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Is climate change behind new threat by brown and black bears on people?

By Olga Gertcyk
05 October 2015

Our map shows the attacks by bears on humans across a swathe of Siberia and the Russian Far East.

The attacks from hungry bears on remote towns and settlements may not be over for winter: in some areas, brown bears are no longer hibernating in winter. Picture: Mikhail Korostelev

WARNING: GRAPHIC IMAGES!

The old stereotype of bears walking the streets in these regions was largely fictitious: in the past, bears and man coexisted, their paths seldom crossing, or so many experts say. This is changing as a spate of incidents highlight this year. 

And the attacks from hungry bears on remote towns and settlements may not be over for winter: in some areas, brown bears are no longer hibernating in winter. Or they wake up early from an unsatisfactory hibernation. 

In many places, environmentalists say that the traditional food supply for bears - for example berries and nuts - is vanishing, due to and lack of rainfalls and scorching summers that have been a feature of recent years, leading to a spate of cases of bears scavenging in settlements, or even digging up recent graves, in a desperate search for food. 

Bear invasion

Our map shows the attacks by bears on humans across a swathe of Siberia and the Russian Far East. Picture: The Siberian Times

Intriguingly, other areas have plenteous food and this, too, may explain a level of attacks that is seen as higher than in previous years and decades. Two regions are  worst-hit by bear invasion this summer Khabarovsk and Primorsky (Primorye).  

In Khabarovsk, 58 black and brown bears were shot this year to protect people. On more than 120 occasions, residents appealed for help because of a bear threat. There were five attacks, one man killed and four injured.

People in Komsomolsk-on-Amur were recommended not to visit their local burial site 'after the hungry bears emerged out of the forest', eating cookies and candles traditionally  left on graves. SWAT patrols of armed police were needed for funerals because of the prowling Himalayan bears. Earlier in Tynda, in Amur region, a brown bear plundered graves and even ate human remains from newly-buried coffins. 

In late August, Luchegorsk with a 20,000 population in Primorye was literally besieged by at least three dozen black bears bossing their way around the city. In a month-long blockade, the hungry bears attacked residents in Luchegorsk and there were reports of at least eight being shot. One man was killed, another had his hand ripped off. 

Bear on cemetery


Bear on cemetery


Bear on cemetery

In Tynda, in Amur region, a brown bear plundered graves and even ate human remains from newly-buried coffins. Pictures: Tynda TV

One local woman likened the bear threat to a military operation. 'Hunters say that they looked at the area from a helicopter - there are crowds of these bears, like army units,' she said. 'We are scared to walk outside. All doors are shut in kindergartens, there are written warnings everywhere that walking with kids is allowed only in certain areas.'

Bear attack victim Viktor Dubitsky told how a bear 'jumped from under the balcony and I saw it flying towards me, lather on its muzzle. 'The only thing I managed to do was to lift my arms. The bear hit me into the chest and knocked me down, and I was sent flying for two metres on my bottom.'

Children in Kirovsky were banned from walking alone to and from school after a pregnant woman was attacked by an angry bear. 

There were 18 'conflicts between bears and people': six bears, one of them brown, were shot, and some 40 animals were spotted near residential areas. Eight people were injured and two died. The killing of bears provoked anger among animal rights groups with an online petition demanding an end to the slaughter. 

Another flashpoint was on the Kamchatka peninsula - home to some 18,000 bears - in the extreme east of the country. Here a bear severely injured a  tourist from France on the Plosky Tolbachik volcano. The regional capital Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky was not immune to bears hunting for a food supply no longer available in the forests. 

Bear invasion in Luchegorsk


Bear invasion in Luchegorsk


Bear invasion in Luchegorsk


Viktor Dubitsky


Viktor Dubitsky


Bear invasion

Hungry bears attacked residents in Luchegorsk and there were reports of at least eight being shot. Pictures: OTV. TVC

In Amur, a bear severely attacked 54 year old former baker Natalya Pasternak who survived but with serious wounds. She gave a graphic account of the attack, explaining that your years she had gone to the same spot in search of birch tree sap, and never before encountered bears. 

'All of a sudden I saw a bear coming at me. I turned and ran,' she said. 'The bear started lunging at me, biting at my legs. My first thought was: 'This is it, my death'. Who could save us here? He was eating me alive and I fought back as much as I could. I grabbed a small drill that we used to get the sap and another thought hit me: 'Right, now I hit him and he will get so angry and bite through my carotid artery, then I'll just bleed to death. I won't suffer. I remember thinking: 'I don't want end up disabled and a burden for my children'.

The bear had been on all fours, but now backed away, and then reared up onto its hind legs before 'running at me and biting my legs. I tried to hit the bear on the eye with the drill, but the beast fell on me and bit through my arm.' The creature then ceased the attacks, pulled Natalya to a place where it covered her in mud, twigs and leaves, intending to come back later. I was thinking 'Will he call his bear buddies to come eat me?'

Fortunately, hunters rescued her in time, and despite suffering life-threatening injuries, she is now recovering.

Woman attacked by bear


Natalia Pasternak


Natalia Pasternak


Natalia Pasternak


Natalia Pasternak

Bear severely attacked 54 year old former baker Natalya Pasternak who survived but with serious wounds. Picture: Igor Ageenko

Further west, bears in the Republic of Buryatia and Irkutsk region were driven towards settlements by raging wildfires, the worst in living memory. In Irkutsk region last month, bears attacked two men gathering mushrooms. One died, the second was badly injured. On 1 October, a 61 year old woman in a village was injured by a hungry bear. 

Several bear attacks were recorded in Krasnoyarsk region, notably in Yergaki National park. At least three people were injured. In Siberia's Tomsk region - a man was slightly injured in a bear attack, but  but 17 bears were shot because they threatened people, encroaching on settlements.

Further north, on the Yamal peninsula, brown bears are killing reindeer are threatening people. Herders lost 20 deer in ten days, say local reports. 

Experts explain the attacks by a variety of reasons but some suspect that an overriding factor is a change in climate, leading to a loss of food supplies. An exception may be in Tomsk region where food for bears is plentiful and has been in recent years, leading to a swelling population. More bears means more contact with humans, it is claimed. 

Nature protection official Valery Pogasienko said: 'I reckon that it is humans who cause all the trouble. Now in the region many exploration teams are working, and roads, and other facilities are built. The bears smell food which comes from settlements, camps, and temporary facilities for workers. 

'People in these exploration teams are not prepared. They do not know how to behave themselves. That they should not leave landfills of food waste, and certainly not feed the bears. People intrude into the territory of the bear. Besides, the bear almost has no enemies in the nature'. Yet it is a 'cunning, insidious beast, and it can fight back' if it feels threatened. 

Bears on Iturup


Bears on Iturup


Bears on Iturup


Boy attacked on Sakhalin


Boy attacked on Sakhalin

On Iturup island locals fed the bears from leftovers from a fish processing plant, it follows an attack on a 14 year old boy last year. Pictures: Sakhalin Info, Vesti Altai

Yet on one island,  Iturup, in the Kuril chain, locals are heading off bear attacks by doing exactly that: organising a bears' picnic and deliberately feeding the creatures from leftovers from a fish processing plant. The move follows an attack on a 14 year old boy last year. Pavel Kravchenko, deputy general director of Gidrostroy, said: 'Sometimes you can see more than ten bears eating at once.'

If they are well fed, they will not attack villages, or so the theory goes. Yet there are also scenes of people deliberately feeding bears on biscuits, as in a video earlier this year from Kolyma in eastern Siberia.

In the Russian Far East, Pavel Fomenko, WWF coordinator, explained the attacks by lack of food in the forests. Last year the pignoli nut crop was enormous, he said, and as often happens, the year after it is rather small. So there are no nuts for eating this year, and there was also an acorn shortage in some areas. The last five years were good for local bears, and their population dramatically increased, he said.

Low fish stocks in Kamchatka have caused problems this year for bears in Kamchatka and the Kuril Islands, say reports. There is also a suspicion of bears migrating from China, and this may be a factor in what happened in Luchegorsk was caused by migration in a search for food.

Bears seem to be on the move elsewhere, too, along unexpected routes for experts. Primorye animal protection official Vladimir Vasiliev said: 'I can't quite remember when bears were migrating in such massive numbers in Primorsky region. They move from the north of Primorye to the south.'

It was not clear when they start their winter hibernation, he said. 'It depends on the weather and supplies that the bears manage to collect. If there isn't enough snow or food, the bears may not hibernate at all.'

Bear invasion


Bear eats biscuits


Bear eats biscuits

There are also scenes of people deliberately feeding bears on biscuits, as in a video earlier this year from Kolyma in eastern Siberia. Pictures: Alexey Trikachev

A cut in hunting may also be a factor at a time of an overall increase in the bear population in recent decades. Permits are expensive and hunters do not get a good return on bears compared with some other animals. It is estimated there are around 170,000 bears living in Russia now.

A report from www.meteovesti.ru said that the warming climate is leading to significant changes in bear behaviour. 'Researchers found out that bears have started breeding more often and the number of offspring cubs has increased. It is easily explained: the period without freezing temperatures has become  longer, for example, in Yakutia (also known as the Sakha Republic), it is now up to 160-180 days instead of 128 days previously. 

Bear invasion


Bear invasion


Bear invasion

The bears smell food which comes from settlements, camps, and temporary facilities and come closer to people. Pictures: Vkotakte, Boris Mikhailov, Maria Kondratyeva

'That means that food supply is growing which stimulates the growth of the animals population. Unsatisfactory hibernation increases the amount of fat expended by the animals. They wake up hungry and angry. Worst of all are snow breaks when the water of melting snow wakes up the animals. 

'For example, a temperature above zero was registered six times over the winter in Khanty-Mansyisk, although normally such warm temperatures would be registered once only.' So the reasons appear to vary for the bear attacks. 

In some regions, food shortages provokes the bears into towns. In other areas, the supply is ample, but the resulting increased breeding means there are more bears. They then look for food on the same patch leading to shortages. 

Comments (1)

What is more precious and inportant, humans or large predators? Governments most choose between the life of big carnivores and that of people. Time will come when man will realize that in modern times is impossible to live in land or water without significantly reducing those animals. Human population won't be decreasing, consequently, there will be more and more encounters. Man is quite able to take the place of apex predators by controling herbivores like the US government control buffaloes.
C. Casanova, US
13/10/2015 04:51
0
5
1

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