BEARS IN RUSSIA
The bear is both a symbol of Russia and a characterization of both the positive and negative image of the country. They are also fixtures of Russian circuses. Ussuri Taiga in the Far East is the home of Asian black bears. Wrangell Island is a prime breeding area for polar bears. But the the bear associated most with Russia are brown bears.
On the brown bears found in the Russian Far East, the Russian naturalists Yury Dunishenko and Alexander Kulikov wrote: "The brown bear is mostly an herbivore, and its problem is that our winters are long. If a bear can’t store up enough fat for five long winter months, it might as well not bother to hibernate. You can’t just suck nourishment out of your paw! When the taiga was wild and Korean pine forests and walnut groves provided stable harvests, bears encountered fewer problems. Now a bear is sometimes forced, before sacking out, and during the spring famine, to go for higher calorie victims. And so it begins to sneak up on wild boar, red Manchurian deer, and elk; it attacks the helpless newborns. [Source: “The Amur Tiger” by Yury Dunishenko and Alexander Kulikov, The Wildlife Foundation, 1999 ~~]
Bears and Russian Minorities
Bears have a high a place in the folklore and religion of several indigenous groups in Siberia. The Yakuts believe it is bad luck to kill a bear and will not do it unless it is absolutely necessary. One man had a friend who shot a polar bear as it was sleeping peacefully on a floating piece of ice. Soon afterwards the friend’s son drowned.
Before firearms became widely used the Even ethnic grooup hunted bears alone with a spear and knife. The hunter encouraged the bear to charge and when it did the hunter threw a piece of cloth in the air to get the animal to rise up on its hind legs, leaving its chest area exposed. The hunter then kneeled and extended the spear forward. When the bear tried to lung for the hunter it impaled itself on the spear. The hunter usually had a dog with him whose purpose was to distract the bear if something went wrong with the hunt, allowing the hunter to escape.
The Khanty believe the bear is the son of Torum, master of the upper and most sacred region of heaven. According to legend the bear lived in heaven and was allowed to move to earth only after he promised to leave the Khanty and their reindeer herds alone. The bear broke the promise and killed a reindeer and desecrated Khanty graves. A Khanty hunter killed the bear, releasing one of the bear spirits to heaven and the rest to places scattered around the earth. The Khanty have over 100 different words for bear. They generally don't kill bears but are permitted to kill them if they feel threatened. The Khanty walk softly in the forest so as not to disturb them.
Khanty Bear Festival
The most important ritual in Khanty life has traditionally been the ceremony that takes place after a bear is killed. Dating perhaps back to Stone Age, the purpose of the ceremony is to placate the bear’s spirit and ensure a good hunting season. The last bear festival to serve as an initiation was held in the 1930s but they have been were held in secular terms since then. Hunting bear was taboo except at these festivals.
Lasting anywhere from one to four days, the bear festival featured costumed dances and pantomimes, bear games, and ancestral songs about bears and the legend of the Old Clawed One. Several reindeer were sacrificed. The climax of the festival was a shaman ritual in which the head of the slain bear was placed in the middle of the table.
Describing a Khanty shaman, Alexander Milovsky wrote in Natural History: "Suddenly Oven took up a frame drum and beat upon it, gradually increasing the tempo. As he stepped into the middle of the room, the sacrament of the ancient dance began. Oven's movements became more agitated as he entered his deep trance and 'flew' to the other world where he contacted the spirits."
Next the man who killed the bear apologized for his actions and asked the bear's head for forgiveness by bowing and singing an ancient song. This was followed by a ritual play, with actors in birch bark masks and deerskin clothes, dramatizing the role of the first bear in the Khanty creation myth.
The Khanty bear games include bawdy sexual role reversal dances, anti-Russian skits, plays that make fun of awkward hunters that fall through holes on the ice, and dances in which female "reindeer" in pink dresses try to get away from male hunters. Tolstoy described similar rituals in his account of the "the theater of the savage Voguls." (Voguls were an old name for the Mansi).
Tolstoy wrote: "A third Vogul played the part of a hunter. He held a bow and arrow and had snowshoes on his feet. A forth depicted a bird that warned the reindeer of danger. The hunter talked to the doe and its young relentlessly. That, indeed, was the drama of the piece. The deer ran off the stage and then came running back. The performance took place in a [tepee]. The hunter came closer and closer and wounded the calf. Exhausted, it pressed up against its mother, who licked the wound. The hunter drew a second arrow. The audience, as those present related, held its breath. There were sighs of sympathy. Someone even sobbed."
Bears in Kamchatka
Kamchatka is the home to between 10,000 and 20,000 bears. About 8,000 of them are brown bears, one of the largest populations in the world. The brown bears found in Kamchatka are slightly larger than American grizzly bears. They grow fat on eating the plentiful supplies of char and salmon and berries that grow in the tundra meadows.
Large numbers of bear live around Kambalnoya Lake in South Kamchatka Sanctuary. A Canadian named Charlie Russell had a cabin in the area and became quite friendly with the about 20 bears in area, raising three orphaned bears himself and writing a popular book about them, “Grizzly Heart”. One spring he returned and found none of the bears but found a bear gall bladder pinned up in side his cabin. He suspects the bears were killed by poachers. It wasn’t clear whether the gall bladder was a message or an oversight. Russell worried that being friendly with the bears might lead to their demise (the bears might have been too trustful of humans and allowed the poachers to approach them).
During the spring the bears around Kurilskoye Lake emerge from hibernation "hungry, sex-starved and irritable" and wander through settlements on the lake as they approach the shore to fish. They often tear up gardens and root through garbage, Over the years more than 100 problem bears have been killed.
In the summer of 1993 one pulled a camper from a tent and mauled him. Local residents later tracked and shot the bear. In 1996, the Japanese-American bear photographer Michio Hoshimo was pulled form his tent and eaten by a bear at Kronotsky Nature Reserve.
Bear Hunting in Kamchatka
In Kamchatka, about a thousand bears are killed each year legally by hunters—300 by foreign hunters who pay US$10,000 for the privilege—and the remainder by professional hunters. No one knows how many of the animals are poached, but with bear gall bladders selling for hundreds, even thousands of dollars in China there is certainly incentive enough.
Officials in Kamchatka banned helicopter hunting after half the population of brown bears was killed in five years. Now the population has stabilize around 5,000. Many of the hunters were old men in their 70s and even 80s who coudd barely see, In some cases helicopters were used to drive the bears into killing zones where the elderly hunters could easily pick them off. Some even shot them from the helicopters. Traditional sportsmen consider this kind of hunting very unsporting and some of these tactics are illegal.
Bear Hunting with Dogs
Bears in Russia are often hunted with dogs, sometimes with packs of 40 dogs. Dogs are trained to find bear tracks, follow the tracks, have no fear when faced with the bear and bark loudly to alert the attention of hunters. Dogs may try to nip the bears but generally are incapable of seriously injuring them. You don't often hear about packs of wolves attacking a bear.
Most dogs instinctively feel fear in the presence of a bear. Bear-hunting dogs have to be trained with special bears who have also been trained. The main aim of the training is to reduce the dog's fear. Describing the training process with a bear named Mashla, Vsevolod Arsenyev wrote, "A long rope with a slip knot tied to a chain is extended across the clearing. The chain holds Mashka...Mashka sorts out dogs instantly, sometimes at a distance. She may dance with some, roaring or even swiping her paw at them so they know their place...She almost ignores cowardly, lazy or drowsy dogs. She wrinkled her nose and showed us her teeth only once when a black dog darted towards her across the uncrisp snow with a violent a bark. In the first three seconds he managed to strike her twice, spring back and dash forward again."
The training bears are fed vegetables, fruit, and fish heads. Condensed milk and ashberries are a special treat. They are not fed meat because her trainers are worried that will encourage her to seek dogs for meat.
Karelian Bear Dog
The Karelian bear dog is a member of the spitz family of dogs and related to the Russian laika dogs and the Norwegian elkhound. Mostly black, with white patches in its legs, chest and face, it is an old breed that is believed to have been around since the time of the Vikings. It is named after the Karelian region of Finland and far northwestern Russia.
Karelian bear dogs have been used to hunt elk, lynx, deer, rabbits, and wolves as well as bears. They are said to be strong, agile and aggressive enough to hold their own in a one on one battle with a wolf. They have extraordinary stamina and has an uncanny ability to find the winter dens where bears hibernate.
In an effort to create a “super bear dog” Russian breeders bred Karelian bear dogs with Utchak sheepdogs, producing an animal that will not shy away from a fight with a bear. In Finland, Karelian bear dogs that are recognized as champions have to demonstrate their hunting skills in a field trial with an elk (moose).
Bear Attacks in Russia
Bear attacks have long been a problem in Russia in years when their food supplies run low. In the most extreme case, 270 bears were reportedly killed in four villages in Irkutsk province in 1968. In 2010, a scorching summer left bears in Siberia so hungry that some began digging up human graves. [Source Alec Luhn, The Guardian, September 4, 2015]
There were several reported bear attacks in Russia's far east in the summer of 2014. According to the BBC "at least three people killed in different attacks blamed on a combination of factors connected to the region's volatile climate which can range from record high temperatures to flooding and freak snow and hailstorms. The Interfax news agency said that the animals are more hungry because nets have prevented salmon from swimming up rivers to spawn, leaving bears without regular food. [Source: BBC, May 13 2015]
In December 2003, a bear mauled a man to death in the Kronotsky wildlife reserve on Kamchatka Peninsula in the Russian Far East. The Kamchatka rescue service reported that one of the oldest workers of the reserve and well-known Kamchatka photographer and hunting specialist Vitaly Nikolayenko fell victim to a big bear 1.5 kilometers from the rangers' station. According to to RIA Novosti: “Nikolayenko was taking a photograph of the animal and failed to use the weapon he was carrying when the bear attacked him. The rescue workers brought the body to Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky. A total of about 600 Kamchatka bears live on the territory of the Kronotsky wildlife refuge but cases of attacks on man by beasts of prey are extremely rare. [Source: RIA Novosti, December 30, 2003]
In September 1999 a young girl was killed by a bear cub at a zoo in Siberia. The 7- or 8-year-old child had been trying to feed the bear cubs in the central Siberian zoo. One animal knocked her over with a single blow, pulled her into the cage and mauled her to death. The bear, along with another cub in the cage, was shot dead by zoo keepers who had attempted, in vain, to save the girl. [Source: Interfax, September 17, 1999]
Woman Attacked and Buried by a Bear in the Russian Far East
In May 2015, a woman was attacked and seriously injured by a bear that buried her alive in the far east of Russia. The BBC reported: "Natalya Pasternak, 55, was gathering wood in a forest near Tynda in Amur region when the attack happened. Some reports say that the bear thought she was dead and tried to bury her so that it could return to its prey later. Rescuers shot the bear after they rushed to the scene and it also began attacking them, reports say. [Source: BBC, May 13 2015 ^|^]
"The Siberian Times reported that they found post office worker Ms Pasternak after noticing her bloodied hand protruding from underneath a pile of undergrowth. They cleared it away to discover that she was still conscious despite the severity of injuries to her head and thighs. A second woman managed to escape and call the emergency services. ^|^
"Wildlife expert Sergei Ivanov told the government daily Rossiiskaya Gazeta that he had shot the adult female bear immediately "when it leapt towards us out of a ravine, in a rage". "Nearby we found the woman, which the bear had already managed to cover with earth. She was conscious, with many wounds on her body, and the bear had scalped her." Reports say the bear initially attacked the women's dog.A tissue sample from the dead bear has been sent to a lab to determine whether an infection is responsible for its unusually aggressive behaviour. Residents of Tynda have spotted bears on the town's outskirts occasionally in the past, reports say.
Russian Town Besieged by Hungry Bears
In the summer of 2015, dozens of hungry bears have besieged a small town in Russia’s far east, roaming the streets and attacking residents. Alec Luhn wrote in The Guardian, “In the past month, more than 30 bears have entered inhabited areas in Russia’s Primorsky region, located between China, North Korea and the Sea of Japan. Local authorities have had to shoot at least two animals. Luchegorsk, a town of 21,000 on the river Kontrovod near the Chinese border, has been particularly affected. Two large bears – a brown bear and a Himalayan bear – are now “ruling over” Luchegorsk, wandering the streets and scaring local people, the Primorskaya newspaper reported. Asian black bears have also been seen, and a further three dozen bears are circling the town, according to other reports. [Source Alec Luhn, The Guardian, September 4, 2015 ==]
“Local people say they are afraid to leave their homes and that the streets are filled with the sounds of sirens and loudspeakers telling citizens not to go outside for their own safety, VladNews reported. In one case, bears reportedly ransacked bee hives kept by locals. Kindergartens have kept children inside. There is good reason for the caution: a dashcam recently captured footage of a bear jumping out from beneath a balcony to attack a man in Luchegorsk as he was walking his dog near the entrance to his apartment building. Another man was wounded in a bear attack at the local bus station. ==
“Vladimir Vasilyev, head of the Primorsky region’s animal control department, said the situation in Luchegorsk had “stabilised” thanks to the efforts of police and game wardens. “Law enforcement officers are using the sirens on their cars to chase away the bears and are shooting in the air to frighten them,” Vasilyev said, adding that some bears had been dispersed with fire hoses. “Two animals have had to be shot since the start of this invasion. They needed to be neutralised because they posed a real threat to humans and were attacking local residents.”
“Vasilyev was apparently referring to an incident on 24 August when a mother bear and her grown cub roamed the streets of Luchegorsk looking for food. After the cub attacked a man, police and game wardens shot both bears. The man was later taken to hospital. Other reports put the number of bears killed higher. A game warden told the OTV Primorye channel he had to shoot a bear when it turned on him as he was trying to chase it out of Luchegorsk. ==
“Experts believe the hungry bears have been migrating to the Primorsky region from neighbouring Khabarovsk and China in search of food. The number of bears in Primorsky has also grown in recent years due to fewer hunters, Pavel Fomenko of the World Wildlife Fund told news agency Rosbalt. Poor yields this year of Manchurian walnuts, acorns, pine nuts and berries across all these areas have deprived the bears of their main sources of food to fatten up for winter hibernation, sending them into towns in looking to eat.”
Bear Attacks Kill Three People Dead in Siberia
In the summer of 2014, a rash of bear attacks in Russia left at least three people dead and many more injured during a wave of freaky weather that included record high temperatures, snow, hailstorms and flooding hit Siberia and the country's far east. Alec Luhn wrote in The Guardian, “Recent attacks include one at 2am on Wednesday at a meteorological station in the forests of Sakha Republic. A bear broke down the door of a residential trailer and bit the arm of the woman inside, only to be scared away by her loud screaming. Three days earlier another bear ambushed a boy on Iturup island as he was walking home from his grandmother's house. The bear had dragged the 14-year-old to the shore by the time police arrived and shot it dead. The boy had 170 stitches and remains in critical condition. [Source: Alec Luhn, The Guardian, August 1, 2014 ]
“This month, a bear killed three construction workers on Sakhalin island and left two in critical condition in an attack that was partially filmed on one of the men's mobile phones. During another attack in the Sakha Republic, a man's mobile phone saved his life when it suddenly activated and the tone scared off a bear that was biting his head. Adult brown bears found in Siberia and far-east Russia can grow to more the 590kg (1,300lbs) in size.
“Human activity may be behind some of the attacks. Experts cited by the news agency Interfax said nets and obstacles have prevented salmon from swimming up rivers to spawn, leaving bears without a regular food supply. Extreme weather can also disrupt the predators' biorhythms and food supply, said Vladimir Krever, director of the biodiversity programme at WWF Russia. "The increase [in] number of extreme natural phenomena, hurricanes, storms, sudden heat or cold … can lead to a growth in conflict situations for people in nature, including with bears," Krever said.”
Teenager Calls Mum as She Is Eaten Alive by Brown Bears
In August 2011, a mother listened on a cell phone as her teenage daughter was eaten alive by a brown bear and its three cubs. Will Stewart wrote in Daily MailOnline, “Olga Moskalyova, 19, gave an horrific hour-long running commentary on her own death in three separate calls as the wild animals mauled her. She screamed: 'Mum, the bear is eating me! Mum, it’s such agony. Mum, help!' Her mother Tatiana said that at first she thought she was joking. 'But then I heard the real horror and pain in Olga’s voice, and the sounds of a bear growling and chewing,' she added. 'I could have died then and there from shock.' [Source: Will Stewart, Daily MailOnline, August 17, 2011 -]
“Unknown to Tatiana, the bear had already killed her husband Igor Tsyganenkov - Olga’s stepfather - by overpowering him, breaking his neck and smashing his skull. Olga, a trainee psychologist, saw the ―attack on her stepfather in tall grass and reeds by a river in Russia and fled for 70 yards before the mother bear grabbed her leg. As the creature toyed with her, she managed to call Tatiana several times during the prolonged attack.Tatiana rang her husband - not knowing he was ―already dead - but got no answer. -
“She alerted the police and relatives in the village of Termalniy, near Petropavlovsk Kamchatskiy, in the extreme east of Siberia. She begged them to rush to the river where the pair had gone to retrieve a fishing rod that Igor had left. In a second call, a weak Olga gasped: 'Mum, the bears are back. She came back and brought her three babies. They’re... eating me.' Finally, in her last call - almost an hour after the first - Olga sensed she was on the verge of death. With the bears having apparently left her to die, she said: 'Mum, it’s not hurting any more. I don’t feel the pain. Forgive me for everything, I love you so much.' The call cut off and that was the last Tatiana heard from her ―daughter. -
“Half an hour later, Igor’s brother Andrei arrived with police to find the mother bear still devouring his body. Badly mauled Olga was also dead. Six hunters were sent in by the emergency services to kill the mother bear and her three cubs. The double killing is the latest in a spate of bear attacks across ―Russia, as the hungry animals seek food in areas where people have ―encroached and settled on their former habitat.” -
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.
Last updated May 2016