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South Kamchatka Federal Sanctuary, August 2018

‘They found a foot and a bottle of vodka’ Life in Russia’s southern Kamchatka, where there’s one increasingly hungry bear for every two people

Source: Meduza
South Kamchatka Federal Sanctuary, August 2018
South Kamchatka Federal Sanctuary, August 2018
Liana Varavskaya / South Kamchatka Federal Sanctuary

The number of wandering bears rivals the human population in Ozernovsky, a town in southern Kamchatka. Meduza correspondent Irina Kravtsova visited the remote area to learn how locals manage to live alongside animals that can turn deadly when driven from their usual food sources, which are rapidly disappearing, thanks to overfishing.

In the summer of 2019, forty-two-year-old Sergei Vorovyov’s wife was craving jam, so he went to his garden on the outskirts of the village of Ozernovsky to get some berries. “I get out of the car, look up, and there he is, fucking Winnie the Pooh! Sitting in the middle of my garden, chowing down on strawberries,” Sergey told Meduza.

But Sergey said he can understand the bear. “We go steal berries from him in the tundra, and he just minds his own business; we take his fish, he doesn’t complain. And now that he’s come to steal from us, it’s not out of revenge. He’s just hungry — we drove him to it.”

Located at the southern tip of Kamchatka, Ozernovsky has a population of 1,560 people. It is the largest village in the so-called Ozernovsky Bush, which also includes Zaporozhye (population 549), Pauzhetka (78 people), and Shumniy (just 23 residents).

Out here, there are almost as many bears as people. The Ozernovsky Bush borders the South Kamchatka Federal Sanctuary, where the brown-bear population is estimated to be roughly 1,000. This is a record-level population density for Kamchatka, where the overall bear population is more than 24,000.

“He would have crushed Vasya, dragged him away, and buried him”

In the summer of 2014, Vasily Tretyakov was walking home from his garden when he found himself face-to-face with a bear. “He stared at me, I stared at him. Then he got on his hind legs and lunged at me,” Tretyakov says.

The village of Ozernovsky
Darya Filippova for Meduza
Some Ozernovsky residents have mini-gardens right in front of their homes
Darya Filippova for Meduza
Ozernovsky regional hospital
Irina Kravtsova / Meduza
The village of Ozernovsky
Darya Filippova for Meduza
A playground in Ozernovsky
Darya Filippova for Meduza

At that moment, Vasily admits, his legs took over, and he ran. The bear overtook him in two jumps, caught him by the buttocks with its teeth, pulled him down, and pinned him to the ground with its paw.

Luckily, Tretyakov’s neighbor Zhora Zhidomorov happened to be passing by. Zhidomorov drove his Jeep right into the animal, hitting him with the bumper. After being hit three times, the bear finally released Tretyakov. Zhidomorov put Tretyakov in the Jeep and brought him to the hospital. 

The last thing Tretyakov remembered when he woke up was “being eaten by a bear.” At first, he decided that he must be dead, but then he thought, “How can I be dead if I’m thirsty?” He stayed in the hospital for a month, then spent another month at home on sick leave. He’s since given up gardening.

Many people in Zaporozhye live in private homes with gardens. Along the roads, meadowsweet and hogweed grow as tall as people. When drivers see pedestrians, they insist that walking is too dangerous, and offer to give them a lift.

Whenever locals do go on foot, they try to travel in groups of three or four, staying in the middle of the road and talking loudly. They say bears have bad eyesight but excellent hearing; if the animal expects to encounter “something big,” it tries to avoid it.

The village of Zaporozhye
Darya Filippova for Meduza
Mikhail Martinyuk in his garden
Darya Filippova for Meduza
A Zaporozhye resident’s yard
Darya Filippova for Meduza

The bears’ presence doesn’t bother Nadezhda Martinyuk as much as their bad behavior does. “Some of them come, carefully take the ripe strawberries from the bushes, and leave. Others come all sloppily, uproot the bushes, and make a mess for nothing!” she complained.

Usually, the dog Fifa starts barking to notify the Martinyuks when there’s a bear nearby. Nadezhda sits by the window to look, and her son Mikhail goes out onto the porch. Sometimes he takes videos of the animals and puts them on Instagram. He doesn’t try to scare them off. “This is their home, and we’re guests,” he says.

“Oh, Misha’s here!” called Martinyuk, cutting off his conversation with Meduza’s correspondent. There was a crackling sound in the thicket opposite the house, and the bear’s head appeared. Then he ran towards the river. About five minutes later, shots rang out.

“He’s as big as a bulldozer”

In August 2019, a repairman from Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky came to Ozernovsky to fix the ventilation system at Fish Cannery No. 55. After finishing the job, he decided to go for a stroll along the shore. The next morning, local factory workers found a skeleton, a foot, and a bottle of vodka scattered in the sand.

Wildlife specialists ended up shooting four bears on the beach. One of the bears had human flesh and bits of clothing in his stomach, and another one smelled strongly of vodka. “A bear that’s tasted human flesh is considered spoiled,” said Kosolapov, explaining why they shot them. Once a bear learns that humans are easy prey, it’s bound to kill more, he explained.

In the 1990s, salmon poaching skyrocketed. Like everywhere in Russia at the time, salaries were often not paid for month-long periods, and local diets often included caviar and salmon, but not oil or cereal. Since there wasn’t any money to buy grain, people fed salmon to chicken and pigs.

Fifty-eight-year-old Pauzhetka resident Gennady Chumichev worked in those days as an ATV driver for a geothermal power plant. He didn’t receive a paycheck for four years. Like many others, he started poaching, “not to pamper myself, but to survive.” He set a net on the Ozernaya and traded his bags of salmon for bags of sugar or flour.

One day, Chumichev caught a bear pulling fish from his net. “He carefully took a fish with his paw, not even breaking the net, and left,” he said. After waiting for the bear to leave, Chumichev approached the net, and his dog, Rizhik, started barking; Chumichev turned around and saw the bear standing in front of him, “as big as a bulldozer.”

Gennady Chumichev next to his garden in Pauzhetka
Darya Filippova for Meduza

Chumichev shot the bear, injuring his paw. What followed is best described in Chumichev’s own words.

Death should be met head-on — not ass-first

He did a number on me, of course — what a mind he’s got! I released two more bullets on him, they went right past him. I got up onto a branch, reloaded my gun, and he’s coming at me, head-on — there’s no way to shoot him in the head. I dropped my gun and ran. But what’s the use of running? Death should be met head-on — not ass-first.

I turn around, and he’s coming at me. And he’s healthy, his muscles are working. I run around his stomach, spin around — he can’t catch me, and I keep running. And suddenly he lifts me up by the arm and throws me to the ground with all his might. I fell down, and out of fear, my soul separated from my body and flew up there. [He points at the sky.] I look down at my body like it’s someone else’s, and I see in slow motion how he grabs me by the leg and starts shaking me from side to side, like I weigh nothing. He starts dragging me around, and I look down and don’t even feel any pain.

At that moment, I saw the image of my wife, Nadyusha, up above. [Note: Chumichev’s wife is still alive.] She’s saying to me, “Gena, you’re leaving us.” I really didn’t want to go back. I experienced heaven in that moment. That’s when I realized: we’re all living in a fuss, trying to prove something, just doing nonsense. And there, where I was, was bliss: no pain, no fear, no vanity — time was stopped. But when I heard my wife’s words, I remembered that I was supposed to take my son to first grade in September, and I had dreamed so much about that day. So I went back to my body.

At that very moment, the bear stopped tearing at me. And I had such energy, I felt that God himself had decided to protect me. I got up, stormed toward him, waving my hands, and cried, “Get out of here, you dumb thing!” I just didn’t give a fuck! But the bear was actually in pain, I had shot it, and it was bleeding. I yelled at him, and he stood there, too, roaring and looking at me. Then he looked at the tundra, looked at me one last time, and left.

According to Chumichev, after his encounter with the bear, he began to “pride himself” on how he’d managed to survive, and he continued hunting bears, minks, and sables. At the end of every season, he would take the furs to an event called “Gospromkhoz” to sell them. But afterward, drinking with his twin brother in the evening, he started “thinking about meaning.”

“I started to understand that when you hunt, you’re taking away someone’s energy. There’s no love. You’re basically getting rich financially, but your soul is deteriorating,” said Chumichev. One evening, he collected all of his furs, took them out into the yard, soaked them in gasoline, and burned them. Since then, he’s sworn off hunting — now he grows cucumbers and tomatoes in a greenhouse that looks out onto Kambalny volcano.

Right outside of Chumichev’s house is a pile of bear feces. But Chumichev doesn’t take a gun or a hand flare with him anymore — he says he’s no longer afraid.

But the bears are still numerous. In 2020, according to local wildlife specialists, as many as eight bears visit Ozernovsky and Zaporozhye on a daily basis.

How big are Kamchatka’s bears? Try Meduza’s Instagram filter. If you’re reading this on a smartphone, follow this link (the Instagram app must be installed). If you’re on a computer, use your camera to scan the QR code below.

“Bears need their fish rations, too”

When 39-year-old Ekaterina Bersinsh was a kid, she usually managed to see bears only from far away, when they first woke up in springtime. “You would look, and wa-a-ay out there on a snowy hill, you’d see a black dot moving. Then you’d think, thank God, I saw a bear this year, my life was made,” she says.

But around the end of the 2000s, bears started appearing in town late in the evening and early in the morning. And then in broad daylight: they climb into gardens and landfills without paying humans any attention. Most locals blame the fishermen, who overfish the rivers and leave the bears hungry.

“A lot of the rivers are completely dead — all the fish have been taken,” said Dmitry Lobov. “Nobody thinks about the fact that bears need their fish rations, too. People rake in as much as they can, and nothing is left for the bears.”

In 2020, the bears even visited Kamchatka’s larger cities, Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky and neighboring Yelizovo. In September, first responders, wildlife specialists, and policemen spent several weeks trying to catch an “uncatchable bear,” who came into Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky and approached a city administration building. The bear didn’t attack anybody — it just raided the garbage for food.

A few years ago, when a storm brought in more salmon than usual, “the bears quickly satisfied their hunger, realized the fish weren’t going anywhere and became patient and friendly with one another. The adults, not to mention the cubs, started playing with each other. Cannibalism was very rare,” said Varavskaya.

But the competition for fish has increased in recent years. In Soviet times, two facilities were responsible for fishing and fish processing. Now there are nine factories of various sizes operating in the area: four in Ozernovsky and five in Zaporozhye.

Fish Cannery No. 55 in Ozernovsky
Irina Kravtsova / Meduza
Zaporozhye residents coming home on a helicopter
Darya Filippova for Meduza

Kirill Volkov, the executive director of Canning Plant No. 55, told Meduza that there are “more than enough” fish in the rivers, and that bears have started coming into town because there are so many of them. Allegedly, poachers used to kill more of them, but then “the Reserve put things in order,” cracking down on poaching.

This view has other supporters as well. After the bear attacked the plumber outside the canning plant in 2019, Sergey Milov, editor-in-chief of the Kamchatka publication Rush Hour asked officials to require the Kronotsky Reserve to shoot half of the bear population (about 500 bears).

According to Sergei Kolchin, this is absurd. “Going onto a protected natural territory and shooting the animals that we’ve forced to starve — lightly speaking, it’s not the answer,” says Kolchin.

Almost none of the cubs born in 2020 are left. “The female bears are traveling alone because their cubs were eaten by hungry males.” Varavskaya also confirms that tension among the bears has been growing for the last three years: the adult males are very aggressive, and fights are to be expected.

A mother bear with her cubs on Kurile Lake, autumn 2020
Darya Filippova for Meduza
One of the cannibal bears lying next to a bear cub after mauling it, autumn 2020
Darya Filippova for Meduza
A cannibal bear in South Kamchatka Federal Sanctuary, autumn 2020
Liana Varavskaya / South Kamchatka Federal Sanctuary

When bears can’t find enough food in the wild, they follow the scent of landfills. According to Kolchin, in Alaska and California, where bears also live close to humans, this problem was solved a half-century ago. “They don’t have open landfills, the trash isn’t accessible to the bears, so visits from bears are much rarer.”

In 2019, according to official data, wildlife specialists shot 35 bears. A local wildlife specialist who requested anonymity says, however, that the real number of bears shot in 2019 was between 120 and 130, if both wildlife specialists and local residents are taken into account.

“Children freeze, waiting for it to pass”

Every resident knows the rule — if you see a bear, you should notify the rapid response team of its location and any identifying features. After that, two members of the team will go out to the location. If they find the bear, they’ll detonate a stun grenade nearby.

If the bear gets frightened and leaves, the specialists conclude there’s no reason to kill it. “After all, it’s impossible to know beforehand whether it just got lost, scared — we’ll drive him back into the tundra, and he won’t want to come back,” Lobov explained. If the bear growls, attacks, or tries to hide, they kill it.

The Zaporozhye and Ozernovsky residents’ WhatsApp chats consist of birthday wishes, holiday wishes, and conversations about bears. Disputes almost always get heated, with cursing and personal attacks. Some residents are afraid of the bears and demand for them all to be killed, and others feel bad for them and leave condensed milk and fish outside for them.

Officially, Ekaterina Berzinsh is responsible for sanitation in the fish factories, but in her spare time, “just for the soul,” she takes care of injured foxes, hares, and birds that other villagers bring her. Last year, somebody brought her a one-year-old bear cub — he was so weak he could barely move his paw. They put him in a garage, and for a month Ekaterina fed him fish. After he regained some strength, he was taken back into the tundra.

Veterinarian Ekaterina Berzinsh
Darya Filippova for Meduza

Ekaterina Kostenko, who lives in Ozernovsky, recalls how, in 2019, “schoolteachers Ada Vasilyevna and Victoria Anatolyevna walked to school together with a bear — the bear in front, the teachers quietly trudging behind.” According to Kostenko, the teachers figured that “if the bear isn’t attacking anyone, it’s okay to walk, because the children were waiting in class.”

That same year, the village finally got a school bus, which the students’ mothers had been asking for since 2016. “It’s unimaginable — children going to school, walking over a bridge towards a bear, all pressed together so they seem like one big mass to the bear, and they freeze, waiting for it to pass,” said Kostenko. “Sometimes they meet him on the bridge and send us a text message to come running. It’s a nightmare! Cold sweat starts pouring.”

“Fishing, playing PUBG, and getting drunk”

Most residents of southern Kamchatka work in fish factories. On average, they earn 40,000 rubles ($550) a month, but they get bonuses during the fishing season — 250,000–400,000 rubles (roughly $4,500) altogether. At the beginning of the year, everyone awaits the ichthyologists’ forecast of how many fish will come to spawn, which determines what the rest of their year will be like.

There’s no fresh fish in the local stores. Kirill Volkov told Meduza that the factories don’t sell fish to the locals because they won’t buy them for “city” prices, and if they lower the price, the residents will resell them.

At the same time, locals are banned from catching fish in the Ozernaya, even with regular fishing poles, as part of anti-poaching efforts. This is monitored not only by the local government and the nature reserve but also by private security guards from local factories. They travel the river in a boat, threatening fishermen with fines and confiscating fishing rods. According to local teenagers, private guards are the worst of all.

Sanya and Dima next to the Ozernaya River
Darya Filippova for Meduza
Darya Filippova for Meduza
Darya Filippova for Meduza

Every day, local teenagers Sanya and Dima go fishing on the bridge that connects Ozernovsky and Zaporozhye. They sell fish to seasonal workers right there and advertise their fish on local WhatsApp groups. They work all year round — in winter, they use holes in the ice.

This summer, the director of Sanya’s school answered one of the announcements about fish, and Sanya sold him fish for the same price as everyone else — 100-120 rubles (about $1.50) per fish, and 1,500 rubles ($20) for a kilogram of caviar, which he extracts, salts, and prepares himself.

In the fall, Sanya comes home from school, changes into camouflage, and heads out to the bridge with his dog, Dina, who alerts him when a bear is nearby. No matter the weather, Sanya and Dima spend all day fishing. Often, they build a fire to cook fish soup or bake fish while they work.

Young people in the Ozernovsky Bush do three things for entertainment: fish, play PUBG (an online shooter game), and get drunk — “like lots of our friends here,” say Sanya and Dima.

This is because life in Zaporozhye is boring, according to 17-year-old Olya. Two years ago, she got a job in the fish factory “just out of boredom, to kill time.” The work is exhausting, but Olya likes it because she has a lot of friends there. They also get chances to relax: several times her boss has let the teenagers “quietly eat some smoked halibut.”

Olya from Zaporozhye
Darya Filippova for Meduza

In a year, Olya plans to move to St. Petersburg to study design. This has caused some “misunderstanding” between her and her parents — they think it would be better for her to stay home and get a permanent job in the factory, like they did.

Dima and Sanya want to leave, Ozernovsky, too. “I love my life here, and I’d like to stay here, but soon there will literally be nothing to catch,” said Sanya. “In 30 years, there won’t be any salmon, because the factory doesn’t understand moderation.”

The salmon here is already scarce — unsurprisingly, given how the fish are caught, said Sanya. “If a fish manages to slip through their nets, they overtake it with their boat, turn around, and throw the nets back out. If the first boat doesn’t manage to catch a fish, there’s a second one, it also covers half the river, and that way they completely take out entire groups of fish. So they’ll kill all these herds, and then what will we catch? Many of the rivers in Kamchatka are already completely empty. It’s obvious that the Ozernaya will meet the same fate.”

“Nothing to be done”

The sky above Ozernovsky and Zaporozhye is almost always overcast. It drizzles a lot, and the sun appears very rarely.

The mineral springs in Pauzhetka is the only place people can go to warm up and relax. It’s only 30 kilometers (19 miles) from Ozernovsky to Pauzhetka, but it’s not an easy path — it requires crossing seven bridges that are currently damaged.

Driving to the “city,” on the other hand, requires taking multiple ferries and driving off-road multiple times. Many people from the Ozernovsky Bush have tried to move to Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky permanently, and some have even gotten apartments there, but they’ve all returned in the end.

A bear with its catch in its teeth
Igor Shpilenok / South Kamchatka Federal Sanctuary

According to veterinarian Ekaterina Bersinsh, bears are just one of the local “nuances.” “Bears for us are like traffic for Muscovites. You know it’s there, but there’s nothing to be done about it, so you make peace.”

Story by Irina Kravtsova, reporting from Moscow and the Kamchatka Territory, produced by Sultan Suleimanov, designed by Nastya Yarovaya

Abridged translation by Sam Breazeale

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