Giving Orphaned Bear Cubs a 2nd Chance

MTTwo bear cubs giving the Pazhetnovs a last look before disappearing into a Novgorod forest upon their release. The two will build a den together and most likely part ways only next summer.
BUBONITSY, Tver Region -- Gamekeeper Nikolai Kralya wound up with two bear cubs last January when licensed den hunters shot their mother in the Novgorod region.

But he knew what to do with them. He headed straight to the Pazhetnov family in the village of Bubonitsy in the neighboring Tver region.

Valentin and Svetlana Pazhetnov have been raising orphaned cubs and returning them to the wild since they moved to Bubonitsy in 1985. A local sheep herder had told them about Bubonitsy, which had been abandoned for a number of years -- a fate that befalls many isolated villages in rural Russia.

The Pazhetnovs decided that Bubonitsy would be an ideal place to fulfill their dream of caring for cubs, and they have released more than 130 back into the wild over the past 23 years. The village is full of Pazhetnovs of various generations, many of whom have taken on Valentin Pazhetnov's commitment to bears.

"We're probably the only family in Russia with five gamekeepers," said Valentin Pazhetnov, sitting in his kitchen filled with bear memorabilia. "Svetlana and I were lucky that we could attract the children to work with animals."

Gamekeepers are responsible for forest wildlife in the area where they live, keeping count of numbers, tracking animals' whereabouts and checking hunters' licenses.

There are about 110,000 brown bears in Russia, and 3,000 to 4,000 bear cubs die every year because of winter den hunting, according to the International Fund for Animal Welfare.

Maria Antonova / MT
From left, Vasily Pazhetnov, Kralya and Sergei Pazhetnov preparing to free the bears. They lifted the doors and banged them against the metal containers.
Winter den hunting is controversial but legal in most Russian regions. Usually, experienced hunters know the location of dens by following bear tracks in the first autumn snow to where the bear has gone to hibernate, gamekeepers said. When the bear is fast asleep, hunters wake it and kill it when it stumbles out into the blinding sunlight.

Cubs are born in January, a couple months after the mother goes into hibernation. They follow their mothers out of the den in early spring and do not leave her until they are more than a year old. The cubs are usually still newborns when they are orphaned.

Pazhetnov despises the hunt. "Den hunting is a Russian tradition, but winter den hunting hurts female bears the most," he said. "Once the mother has cubs, her smell is more easily detected, so mothers are killed more often during the winter, and all of them have cubs with them. It's not a fair hunt."

The bear, long a symbol of Russia's might, has always been a coveted trophy among hunters. Hunting for bears was a hobby of the Party elite throughout Soviet times. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev's love for the bear hunt was the subject of many jokes, while Leonid Brezhnev took his favorite Politburo members and friendly heads of state to Zavidovo, a hunting reserve in the Moscow region. The tradition of entertaining foreign guests with a successful bear hunt turned sour in 2006, when a regional official accused hunt organizers of sedating a bear with vodka before the animal was shot by King Juan Carlos of Spain.

Maria Antonova / MT
Sergei Pazhetnov standing outside the Land Rover used to transport the cubs to the Novogorod forest where their mother was killed by hunters in January.
With the bear as the centerpiece of the United Russia party emblem and President Dmitry Medvedev's name etymologically tied to the animal, political symbolism has never been stronger.

Although neither Medvedev nor Prime Minister Vladimir Putin are hunters, bears' fortunes are unlikely to improve. In fact, a federal hunting law was passed in July that is seen as a new attack on the animal. Den hunters will now be allowed to kill bear cubs along with the mother, even if they only have a license to kill one bear, purchasing the others post-factum.

IFAW, which has worked with the Pazhetnovs since 1995, has lobbied for a federal law to prohibit winter den hunting. "The numbers make it seem like the bear population is not under threat, but reproduction can slow or stop when population dips below a certain level in a region," IFAW spokesman Igor Beliatsky said.

Several years ago, hunting virtually eradicated brown bears from the Bryansk region, whose forests are isolated from the rest of Central Russia. Only 10 bears remained in the 1990s, and their numbers started growing only after a dozen cubs from Bubonitsy were released there.

A combined effort by local hunters and politicians two years ago resulted in den hunting being declared illegal in the Tver region during the winter months after Jan. 15.

Maria Antonova / MT
Sergei and Vasily Pazhetnov checking one of the sedated cubs as the other bears sniff around nervously. The Pazhetnovs cared for 18 cubs this year.
Kralya, the Novgorod gamekeeper, met up with the Pazhetnovs on a recent weekend to see the two bear cubs he had brought them in January return to the wild. For eight months, the cubs had lived under the watchful eye of the Pazhetnovs, who base their work on the premise that cubs can learn to survive in the wild by themselves if they have minimal contact with humans. Orphaned cubs live in an enclosure away from the village and are allowed to explore the surrounding grounds. The gamekeepers keep silent as much as possible when in the immediate proximity of the animals, communicating in whispers or gestures. If bears retain a fear of humans, they will keep away from villages and hunters, greatly increasing their chances for survival once they return to the wild.

In their time at Bubonitsy, the Pazhetnovs have reared cubs ranging in age from one day to a year. Their system has been used to release cubs born in captivity in the Kazan Zoo in Tatarstan. Research shows that innate instincts rather than taught skills are what a bear needs to survive, Pazhetnov said.

To return the two cubs to the wild, Pazhetnov's son Sergei and grandson Vasily sedated them and put them into metal transportation containers for the trip back to the Novogorod forest where they were born. The journey to the release site was a bumpy ride through endless fields and forests. The bears quickly awoke and began to grunt noisily and scratch their claws against the metal.

When the noise became unbearable, Sergei Pazhetnov turned from the passenger seat, put his fist to his mouth as if he was blowing through it, and went "pfft" several times. The sound silenced the bears for a few minutes.

"Those are good bears," Sergei said with a broad smile. "Nice and angry."

Reaching the forest, the Land Rover stopped. The containers were lifted out and placed on the edge of a wheat field bordering the trees. The bears stumbled out.

Despite the lax hunting laws that might make the Pazhetnovs' efforts seem futile, they keep their optimism and love for the outdoors. Pazhetnov's grandson Vasily, who is currently studying biology in Moscow, hopes to start building a house in Bubonitsy next year and to begin working with lynx wildcats in the surrounding forests when he completes his degree.

"There are dozens of dissertations about bears in Russia and only three on the lynx," he said.

With so many gamekeepers in the family, the competition must be tough.