This zapovednik guards the northwestern rim of Lake Baikal, a U.N. World Heritage Site, deepest lake in the world, holding one-fifth of earth’s freshwater. In its 2,548 square miles (6,600 km2) of boreal forests, alpine meadows, steppes, and hundreds of pure lakes and streams scientists have identified 49 mammal species and 240 kinds of birds.
The shoreline is known as “Brown Bear Coast” from the numbers that come down from mountain dens in spring. Barguzin sables, once near extinction for their luxuriant fur, have rebounded and now are the reserve’s most numerous predators. Others are lynx, wolves, and wolverines, preying on Siberian chipmunks, mountain hares, northern pikas, and smaller rodents.
Wild reindeer seek out high summer meadows. Siberian wapiti stay through harsh winters as do Siberian roe deer, grazing the coasts year-round in the company of frolicsome river otters.
Baikal seals—world’s only freshwater seals—warm themselves on rocks after dives of more than 300 feet (100 m) down into Baikal after fish, their origin here unknown though it’s theorized their ancestors swam up the Yenesei River from the Arctic Ocean and became landlocked in the last ice age.
Spotted nutcrackers, Baikal’s most conspicuous birds, flit among pine trees gathering pine nuts in throat pouches and hiding them under mosses in coniferous forests. Also here yearround are northern hazel hens, black grouse, and capercaillies. Solitary snipes nest in thickets along with willow and rock ptarmigans. Eurasian dippers run along mountain stream bottoms feeding on invertebrates. Among avian rarities are black storks, golden and white-tailed eagles, Chinese scrub warblers. Steppe species along the Baikal shore include Saker falcons, Siberian meadow and rock buntings, and Isabelline wheatears.
In fall, deciduous trees turn fiery red and gold in dramatic contrast to emerald conifers, and ruby cowberries burst with juice prized by all species. Rare rhododendrons are among unique plant communities clinging to bare cliffs. More than 230 lichen species have been identified, 230 of mosses, 100 of mushrooms. Among 800 higher plant species, 27 are rare or endangered and 36 are endemic.
The great Lena River which flows more than 2,484 miles (4,000 km) north to the Arctic Ocean begins as a mountain trickle here.
Here as elsewhere, remoteness makes reserve management difficult and costly. Zapovednik headquarters are in Irkutsk, more than 185 miles (300 km) south. Parts of the reserve cannot be reached by road; others only by ship in summer; others only by driving over ice in winter. Poaching, pollution, arson, and other encroachments are problems, with little funding to fight them. In an effort to gain support and funding, the reserve offers three ecotourism routes for adventurous travelers—along the Baikal shore, to the mountains in search of the Lena River source, and rafting down the Lena River.
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