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A Loss to Man and Nature

A researcher who had lived lovingly with bears in Russia returns to find them gone -- with only one gruesome trace. Poaching is suspected.

November 08, 2003|Kim Murphy | Times Staff Writer

KAMCHATKA PENINSULA, Russia — There are parts of the world so wild, so distant from places inhabited by men, that when things happen, they happen without witnesses. The traces slowly disappear; they melt with the snow in spring, get washed away by rain, carried off by ravens. Eventually, it becomes unclear whether they happened at all.

Such a thing happened here.

Charlie Russell closed up his cabin at Kambalnoye Lake, on the remote tip of the Kamchatka Peninsula in Russia's Far East, and said goodbye for the winter to the bears he had studied for seven years.

There were 20 in all. Among them: Brandy, who often left her three cubs with Russell for baby-sitting while she went fishing. Walnut, a young male. Biscuit, whom Russell had raised as a cub and who, pregnant with her own offspring, would sometimes come bounding to greet him when he landed his plane, brushing against his leg or nibbling his boot.

Russell left last November for his home in Canada, confident that the bears would soon be safe in their snow-shrouded slumber. He returned, as usual, in spring. But instead of finding Biscuit emerging with blinking cubs from her den, all he found was stillness.

Biscuit did not appear. Nor did Walnut or Brandy or any of the bears. Russell searched for two months without finding a trace of any of them. What he did find, when he opened his cabin, was a bear's gallbladder, hung from a nail on the wall.

What had happened during those weeks before impenetrable drifts of snow settled over the valley, before the bears would have lumbered off to the safety of their dens? Who left the gruesome artifact on the wall, and was it an oversight or a message? And the question that haunts Russell most of all: Did Biscuit walk up to greet her killers?

Kamchatka prosecutor Alexander Voitovich is investigating the case as a poaching. The "mass killing" of an estimated 20 bears, he said, appears to have been the result of a search for gallbladders, whose contents are valued in Asia for use in folk medicines. "There is a strong possibility that we will solve this ugly crime very soon," he said.

But Russell and others who work around Kamchatka's famous brown bears aren't so sure. For one, it is not clear why someone who wanted gallbladders would have wasted one on Russell's cabin wall. For another, a lot of people had reason to resent Russell.

In fact, singling out someone who might have wanted to send a warning to the Alberta rancher -- who helped uncover corruption in the Kamchatka government, warred with the local scientific establishment and organized measures to thwart the region's billion-dollar poaching industry -- is like trying to find the bad bean in a pot of chili.

"This was obviously an action to prevent Charlie from doing his work. And it achieved its result," said Alexei Maslov, a scientist who has worked frequently in the South Kamchatka Wildlife Reserve, where Russell's project was based.

"It was a demonstration of power," added Maslov's wife, Ekaterina Lepskaya, also a scientist. "They demonstrated that they own the lake, not Charlie."

A strategic Soviet military region that was closed to outsiders through most of the last century, the Kamchatka Peninsula has remained one of the world's most vital stretches of wilderness, a primeval landscape of steaming, snow-covered volcanoes and black-sand beaches. Up to a quarter of all wild salmon in the Pacific spawn in its cold rivers. Brown bears up to 10 feet tall roam in untouched birch forests and tundra berry meadows.

Now international conservation organizations regard it as one of the most threatened of the world's natural treasures. The United Nations has placed parts of Kamchatka on its list of World Heritage sites, which are eligible for international protection because of their universal value. The U.N., with other organizations, will spend more than $13 million over the next several years to protect Kamchatka from the hazards of rural Russia's post-perestroika meltdown.

The poaching to which Russell's bears probably fell victim has become a potent economic engine on the 1,000-mile peninsula. Riverbanks this summer and fall were littered with dead salmon cast aside by villagers who had stripped them of eggs to be sold as red caviar. Fishermen in the Okhotsk Sea off Kamchatka routinely ignore their fishing quotas, and bears -- already shot at the rate of up to 1,000 a year, both legally and illegally -- will face critical food shortages if the salmon poaching isn't stopped, biologists say.

"The federal government is so preoccupied with macroeconomic problems, it doesn't even occur to them what is really happening on the outskirts of Russia," said Robert S. Moiseyev, a Kamchatka economist. "In Moscow, they give us directives to manage the Okhotsk Sea. But in reality, the Okhotsk Sea is being pillaged by everybody."

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