Rescued bear cubs taking next steps on their way to release

I recently had the opportunity to visit IFAW’s Orphan Bear Rescue Centre (OBRC) in Russia with UK media to highlight the great work of the project which rescues and successfully rehabilitates around 12 orphaned brown bears each year.

After a six-hour drive from Moscow we arrived at a secret location deep in the forest in the Tver region, around 450km north of the capital where, over several months, their carers teach the young bears the range of skills they will need to survive back in the wild.

Each year, from January to March, very young bear cubs which have become separated from their mothers for a variety of reasons are brought to the centre from far and wide after being found by members of the public, forestry workers or even hunters.

Our IFAW colleagues in Russia were instrumental in seeing through the 2011 introduction of legislation to restrict winter den hunting, which involved bears being killed during hibernation in their hiding place. This type of hunting is especially cruel as it often results in defenceless cubs either dying from the cold or being taken into captivity.

The good news is that this ban has reduced the number of bears orphaned annually by around two thirds. Sadly though, bears still face threats from illegal den hunting, as well as other human activities which affect their environment, such as logging which can cause disturbance and habitat loss.

It is estimated that several hundred brown bears are orphaned in Russia each year and it is the lucky few that are found and brought to the rescue centre for rehabilitation.

Professor Valentin Pazhetnov began rehabilitating bears in 1983 and in 1995 IFAW established the OBRC which is also fully equipped and funded by IFAW. Professor Pazhetnov has passed on his passion and skills for bear rescue to his family with his son Sergey and Sergey’s son Vasili all caring for the bears, along with Sergey’s wife Katya. To date, around 200 bears have been successfully returned to their natural habitat.

Rescued cubs require several months of care and supervision before they are released, each autumn, far from human habitation, in areas they are most likely to be able to fend for themselves and thrive as nature intended.

While very young bears arriving at the centre at just a few weeks old require round-the-clock care in human-made indoor ‘dens’ with bottle feeding every three hours, at the time of our visit the bears (16 in total), were at the next stage of rehabilitation where human contact is being reduced to a minimum.

The cubs are now able to enjoy exploring life in the forest, albeit an enclosed and protected two-hectare area of forest, where they can play and interact with each other, climb trees and importantly learn to find their own food. While they learn these vital skills they still receive some human assistance in the form of just one daily feed of porridge but this is left on the ground for them. Their carers, and the few lucky visitors that are allowed to see them, must take care not to speak or make any sounds. This helps ensure that once in the wild, bears which may come across farms or villages do not associate humans or human voices with food.

After learning all this information we were keen to see the bears for ourselves, of course observed from a distance and only quite briefly to ensure we did not interfere with the rehabilitation process.

It was more than worth the long journey for a once-in-a-lifetime experience. After creeping through the forest as quietly as possible, and trying not to flinch too much as huge clouds of mosquitoes and horse flies tried to feast on us, we entered the enclosed area. At first sight it was just more trees, and flies. Sergey placed the food down and after hearing a familiar signal, most of the cubs quickly appeared through the undergrowth, 13 in total, tumbling over each other in their excitement to eat. They were unbelievably cute to watch as they gobbled down porridge before wrestling with their playmates, play fighting, climbing trees and occasionally standing up at their full height, which gave a reminder of the powerful adults they will one day become.

The photographer was delighted with his pictures of these undeniably photogenic animals and his article in the Daily Mail is helping to raise awareness of their plight. Hopefully it will also help raise funds for this vital work.

--CS

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