IFAW Helps Release Orphaned Bears Free Into the Russian Wilderness

This report was filed by the International Fund for Animal Welfare's Robin Clarke from the field in Russia.

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In the early morning light, we walk from the dirt road to the forest where five bear cubs have been learning to live in the wild. They had made their winter den under the bear house in a protected area of the forest, which made it easy for Sergey and John to contain them earlier this morning.

Sergey Pazhetnov is the son of Valentin and Svetlana Pazhetnov, renowned bear rehabilitation experts who run IFAW's Orphaned Bear Rehabilitation Center in the Tver region, west of Moscow. John Beecham, a bear tracking expert, has accompanied the IFAW team to help collar and release these cubs - 4 females and 1 male, about 14 months old. The IFAW release team consists of veterinarian Anand Ramanathan and technicians Jackson Zee and Gail A'Brunzo. Valentin Jr. and Vassily Pazhetnov, along with two veterinarians from Moscow, assist in the release.

*Photos: IFAW / M.Samokhin

Since fall, these little bears have wandered the forest, first
being fed in the house then taught to forage as apples were left for
them to find, in preparation for life on their own. Now, at 7:30 a.m.,
we walk silently towards the den. The chilly air is peacefully quiet,
except for birds singing. We are surrounded by tall pine and birch
trees; the ground underneath a leafy carpet except for a few areas
still covered in snow.

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One by one the bears are tranquilized with a special dart gun and
brought from under the den house. They are examined and readied for
release. If they have not already been tagged, an ear tag is attached
to provide visual identification. Two of the females are placed in
carrying cages to be transported to a nature reserve about 200 km away.
The three other bears will be released here near the sanctuary. The
male is fitted with a satellite collar so his movements can be tracked
over the next year or so. This will help the team monitor his behavior
and survival; then the collar will fall off and be retrieved so the
data can be further studied.

Watching the bears come around from the anesthesia provides a few comic
moments as they stagger slightly to their feet and lick each other
reassuringly. One female walks toward the team still a bit confused. We
retreat as we don't want them to become comfortable with humans, but
one member of the team stays behind to ensure they awaken fully in
safety.

It is a jubilant day seeing cubs who were orphaned by the winter den hunt
rehabilitated and returned to freedom. Back at the Rehabilitation
Center, six new cubs born in January of this year live in a smaller den
house. They are fed a milky porridge mixture 3 times a day as they gain
weight and strength for release to the protected forest enclosure. We
feast as well, on pancakes with jam made from currants, raspberries and
cow berries, deliciously prepared by Sergey's wife Ludmila. She must
think we are orphans, too, she feeds us so well! Both bears and humans
spend the next few hours napping contentedly.

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