Kronotsky Zapovednik

More than 600 brown bears weighing up to 1,500 pounds (700 kg)—largest in Russia—roam vast forests and mountains of Kronotsky Zapovednik on the east coast of Kamchatka Peninsula.

This 4,410-square-mile (11,421-km2) mountain wilderness became a hunting preserve for Kamchatka sables, renowned for their thick, dark, glossy fur, in 1882, then, in 1934, a reserve to protect them from extinction after their dense population was reduced to remnants by hunters who were exporting some 10,000 pelts a year.

Here also are largest known populations of white-tailed eagles and enormous Steller’s sea eagles—300–700 of the latter, one of the world’s largest raptors, over three feet (1 m) long with eight-foot (2.5-m) wingspans, strikingly brown-black with white shoulders and tail and massive, bright yellow bill, found only on Kamchatka and the east Siberian coast.

Lake Kurilsk is spawning ground for a species of sockeye salmon that does not migrate to the ocean but stays in lakes and rivers here. Populations plummeted in 1953–75 when Japanese commercial fishermen with drift nets caught up to 70–89 percent yearly, but with conservation quickly thrived again. Now, after spawning, their dying bodies furnish a feast for many—brown bears, sables, wolves, arctic foxes, lynx, ermine, ravens, and all other fish-eaters. Lake Kurilsk is a protected part of Kronotsky Zapovednik.

Reindeer (aka caribou) graze on aromatic plants at higher elevations in summer and on mosses and lichens at lower elevations in winter. Here also are bighorn sheep which descend from highlands then and on to the coast for badly needed salt. Steller’s sea lions winter in the Sea of Japan but return in spring to Kronotsky’s remote rocks, their breeding ground. Here also are ringed seals and sea otters, which like to float on their backs while consuming fish, crabs, and sea urchins. Offshore are nine whale species.

The reserve has volcanoes which spew gas and vapor when not erupting. The tallest, Kronotskaya Sopka, towers 11,575 feet (3,528 m) above the sea. On its slopes and those of other volcanoes are 414 glaciers covering 19 ash-darkened square miles (50 km2). Protected marine areas cover another 580 square miles (1,500 km2)

Enormous flocks of whooper swans winter. Aleutian terns nest on the rocky coast, home as well to noisy guillemot and tufted puffin colonies. World’s largest population of Aleutian seaswallows is here. Snow buntings and buff-breasted pipits shelter on volcanic slopes; cuckoos, woodpeckers, and nightingales are in birch groves—among some 260 bird species.

In five-mile (8-km) Valley of Geysers are 22 large and active geysers and 150 or so smaller ones. The largest, “Vulcan,” ejects a jet of boiling water 130 feet (30 m) high in a valley floor strewn with bubbling mud pools, boiling multicolored lakes and pulsing springs. The humid warmth creates a dramatically emerald-green vegetation, with giant herbaceous plants.

Serious threats include domestic reindeer-herding; illegal timber-harvesting; industrial fishing and hunting in reserve coastal waters for rare marine mammals such as sea otters. Scars still remain on this fragile land and its impacted wild populations—notably bears and Siberian capercaillies—from mining and mineral prospecting 30 years ago. Here as elsewhere there is need for regular ranger patrols, creation of a buffer zone, scientific monitoring, and educational outreach with local groups.

Tour groups offer hiking/camping trips.