Published: February 2006

Russia's Giant Bears

Bears Standing Lake

Giants Under Siege

After the Soviet Union collapsed, so did the brown bear population of the Kamchatka Peninsula.

By Gleb Raygorodetsky
Photograph by 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 (1,207 kilometers) 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.

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