Brown bear, red salmon

Print edition : March 18, 2016

A brown bear with its salmon catch. Photo: SHEFIQ BASHEER AHAMMED

The rest house in Kuril lake where the photographers stayed. Photo: SHEFIQ BASHEER AHAMMED

Skinning the salmon is done quickly and efficiently. Photo: SHEFIQ BASHEER AHAMMED

It looked as if the bear was striking a pose for the camera. Photo: SHEFIQ BASHEER AHAMMED

The expert hunter at work. Photo: SHEFIQ BASHEER AHAMMED

The dormant Elinskoye volcanoe, a spectacular view from the rest house. Photo: SHEFIQ BASHEER AHAMMED

The Steller's gull with a brown bear. Photo: SHEFIQ BASHEER AHAMMED

A brown bear against the icy cold landscape.

The Slender-billed gull at the lake. Photo: SHEFIQ BASHEER AHAMMED

Hunting for salmon in shallow water.

Salmon after spawning in the Kuril lake. Photo: SHEFIQ BASHEER AHAMMED

Salmon after spawning in the Kuril lake. Photo: SHEFIQ BASHEER AHAMMED

In its habitat on the shores of the lake. Photo: SHEFIQ BASHEER AHAMMED

A bear cub on a tree. Photo: SHEFIQ BASHEER AHAMMED

Standing on a tree and scrutinising the water below for fish. Photo: SHEFIQ BASHEER AHAMMED

The hunter on the move... Photo: SHEFIQ BASHEER AHAMMED

Kuril lake with a lush green hill in the background. Photo: SHEFIQ BASHEER AHAMMED

Constantine (left) with Shefiq Basheer Ahammed. Photo: By Special Arrangement

Brown bears are one of the eight species of bears found in Eurasia, North America, Canada and parts of Asia.

Constantine, wielding a gun, is scolding a massive brown bear in crude Russian. He is annoyed because the bear lurks in the pine forest instead of catching salmon in the lake.

“You, brown, obey me. You are a fishing bear. Go to the lake and make a catch. We will shoot you with our cameras.” Constantine’s voice is sharp. The bear seemingly ignores his words and Constantine brandishes his gun angrily. “Obey me. Don’t you hear me?” The bear looks at him and then jumps into the lake. One almost felt as if it was smiling, said Shefiq Basheer Ahammed, a wildlife photographer who was part of a group of 12 photographers visiting Kuril lake (Kurilskoye), an enthralling expanse of snowy wilderness where brown bears and red salmon abound. The lake itself is a remnant of a volcanic eruption that occurred 8,000 years ago.

Kuril lake, fed by snowmelt and rainwater, spans an area of over 77 square kilometres. The Ozernaya river flows from the lake to the Sea of Okhotsk, a marginal sea of the Pacific Ocean. It is part of the Kronotsky nature biosphere reserve in the Kamchatka peninsula of Russia’s Far East. The 1,200-km-long volcanic peninsula is remote and visually and emotionally overwhelming. It has around 300 dormant or extinct volcanoes and around 30 active ones, some of them emitting sulphur fumes. It was declared a World Heritage site by UNESCO in 1996.

Constantine, their guide, is a seasoned conservationist and an articulate forest officer. He has been working in the reserve for more than 15 years and has built up a fine rapport with the bears. He is also extremely knowledgeable about bear behaviour and the topography.

A trek around the lake, said Shefiq Basheer Ahammed, would reveal spurting geysers, craters, rocky mountains draped in cloud, pine forests, meandering rivers, freshwater bodies, and hot springs. There is a rich fauna in this astounding spectrum of nature. Steller’s sea eagles and gulls dominate the sky. The formidable brown bear, the dominant predator, thrive in the peninsula even in sub-zero temperatures. There are only trekking paths and no roads, and hence no vehicular traffic, in the entire lake area. Visitors are not allowed to step out from the trek paths and they have to abide by the rules and regulations of the reserve during treks, which are usually 15 km long.

All the paths in the peninsula lead to Kuril lake, the centre of attraction. Every year, millions of red salmon migrate from the Pacific Ocean to Kuril lake and other freshwater bodies to spawn. During the spawning period, the colour of the fish changes from silver to red, the breeding colour. The migration starts in May and reaches its peak by August-September. The lake and its adjacent areas then become a salmon hunting ground for brown bears. An adult bear may eat at least seven salmon a day, each weighing between 4 and 7 kilogrammes. The fish is rich in fat, and the bears eat voraciously, storing as much fat as they can before they go into hibernation for four months.

Brown bears can be frightening predators, but Constantine assures the visiting photographers that they are not killers and have come to tolerate human presence. He also tells the lensmen that in case of violent attacks, he is authorised to kill them. The gun he is carrying also serves to protect bears from poachers who smuggle the animal’s paws and bile to Asia.

The bear Constantine was talking to catches a salmon, wades to the shore and looks at the visitors. For a moment, it looks as if it is posing for the photographers. The team starts trekking along the sandy, pebbled paths, with Constantine leading its members and one of his colleagues bringing up the rear. Even as Constantine asks them to watch out for and stay clear of colourful insects, and small plants that might lie on either side of the path, they chance upon another bear thrashing around the water trying to catch a salmon. Though bears usually use their jaws to catch fish, in shallow water they strike the fish with their paws. This bear, too, manages to get one, brings it to the shore and skins the salmon as if it was tearing off a piece of rag, much to the delight of the photographers. Even as this is going on, Constantine whispers: “Friends, here is a grand master.” They see an old, big bear standing neck-deep in water. He does not thrash around like the other bear did and is the very epitome of patience. He just waits and strikes at the opportune moment. Checkmate. The salmon is in his jaws.

Shefiq Basheer Ahammed, who was in Kuril lake in July 2015, recalls: “It was an unforgettable chapter in my life. But the trip to Kamchatka was challenging. One has to go to Moscow first and then catch a 10-hour flight to Petrovpavlovsk-Kamchatsky, the administrative capital of the Kamchatka peninsula. It is a town surrounded by volcanoes, though most of them are dormant. It takes an hour and a half from there to Kuril lake by helicopter. Until 1990, the lake was closed even to Russians, and only geologists were allowed for research work. Now tourism is flourishing, though it is controlled. Russia has a nuclear submarine station in Kamchatka, and the entire area is under military surveillance.

“In Kuril lake there is a small wooden rest house for visitors. It is close to an extinct volcano called Elinskoye. Electricity is produced by generator. But there is only candlelight at night. The rest house is fenced because bears roam about in the vicinity at night. The entire area is incredibly beautiful, but there are extremes. On one side there are fuming volcanoes and huge mountain canyons filled with geysers. The Valley of Geysers is 8 km long and has 52 geysers. Sometimes sounds resembling the breathing of gigantic creatures can be heard. On the other side are icy streams and numerous hot springs. The weather is unpredictable. The mornings are usually cold, requiring one to wear heavy winter clothes, gloves and gumboots.

“Those 10 days were thrilling, and I had the opportunity to take a lot of photographs thanks to Constantine’s knowledge. Some bears actually seemed to recognise him. He would often chat softly with them in Russian as they passed by. On many occasions, I was so close to bears that I could have reached out and touched their coat. It was unforgettable. But the bears were not at all concerned by our presence and ignored us.

“The many moods of bears make for interesting wildlife photographs. Some are charismatic, some are sporty. Some are very agile and catch salmon fast, in the very first stroke. There are sluggish bears also and it takes many tries for them to catch salmon because the fish often wriggles out of their paws. But, ultimately, all bears have enough salmon. No one starves.”

Brown bears are one of the eight species of bears found in Eurasia, North America, Canada and parts of Asia. The brown bear density in the Kuril lake area is the highest in Eurasia, says Vladimir Zakhov, a senior scientist with the Pacific Institute of Geography in Kamchatka. He has been studying bear ecology since 2003.

He said: “The area around Kuril lake is a perfect habitat for the brown bear since it is one of the important salmon-spawning areas.” He estimates that there are around 18,000 brown bears in the peninsula. An aerial survey of the bear population is planned for later this year.

Most bears have territories of their own, but territorial disputes do happen. Bears are usually solitary, though they can be seen in herds occasionally. They are great runners and swimmers, and from dawn to dusk they move around looking for food. Red salmon is not the only kind of salmon that migrates to Kuril lake.

There are four other species too. After spawning, both male and female die. Their bodies disintegrate in the lake. The juveniles spend two years in the lake before heading out for the Pacific Ocean and after two years, they return to spawn.

Poaching is a serious threat in the peninsula. Foreign trawlers violate marine territory in search of salmon and other fish. The caviar of the red salmon brings a very good price in the international market. “Every day Russian authorities impound foreign trawlers for poaching. Poachers even move in helicopters organised by professional gangs. The long-term result will be the collapse of the ecology of not only the Kamchatka peninsula but the entire Pacific,” says Dr Prabhakaran Paleri, former Director General of the Indian Coast Guard, who has done research on maritime security. His book Maritime Security : The U n lawful Dimension has a special chapter on Kamchatka.

Fishing is the main occupation of the people of Kamchatka and they are largely indifferent to the conservation of the brown bear. But environmental agencies have started clubs in schools to create awareness about the importance of conservation.

G. Shaheed is Chief of Legal and Environment News Bureau of Mathrubhumi in Kochi. Shefiq Basheer Ahammed is a Motor Vehicles Inspector in Kochi and a wildlife photographer .