A Russian hunter on a Buran snowmobile. Photograph © Wildlife Conservation Society Russia Program
Somewhere around Day Fifteen of the winter 2014 field season a hunter named Strogov happened past our camp in his pickup truck. Strogov, a prematurely-grey, stocky forty-year-old with eyes of cold-blue steel, occasionally provided us with meat and gave us news of the outside world. He was surprised to see us still working in the area. I asked why.
“Because of the bear that killed that guy about ten kilometers from here,” he replied.
Brown bear fur and claw among oak leaves. Photograph © J. Slaght
It was time to look for a dead bear.
This corner of northeast Asia is the only place in the world where tigers and brown bears live in the same forests, and the prospect that John and I had stumbled upon evidence of a direct and fatal encounter filled me with oscillating waves of exhilaration and trepidation.
John unholstered his canister of bear spray—a concentrated dose of capsaicin that presumably worked against tigers as well—and passed me a Russian hand flare. These devices, shaped like a runner’s baton and designed for use by distressed sailors, ignite when a string is pulled to release a meter-long, blindingly-bright flame accompanied by two minutes of smoke and a monstrous roar. It is the last line of defense in a large carnivore attack. John suggested I remove the lid and have the ignition string handy; if unexpectedly charged by a tiger or bear it would be unfortunate if my last act on Earth was the frenzied unscrewing of a flare cap.
Blagodatnoe Bay in Sikhote-Alin Biosphere Reserve, Russia. Photograph © Jonathan C. Slaght
This isn’t the Siberia you think you know.
In fact, it’s not Siberia at all: in Russia, most territory east of Lake Baikal—that chasm of fresh water in the middle of the country—is the Russian Far East, not Siberia. It’s a vast region about twice the size of India, an unfathomable expanse of forest intersected by clean rivers and inhabited by very few people. Indeed, the entire Russian Far East has a human population of just more than six million people—about two million fewer than New York City alone.
The southern fringe of this poorly-known and little-visited corner of the globe is one of the most biologically-rich temperate forest zones in the world; an enclave for some of the rarest animals and plants on Earth.
Here, northern temperate and boreal mammals such as brown bears, Eurasian lynx, and red deer overlap with subtropical species such as Amur tigers, Amur leopards, and Asiatic black bears. Of the nearly seven hundred bird species found in the former Soviet Union, about half occur in the southern Russian Far East. Thirty percent of all endangered species in Russia are concentrated in only one percent of the country’s vast territory. Up to forty-eight of these species (fifteen percent of all endangered species in Russia) are endemic—they occur nowhere else.
The region’s unique assemblage of natural communities, along with the long list of threatened and endangered species (including many of global significance), make this region of crucial importance to global biodiversity conservation.
This article originally appeared on LiveScience.com. Follow the link for a slideshow of wildlife from the region.