Home Back Forward July 16, 2003: Project Ends/Final Thoughts and Feelings

Biscuit Betrayed,
2003, mixed media.

Mrs. Blue is looking for her mate.

Must be one of Squint's relatives.

(Click on any Image to see a higher resolution version)


Sad Update on Kamchatka Grizzly Bear Project of Charles Russell and Maureen Enns

It is with great sadness and outrage that I inform you of the senseless tragedy that occurred with our study bears at Kambalnoye Lake. I, Maureen, just returned to Canada with Charlie due to arrive back soon. No, he is not going to fly his ultralite up the Kamchatka Peninsula and over the Bering Straight into Alaska as he hoped due to the lack of permits.

In early May, Charlie returned to Kambalnoye Lake base camp to find a bear gall bladder hanging suspiciously on the wall of our cabin, which had been broken into last fall. Further evidence of illegal hunters continued to show up around our camp as the snow slowly melted. Garbage was left under the pines, bear hair lying in our yard and an empty gun cartridge not far from our door.

When I arrived, June 2, we both continued to intensively search for Biscuit, Brandy and her family and other resident study bears. Every day I hiked for hours into all their known haunts of past years in June. We know well what they eat this time of year and thus easily where to locate them. Everywhere we went we were flooded with memories of times with Biscuit, Chico and Rosie or Brandy and her family. It was excruciatingly painful to conduct the search. I started almost running to areas newly revealed by melting snow hoping to at least find evidence. But we did not find carcasses or signs of bears having been killed. There is usually evidence very quickly when a bear is killed as it is consumed by other bears with hair and bones showing up in scats along known bear trails. We found nothing! We didn't even find signs of the predator bear’s scat with the cub claws and hair in it that we had found in past years. Perhaps he too was a victim – the only plus to the whole story in my opinion for killing Rosie!

Reviewing the bear counts for the same time period over past years, we soon accepted that numbers were down from 10-15 daily bear sightings, around the basin, to 2 to 5. It made us sick to see the few that were left, run away from us in terror – a response we hadn't seen at the lake for years. None of our known bears were among those we saw. Also, I was shocked to see that only one older male was in the vicinity during breeding season and only two mothers with spring cubs(of this year). This led us to suspect that the large, old males we have counted in the Kambalnoye River were likely also victims – maybe even the cause of why our cabin became a target – some place easy to stay while after the bigger bears with our study bears thrown in????

But no sign of killed bears! We were later informed by an associate in Petropavlovsk that it is common practice with illegal hunters, if time allows, to use their helicopter to remove the skinned out bodies and either sink them in a lake or a river.

With the bear population so dramatically reduced and all known bears missing, we have no doubt that our study animals were amongst the victims of poachers. We are certain Biscuit, Brandy, Lemon and Lime are no more! Painfully accepting this conclusion after a 2-month search, we packed everything out of the camp for the last time, returning to Petropavlovsk on July 6th. We dismantled our entire camp giving most supplies and equipment away – even my beloved kayak.

The rangers of the South Kamchatka Sanctuary, which we support, were angry and sad. Their program to stop poaching had been so successful with more poachers caught in the past 6 months. However, we recently found out that poachers that are being apprehended are not prosecuted. No official comment on why they were all let go at this time. We have been told that Russian legislation for poaching is very weak. We have not identified the organization/individual responsible for what happened at Kambalnoye Lake. We do know that poachers in the field and associated helicopter pilots are pretty far down the line of where the problem originates.

We are collecting exact statistics on the numbers of poachers caught but not prosecuted along with the Kamchatka Hunting Departments’ estimates of bears killed illegally in Kamchatka in the 2002-03 hunting season. Poaching is definitely on the increase and we believe, at the highest level since we began work in Russia in 1994. Ten bears were found this spring, shot from the helicopter while running- easy targets on the snow. It appeared the gall bladders were quickly removed while the helicopter was still running.

Do we keep our existing poaching control program of ranger support in South Kamchatka going when those apprehended face no punishment? Even the military police we assisted the Preserve to hire to give our rangers back up are mysteriously unavailable! We have no answer to this question at this time.

We have not decided upon our best response to this tragedy. However, we will try to bring some global attention to what is happening to what we believe is the greatest completely wild bear area in the world. We do not wish to disrupt tourism in Kamchatka which could be the worst result of media attention. We have been heavily supportive of Eco tourism associated with bear viewing in Kamchatka. We know bear viewing could easily exceed the revenue currently earned in Kamchatka, from bear hunting, endorsing the premise that a live bear is worth more than a dead one and the resource sustainable.

We failed in our final research year with Biscuit who would have had spring cubs this year but keep convincing ourselves of how much we did achieve.

Currently, we will look at other project research goals to apply some of what we have learnt in Russia to North America. Now I will finally have time to develop and find someone to market the backpacker’s electric fence package and the one to control bears around bird feeding stations! I am also thinking of writing a book about the evolution of my art over the past 8 years from living with our bears. I'm asking myself, what was I learning, feeling, thinking, as the various series of work unfolded? How did I change from this experience and how did the art change? Who am I, the artist, today, as a result of being so privileged to have lived in the wild with these trusting animals?

As a sidebar, I would like to mention that our fox friends survived the intrusion. I like to think Mrs. Blue may be related to my old favorite fox, Squint, who was killed several years ago. To read a previous web entry on the foxes Maureen mentions click this text.

I thank the many readers of this site for their letters of concern and expressions of sympathy while events were unfolding

- Maureen

© Lenticular Productions Ltd. 2003