife unit, which took the bear into their care. The wildlife officials have since given the bear the nickname Baloo, and they moved it to Russia's Meshchora (also translated as Meshchyora and Meshchera) national park east of Moscow.
Video taken of the young bear's move to its new home shows an energetic and curious cub peering from a car window during transportation to the park. According to the Meshchera park website, the cub will be living in the park's administrative building, and pictures on the site show enclosed yet open-air pens where wildlife can be held. Park officials claim to have plans to build a "spacious aviary" for the bear before it is eventually released into the park.
After undergoing a veterinary examination, the bear was found to be male, weigh five pounds, and to generally be in good health. The cub's caretakers hope that, when released, the bear will emulate a 13-year-old female brown bear in the park named Masha.
"The state of the bear is good, he recovered, and in the future this kid will become a formidable predator. He already has company—the park also contains the bear Masha, who was brought to us from the circus," (translated from Russian) said Alexei Teplakov, the senior state inspector of the park, in a press release.
In Russia, it is illegal to remove bears from their natural habitats. A government website for the Nizhny Novgorod region's wildlife unit recommends calling their wildlife hotline if concerned for an animal's well-being. (Watch this mother bear carry two cubs across a lake.)
Globally, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists brown bears as a species of "least concern," or at low risk for extinction. However, in Europe and western Russia, the species is rare or extinct. Small, isolated populations of brown bears face the greatest existential threat from human contact where they may be killed accidentally or by people protecting their property. In Russia's Far East, bears face poaching threats from those looking to sell their gall bladders and paws on the black market.
Stefan Michel works with the Nature and Biodiversity Union in Germany and has worked to update the IUCN's assessment of brown bears. In an email with National Geographic, he expressed skepticism that the young cub would have a successful re-integration into the wild.
"Generally, the more contact a young bear has with people the larger the risk that rehabilitation is unsuccessful because the bear becomes too attached to people and thus poses a threat," he said.
The World Society for the Protection of Animals released a guideline in 2006 for best practices with orphan bear cubs. Bears as young as 5 months old have been found to survive on their own in the wild, and it's not recommended humans interfere with bears above that age.
The report suggests that cubs weened and released by five to six months of age have a chance at successfully reintegrating into the wild.
The Meshchera national park could not be reached at the time of this article's publication, and the park's website did not state when the young cub would be released.