Thursday, July 24, 2008

Starving Bears Eat Two Men at Russian Mines

MOSCOW — A pack of enormous bears searching for food killed and ate two men at mines in Russia's Pacific Kamchatka region and have kept hundreds of geologists and miners from reaching the mine, news agencies reported Wednesday.

A pack of up to 30 Kamchatka bears—which are similar to grizzlies—prowled around two mines of a local platinum mining company where they killed the two guards on Thursday, local officials were quoted by the Russian ITAR-Tass news agency as saying.

About 400 company workers have refused to return to the mines for fear of the bears, which stand 10 feet tall on their hind legs and weigh up to 1,500 pounds, Interfax reported.

About 10 bears have also been seen near the village of Khailino sniffing fish remains and other garbage.

Village official Viktor Leushkin was quoted by ITAR-Tass as saying that a team of hunters will be dispatched to shoot or chase off the bears.

"These predators have to be destroyed," Leushkin was quoted as saying. "Once they kill a human, they will do it again and again."

Rampant fish poaching in the Kamchatka tundra often forces the bears to seek other sources of food, such as garbage. Bears frequently attack humans in the scarcely populated peninsula region.”


The article above appeared on a news website on July 24th, 2008. It characterizes the “if it bleeds, it leads” sensationalism that is common in the media, especially when it comes to large predatory animals like grizzly/brown bears.

How dangerous are the Kamchatka brown bears? If you only read the article above, and the other half-truths spewed by the media about bears, you would think the Russian bruins are naturally inclined to include Homo sapiens on their menu. But is this really the case?

Introduction to Kamchatka

The Kamchatka Peninsula, which is located in far east Russia, is 1,250 kilometers long, with an area of about 470,000 square kilometers. Human density on the peninsula is very low (just over 400,000 people), with over half of the population dwelling in two cities. As far as its geology and ecology, it is very similar to parts of Alaska (e.g., Alaskan Peninsula), boasting many volcanoes, tundra, boreal forests, sedge meadows and large rivers running to the sea – the latter serve as spawning grounds for salmonids. There are also areas on the peninsula that yield large berry crops.

The berries and the fish are an important food source for the most noteworthy member of the Kamchatka fauna - the brown bear. This animal is the same species/subspecies as the North American brown or grizzly bear. It was once referred to as Ursus arctos piscator, but has since been lumped under the U. arctos arctos subspecies moniker.

The area has one of the largest brown bear populations on earth. Estimates of population density vary. Current figures range from 3-5 bears/ per 100 square kilometers. In 1992, it was estimated that the Kamchatka region was home to 8,000 to 10,000 brown bears (Revenko, 1992).

While part of the peninsula is now classified as a nature preserve (Kronotsky Nature Preserve), poachers have killed many bears in this area to “harvest” their gall bladders. Trophy hunters also come from all around the world, and pay big money, to legally hunt these bears. One author reported that the true giants that once roamed the area are now few and far between due to legal hunting (hunters want to shoot the biggest boars) and poaching. There are a number of other external pressures impacting the Kamchatka bear population, including agricultural development, mining and road construction.

So how Dangerous?

So, back to our original question: how dangerous is the Kamchatka brown bear? Let's look at the scientific literature and what it says about these animals. Stroganov (1969) says the following about Russia’s brown bears: “The bears in the Ussuri territory and Kamchatka are usually very peaceful, and attack humans only when wounded and not always even then.” Does this sound like the bears described in the news story above, roaming in packs, hunting humans?

The late Russian bear researcher Vitaly Nikolayenko wrote the following about Kamchatka bears, “A bear instinctively fears man... A bear has two alternatives – either run away or charge you. Most often the bear runs away. Bears prefer to avoid each other because if they choose to fight, they run the risk of injury. All bears, including dominant males, avoid humans.”

Kistchinski (1972) says of the Kamchatka bears, “The brown bears in the near-Pacific regions are very peaceable and present hardly any danger to man. Apparently, their reflex to attack an animal of their own size is not developed. Only single cases of unprovoked attacks are known (mainly by bears active in winter). During the rutting time in uninhabited areas male bears are very unwary and sometimes come up straight to man or a caravan of pack horses.”

Revenko (1994) concludes that the Kamchatka brown bear “is usually a peaceful animal.” He quantified his 270 encounters with these bears and found that 70 % of the time the bear ran off, 14 % of the time the bear watched him and then walked away, 12 % of the time they were indifferent, 3 % of the time they exhibited threat behavior and in one case a sow with cub actually attacked him after he accidentally disturbed the young bear. He lists 13 “attacks” on humans: in five cases the person was killed, in three the person was injured and in five cases, the assaulted individual sustained no injuries. In his report, he breaks the data down further: in four cases the bear was suddenly encountered at a short distance, in three cases the bear had been injured by hunters, in two cases it was a sow defending its young, in one case a bear had pursued a hunting dog which ran to its owner which the bear then attacked, and in a final case a bear entered a village and killed a man in the springtime (probably the only case where the ursid was predating on a Homo sapien).

In recent times, there have been two well documented attacks in Kamchatka. In 1997, Michio Hoshino, a well-known nature photographer, was attacked and killed by a brown bear that had been exhibiting aberrant behavior (it has broken into a cabin and a helicopter to get at human food). Although the warning signs of a potentially dangerous brown bear were there and noted, Hoshino decided that he would continue to camp in a tent in an area where the ursid had been spotted rather than slumbering in a crowded cabin with other photographers. His poor judgment cost him his life.

Vitaly Nikolayenko, the Russian naturalist mentioned above, had been studying the bears in this region for over 35 years and was killed by a large, bellicose boar that he followed into thick bushes. The brown bear cuffed the Russian ursidophile once in the head, killing him, before fleeing. Vitaly’s familiarity with bears had led to reckless behavior. Notes that Vitaly had written down during his final summer of bear observation (in 2003) told of a large male brown bear (apparently the one that killed him) that had lunged at him and jaw popped when Nikolayenko moved near. He said of this bear “He is vicious and dangerous.” Even so, he kept pressing the bear just to see if he could win it over.

So, while there is no doubt that the Kamchatka brown bear must be respected and has been implicated in attacks on human, before you believe everything said in the report above about marauding packs of brown bears in the Kamchatka mines, remember that the media see the great bear through blood covered glasses!


"Кроноцкий государственный биосферный заповедник, Долина Гейзеров. Туры по Камчатке с камчатской туристической компанией". 2008.

Kistchinski, A. A. 1972. Life History of the Brown Bear (Ursus arctos L.) in North-East Siberia. In: Bears: Their Biology and Management, Vol. 2, A Selection of Papers from the Second International Conference on Bear Research and Management, Calgary, Alberta, Canada, 6-9 November 1970. IUCN Publications New Series no. 23 (1972), pp. 67-73

Revenko, I. A. 1994. Brown Bear (Ursus arctos piscator) Reaction to Humans on Kamchatka. In: Bears: Their Biology and Management, Vol. 9, Part 1: A Selection of Papers from the Ninth International Conference on Bear Research and Management, Missoula, Montana, February 23-28, 1992 (1994), pp. 107-108

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