Brown Bears of Kamchatka

For the brown bears of Kamchatka, Russia, travel writing might be a call for their rescue. National Geographic writer Gleb Raygorodetsky focuses on these magnificent bears in his article for the magazine entitled Giants Under Siege. The gorgeous photos are the work of Steve Winter.

“The bear’s head swings from side to side like a metronome as he lumbers across the slope. A week or two out of hibernation, he’s spent the day filling his belly on the first lush greens of spring in the Valley of the Geysers on Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula. Struggling to keep his eyes open, he stumbles a few yards to the top of a knoll and crashes, resting his massive head on his front paws, and immediately nods off. The long winter over, all seems well.

Not so. A new season has arrived filled with perils for Kamchatka’s brown bears, the largest in Eurasia. During the Soviet era, when I was growing up here, access to the 750-mile-long (1,200-kilometer-long) peninsula was tightly restricted by the military, and there was plenty of federal money for wildlife management. As many as 20,000 bears roamed this wilderness. After the Soviet Union collapsed, international trophy hunting came to the region, oil exploration and gas development and gold mining increased, and fish and wildlife poaching grew rampant. The bear population fell to about 12,500.

Today international organizations such as the Wildlife Conservation Society, for whom I work as a biologist, are helping Russian wildlife managers. But here in Russia’s untamed frontier, far from Moscow’s prosperity, with the local economy still in a slump, the future of the bears is up for grabs—dependent on people with different stakes in the animals. To the hunting guide the bears are a source of income. To the scientist they’re a key part of Russia’s wilderness. To the poacher they’re competitors for salmon (and lucrative caviar). And to the reindeer herder they’re wise and powerful neighbors. Whether the giants survive or fade away depends on who prevails.”