For centuries, Russia's winter bear hunt has been one of the world's great hunting experiences, beloved by czars, Communist Party general secretaries, and, lately, Russian oligarchs and rich foreign trophy seekers.
Until recently, few paid any attention to the tragic collateral damage that results when mother bears are awakened from hibernation, driven from their lairs, and slain for their rich winter pelts. Bear cubs, typically born in early winter, are left alone to starve or be savaged by dogs.
But thanks largely to the work of one man, Siberian-hunter-turned-animal-conservationist Valentin Pazhetnov, almost 200 orphaned bear cubs have been saved in the past 15 years, raised by his special method which minimizes human contact so that they can be safely returned to the wild as young adults.
Mr. Pazhetnov's work attracted major support from the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) and inspired a similar project with grizzly bears in Canada. A year ago, the wave of publicity for the project shamed the Russian government into banning the winter "den hunt" for good.
The project is based in Bubonitsy, a tiny village of just a few families deep in the forests of Russia's Tver region (see map), where brown bear cubs are brought from all over Russia after being found, by locals, forest rangers or, occasionally, handed over by guilt-ridden hunters. Though numbers are down this year thanks to the ban, poaching and accidents ensure a steady stream of orphaned cubs into the facility.
"I was a hunter for the first part of my life, I could go off into the woods and survive for weeks," says Pazhetnov, a grizzled old patriarch whose huge three-generational extended family surrounds him in Bubonitsy and comprises most of the workers in the station. "But I came to love nature very much. And bears. They are a very special animal. They're smart, not like apes or dolphins mind you, but I've seen bears successfully match wits with hunters. They're worthy of our care."
Not about becoming 'friends'
Pazhetnov and his children constructed most of the site's several buildings themselves. He also writes children's stories – about bears, of course – and does most of the family's cooking.
"My husband is a man of many talents. He's a carpenter, a welder, a metalworker, and a mechanic. His borscht is the best around here," says Svetlana Pazhetnova.
The facility currently houses eight bear cubs, all under three months, who are kept in special indoor compartments and regularly fed a special vitaminized porridge – the youngest are bottle-fed – by workers who are heavily clothed and gloved to prevent the bears from catching human scent, hearing peoples' voices, or bonding with them in any way.
Later, as spring spreads over this still-snowbound northern forest, they'll be moved to outdoor enclosures where they will be allowed limited roaming space and fed through barriers, with segregation from humans even more strictly enforced. In summer they may be increasingly turned loose to forage and explore the local woods. Eventually, each individual bear will be returned to the exact locale it came from.
Any visitor who wants to cuddle or play with the cubs is sternly discouraged.
"This is not about being 'friends' with the animals, however fashionable that idea might be on TV and YouTube these days," says Ian Robinson, director of IFAW's animal rescue program, which funds the Bubonitsy center. "It's arrogant to think we can be at one with animals. We have to share the environment with them, and tolerate them, but recognize that we occupy different spaces. The point here is to help these bears to return to the wild and be bears. We definitely don't want them to come back and love us."
Forty years ago the Soviet parks service hired Pazhetnov and asked him to take part in the first ever experiment to determine whether bear cubs could survive and be "rehabilitated" after being deprived of their mothers.
"In those days, everyone believed bear cubs couldn't live and adapt to life in the wild without their mothers, and the only humane thing to do was to destroy them," Pazhetnov says. "But we found that bear cubs have inborn capacities, instincts that enable them to live on their own. The idea was to help them develop until they reach the age of independence, without making them dependent on humans. That was the challenge."
That first experiment was a limited success, but wasn't followed up. Pazhetnov and his wife, Svetlana, went away and got advanced degrees in animal sciences, and since 1990, they've lived in Bubonitsy, raised orphaned baby bears and by now are famous throughout Russia.
Russia has about 110,000 brown bears, and populations have been relatively stable in recent years, though over-hunting remains a serious problem in some regions. Pazhetnov's bears are tagged and kept track of throughout their lives, and he says the survival rate of cubs raised in Bubonitsy is about the same as those who grew up with their mothers – about 70 percent.
"When we came here, local people were suspicious of us and thought we were breeding bear cubs for the black market," says Mrs. Pazhetnova. "Now everyone knows we're saving bears, and raising them to be free, so they won't live their lives behind bars. We began slowly, but now our bears are living in three Russian regions.
"And we're proud there's never been a single report of one of our bears attacking anyone after being released into nature. That's because we raised them to be bears, not pets, and to be scared of people. A bear that wants to get close to people is very soon a dead bear," she says.
The battle to curb hunting
The publicity surrounding the Bubonitsy rescue center has spread in recent years, and appears to have been directly responsible for the Russian government's decision to reform hunting regulations and ban the winter hunt almost exactly a year ago.
But poaching remains a serious problem – bear hides and stuffed bear cubs can be easily purchased from roadside stalls throughout the Tver region –because the law requires an unlicensed hunter to be caught in the act, and there are no provisions against possession and sale of bear skins. Some bear populations, especially Asiatic bears in Russia's far east, remain endangered.
"There's a lot still to be done," says Mr. Robinson. "I know that people often talk in terms of saving species, not individuals, and brown bears aren't that threatened just now. But our primary purpose here is to save these particular baby bears, to give them their lives back after they've been doomed to death. And it's a great feeling to see it working out for them."