National Geographic : 2006 Feb
"Check if you can see the herd," she says. Kiriak had been due to arrive two hours ago with the reindeer. Dasha returns and pours fresh water into a simmering pot of reindeer soup. Still no sign of the herd. An hour later, Liuba's 19-year-old son, Ilia, who's been working outside, sticks his head inside the tent and grunts, "They're here." The clicking of reindeer hooves fills the air as the herd moves toward the edge of a clearing. There, before the onset of the rut in a couple of weeks, Kiriak Adukanov and his men will wrap up a season of castrating bulls and cutting off antlers. Wearing a tattered jacket of faded can vas, with a lasso and a pair of binoculars over his shoulder, Adukanov, who is 53, has the weath ered face of a 70-year-old. He is the leader of a small group of reindeer herders who belong to a people known as the Even and who roam the valleys and plateaus of Bystrinsky Nature Park in central Kamchatka. "The national symbol paid us a visit last night," Adukanov says. In the Even way, he does not name the bear out of reverence for the natural world. To the Even the brown bear is a some times kind, sometimes wrathful neighbor, ever aware of humankind's transgressions-and a formidable predator to be reckoned with. "It took us a while to figure out what happened and find the steer's remains," he says. The bear had apparently stalked the reindeer through the tall grass to deliver a lethal blow. Then it ate half the animal on the spot. It must have still been working on the carcass when the herders approached, because the remains were lying in the open, not covered with a pile of branches and dirt the way bears normally cache their kills for a later meal. Adukanov decided not to chase the bear but to keep pushing his herd toward camp. "It's unusual to have these problems now," he says. "In the spring we may lose one or two calves or weaklings to bears. But in the late summer and fall there's usually plenty of food for the bears. This year has been poor for berries and pine nuts, and the salmon run's not good either." Two months ago while walking with his rein deer, Adukanov was charged by a bear, which he shot just before it reached him. The bear's meat ended up in a cooking pot for the dogs, except for the gall bladder, which was dried as a medic inal aid to treat stomach ailments. Nomadic herders like Adukanov are often blamed by 64 NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC . FEBRUARY 2006 With claws like four-inch fishing hooks, a hungry bear faces only one limit when catch ing salmon: caviar poachers who kill bears that get in the way. This cross fire now poses the most dire threat to Kamchatka's giants. local wildlife managers for poaching bears and other wildlife. But Adukanov says he tries not to kill more than a couple of bears a year, since it's hard to move from one camp to the next with an extra load of meat and skins. This fall, he says, he'll probably take just one more bear. The next morning, Adukanov prepares to move the camp into the mountains nearer the Bystraya River Valley, where they'll spend the early winter. The higher they go, the farther they'll be from the road to the Aginskoye gold mine, which cuts straight through the heart of the herd's summer pastures. The roar of trucks hauling earth and gravel for the road's extension to a proposed nickel-copper-cobalt mine 25 miles away scatters reindeer on both sides of the road, making it difficult to pull the herd back together without losing any animals. The road also intrudes on prime bear habitat, as do gas pipelines elsewhere on the peninsula-a poten tial threat to all the animals. Getting his reindeer through the winter is a matter of survival for Adukanov and his fam ily. A time of howling blizzards, towering snow drifts, and razor-sharp snow crust, it's also the season to mend boots with new bearskin soles and to tell stories about bears. One tale is about a mighty hunter named Torgani, who lived long ago. Torgani killed Nakat, his twin brother bear. And as the animal lay dying, it spoke to him: "You bettered me, Torgani. Fulfill my wish, lay me respectfully to rest. Organize an urkachak,a celebration for all people to partake of my flesh. Then your people will always have plenty of bears around." Will Nakat's promise hold true? The answer lies in the bear's unfolding relationship with the people of Kamchatka-not only Torgani's descendants, the herders and the native hunters, but also the trophy hunters and poachers and the scientists who struggle to control its fate. D TOOTH AND CLAW Experience the Sights & Sounds of Kamchatka's brown bears with photographer Steve Winter. Then see these powerful giants inaction and browse a portfolio of online-exclusive images at ngm.com/0602.