The truth about Russian bears

Bears are finally waking up from the hibernation period. Source: Lori/Legion Media

Bears are finally waking up from the hibernation period. Source: Lori/Legion Media

As warmer weather approaches, those heading out into the wild would be well served to have some knowledge about basic bear habits in order to avoid or escape from a potentially fatal situation.

When it comes to popular stereotypes, we’ve all heard of kangaroos hopping on the runway of the Sydney Airport, lions popping in to say hello to school-children in the heart of Nairobi or cows roaming the city streets of India (okay the last one is actually true). For some Russians, many areas east of the Urals are parts of some sort of exotic land with “permafrost” and now-shut gulags. Others often associate the Russian Far East with bears.

The bears on the oil-rich island of Sakhalin are the topic of many a joke. There isn’t an easier way to annoy an islander (this writer included) than to ask whether bears take a stroll in the main streets of the capital city, Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk. In all fairness, as recently as 2006, there were confirmed reports of bears managing to cross the forests and getting on the main tarmac of the airport.  

Make no mistake about it; these enormously large animals aren’t affectionate friendly creatures looking for a picnic basket. Every year there are stories of people getting killed by bears in the forests in Sakhalin or the Shantar archipelago, a truly wild and pristine set of islands in the Khabarovsk territory. But most of these incidents happen in the month of April when bears wake up from their hibernation and food is scarce. No, they’re not looking to get a good bite of Russian human meat; they’re basically extremely irritable at this time when even berries are in short supply.

The Sakhalin Brown Bear, believe it or not, is a timid animal and it’s only the instinct of self-preservation that drives this large animal to aggression. Mother bears protect their cubs the same way a hen protects chickens. Of course, a bear can cause more harm than a hen so it’s best to keep a very safe distance.

The cardinal rule when dealing with bears is to never ever touch a cub, no matter how adorable the “mishka” is.  This goes without say even if a mother bear isn’t somewhere nearby.  As the weather gets warmer and the salmon migrate back to the rivers for spawning, bears tend to be completely indifferent towards human beings. They do keep an eye on fishermen from a distance.  Those who have made eye-contact with bears (and lived to tell the tale) insist that the large animal will only attack if it feels threatened.

The second most important rule is to never run away from a bear. Purely on animal instinct it will chase a human being down and maul him or her to death. If it looks like a bear is charging towards you, simply walk backwards slowly. Your back should not face the animal at any moment.

The lesser the number of humans a bear sees, the more timid he will be. A group of more than 3 humans can scare a bear and make it aggressive. In such a case, human panic will lead to an attack. An old friend of mine, a sworn man of the outdoors, told me that a group should try and imitate a lion or tiger roar. That would scare a bear away! Fortunately, I never had to try this out in real life. Another way to scare a bear away is to hammer a kettle or make some other loud noise. Or if your voice is bad enough, try singing! That would send the bear scurrying.

For those that absolutely do want to see a bear in the wild, try heading out in late-May when the bears are better fed. Keep food completely away in sealed containers (since the smell of food attracts all kinds of unwelcome wild friends) and put out all campfires (which scare them).  It’s a popular saying in the Russian Far East that bears are as moody as beautiful women. This is reason enough to not go too close, since bears can arguably cause more damage than a lovely member of the fairer sex.

The warmer months are a great time to go to the Great Russian Outdoors but it’s always advisable to go with an experienced guide or people who know the forests and trails reasonably well. 

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