Pilot Journal
Thursday, July 1, 2004

The Bears Of Kamchatka

A pilot in the wilderness re-learns the lesson that the most dangerous animal on earth is man

The Bears Of KamchatkaFor Charlie Russell and Maureen Enns, it had been a mostly sleepless night. Straight winds of more than 100 miles an hour were not uncommon in remote southeast Russia, and the storms that came with them could last for days. Their tiny homebuilt cabin perched on the tundra was barely a refuge from gusts of air that found their way through the tiny imperfections in the walls, the roof and even the floor, bringing with them deposits of snow, dust or rain. At first light, their worst fears were confirmed: The wind had put their airplane on its back.
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For Russell and Enns, it was a reminder that their project in Kamchatka would not go on forever. Raising cubs or children is, at best, bittersweet because no one knows what the future really holds. By the end of August of that year, Chico wandered away, perhaps over the mountains toward the Sea of Okhotsk where migrating bears enjoyed the final days of salmon runs. When Russell and Enns left that fall, only Biscuit remained. Rosie was gone, and there was no way to know if they would ever see Chico again.

Over the next few years, however, the project continued. Brandy, the bear who had entrusted them with babysitting, began leaving her new cubs, Lemon and Lime, for Russell and Enns to watch over. And Biscuit had a wonderful surprise for them: Sometime, come spring, Russell and Enns would become proud grandparents of baby cubs.

The spring of 2003 arrived and so did Russell and Enns, who were excited to see Biscuit’s offsprings. The lake was still frozen and the snow had drifted deep around the cabin. “I wanted to see Biscuit come out of her den with her new cubs, but it didn’t happen that way,” recalls Russell.

Instead, there wasn’t a bear in sight. Last fall, after Russell and Enns left, poachers had used their cabin to kill the bears around Kambalnoye Lake. More than 40, including Biscuit and Brandy, were gone. A single gallbladder was left, nailed to the cabin wall.

“It was incredibly devastating.” Russell pauses before continuing. “It was an awful way to end our project.” Russell and Enns are still tormented by the thought that their work of acclimating the bears to humans might have enabled the poachers to easily walk right up to the bears and kill them.

Today, the couple is still grieving for their loss. But in December of last year, the poachers who were responsible for the genocide at Kambalnoye Lake were arrested, giving Russell and Enns some sort of closure to the tragic event.

In the past few months, Russell and Enns have turned this tragedy into a positive as they try to educate and fight for conserving the Kamchatka brown-bear population. Next spring, Russell plans to fly his Kolb in Russia again, his attention now focused on the Kamchatka Bear Fund, a nonprofit program devoted to the long-term conservation of the Kamchatka brown bears, and the ranger program that he and Maureen initiated is still ongoing. Word is spreading about their devotion to the bears. Wildlife conservation groups worldwide, including the United Nations—which designated the area as a World Heritage Site—have focused on the 33 species of mammals and 145 species of birds that make Kamchatka one of the world’s final and most remarkable wilderness areas. Russell has even written a book, Grizzly Heart—which has now been translated into six languages—in which he lovingly talks about the story of the bears of Kamchatka. In fact, work has already begun on a major motion picture to bring the book to the screen. And Russell, who once found himself sharing his thinking about bear and human relationships to a relatively few, now speaks before standing-room-only crowds. Ironically, perhaps, the cubs’ sacrifice has started a worldwide examination of how bears and human beings can coexist, a conversation that otherwise might not have happened at all.


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