Bear’s corner in reserve

MT reporter looks for bears in the fantastic wild forest

MT reporter looks for bears in the fantastic wild forest

“Oh, don’t turn around!” smiles the Director of Berezinsky Biosphere Reserve, Andrey Prokoshin. Bears are, perhaps, more afraid of us than we are of them. About twenty are known to live in the wild in Belarus, but about 35 reside in the reserve, where they’re comfortable.

“Look at this ant hill near the road!” notes Andrey, showing me that a bear has been ravaging it. “The creature was caught in the act during daylight, showing its confidence. Our driver, Sergey Krasnov, was passing by, and saw the bear near this ant hill. Sergey rushed home, took his child and his camera and, when he returned, the bear was still eating, enjoying its meal. They managed to take many pictures.”

I look at the half-ruined ant hill and feel astonished at the bear’s courage: he was sitting exactly below a road sign indicating Kraitsy village, next to the lovely wooden forestry office building. Quite audacious!

“They are so relaxed,” notes the Head of the Tourism Department, Alexey Rimsha, joining our conversation. “The reserve is their home. Recently, a bear came to the village, and broke into a beehive right there; it wanted to take another into the woods but something deterred it and he left it on the road. Camera traps in the forest caught a huge bear taking a dead elk out of the water; it spent the week feeding on it.”  

Berezinsky Biosphere Reserve staff speak of the bears almost as pets. I’m curious to know who rules the reserve: staff or bears.

“The bears, of course,” smiles Mr. Prokoshin, without hesitation. “This is a sanctuary: a protected area. There’s no other place like this in the country. Our mission is to observe and protect, without interfering in inner forest affairs. As an exception, we’ll show you a real bear corner, and you’ll see that humans had better keep away. Entry is usually strictly forbidden.”

I’m intrigued. On either side of me is wilderness. We’re moving along a narrow forest path, approaching a checkpoint. In front of a wooden bridge, over a forest river, there’s a traffic control barrier with a big padlock. I’m told that only a few employees at the reserve have keys. Among them are researchers who conduct their studies here without disturbing forest inhabitants. The reserve, where nature evolves according to its special laws, poses many surprises to scientists. For instance, entomologists have discovered several new beetle species, unknown before. One has been named after researcher Alexander Lukashuk, who discovered it. Not so long ago, Polish specialists (researchers from various countries often come to the reserve) also discovered several species, new both for the reserve and for Belarus.

“The forest is fantastic, holding so many mysteries,” asserts the Director of the reserve. “It’s hard to believe, but more than twenty wild orchid species grow here, including the very rare Lady’s Slipper. Recently, yet another orchid was found, unique for Belarus: Ophrys insectifera, the fly orchid. It’s incredibly beautiful, resembling a butterfly. There are also predator plants, such as sundew, trapping flies and mosquitos. Tourists can see all this walking along the eco-path. We have an array of guided tours, but non-supervised visiting of the forest isn’t allowed. It’s even forbidden to stop along the part of the motorway linking Minsk and Vitebsk that runs through the reserve (for about 20km).”

This is, of course, very interesting, but where are the bears that tourists from various corners of the world yearn to see, just waiting for a signal from Berezinsky Reserve to head for a ‘bear trip’?

“We’re the only place in the country that has organised bear watching in the wild,” my guides tell me. “Specialists say that such tours are only arranged in a handful of places worldwide. Last year, we tested a special observation platform, from which we guarantee seeing a bear. This year, we’ve received about twenty requests from tourists and professional photographers. Regrettably, we can’t expand the ‘audience’, as this isn’t a zoo, and animals shouldn’t be disturbed too often. How do we attract bears to arrive at the right place at the right time? It’s a secret, but a whole number of factors are important. Many have tried, but only we have succeeded.”

“Here’s the watch tower over the windfall. A storm broke many trees, leaving some lying on the ground, and others broken in the middle. Some are torn from the ground by the root. The forest is starting to recover, but birches and aspens are growing instead of coniferous trees. These wilds are impassable even for elks, but it’s a perfect location for bear dens. The raspberries they like so much abound here,” my guides reveal.

Senior researcher and entomologist Alexander Lukashuk preparing for new discoveries

We ride further, and I find that the deep forest ends. We enter Postrezhye. Once, long ago, a village stood here. It was devastated twice. During the war, the Nazis burnt it down, together with sixty inhabitants. Later, it was rebuilt but, in 1979, the area was awarded the status of a biosphere reserve, and economic activities were banned at the heart of it. Postrezhye dwellers had to move away. Now, only apple orchards remain, wild, ghost-like outlines of former estates.

An unusual log house towers above: a bear-watching platform. Regrettably, there’s no sense watching for them at noon. They come to feed from the field planted especially for them at dawn and dusk. However, I can view the surroundings from a height.

“A she-bear with three cubs is our main star,” says Alexey. “Tasty apples grow here and, last autumn, I saw, with my own eyes, a cub climbing the apple tree and banging it, to get the apples to fall onto the ground, like a naughty boy. He threw fruit down to where his mother and two more cubs were standing. They picked it up and gobbled the apples down. Later, after ‘dessert’, they came to feed on the crops. All were standing on two paws, watching the territory. It was an adrenaline rush to observe.”

I wish I could see it myself.

“All right, let’s walk along the bear path, at least you’ll see the prints,” Mr. Prokoshin replies, seeing my thirsty look.

I eagerly agree but, after a few minutes, I feel too weary. The horse-flies here, in this realm of primeval nature, are huge, buzzing into my hair in large clouds. If I stop, enormous red ants creep into my open-toed shoes.

Alexey tells me, “Our forest flies are aggressive. Let’s ride towards the edge of the reserve, and we’ll show you Umka.”

Smart Umka bear first soaks the bread and only then eats it

Umka is a domesticated four-year-old she-bear. She’s such a beauty! She moves about her enclosure, eating oranges, throwing the peel towards the gate. She doesn’t pay attention to visitors. Having enjoyed her fruit, she switches to a more substantial meal. At one end of the enclosure is a bowl of bread; a bowl filled with water is at the opposite end. Umka picks a loaf of bread with her claw and then takes it to the water bucket, where she first soaks the bread, then eats it. If the loaf dissolves, she collects the pieces out of the water, using her paw as a scoop. After do so with the first loaf, she repeats again with the next. Alexey knows that it’s impossible to resist the beauty of the bear.

“Umka receives all the berries we confiscate from poachers, alongside other tasty foods. You should see her holding a bunch of blueberry plants, eating berry by berry, leaving none on the stems.”

It’s clear to see the affection of staff at the reserve, who’ve raised the bear from infancy.

How did Umka come to be in a forest zoo, and why isn’t she in the wild? It’s an interesting, yet sad, story. A cat-sized bear appeared near one of the villages, near Lepel. It frightened people, who thought that the bear mother would soon come for her cub. They called rescuers, but the little bear was scared and returned to the forest. After a couple of days, it came back, starving and weak. Most likely, it had lost its mother. The bear was taken to the district inspectorate for natural resources, where it was kept in the head’s room while authorities sought a place for it.  The decision was taken quite soon as, within half a day, Umka began nibbling a table and a chair. Ecologists called the reserve and requested that it take the hooligan bear. However, the cub was still of an age when it should have been suckling its mother’s milk, so it fell ill. The whole staff was involved in caring for the animal, with people cooking decoctions and porridges, using a baby’s bottle to feed the cub, and walking it on a leash.  

“Umka recovered quite soon and, whenever she saw trees, she would climb them. The leash was of no use when she had to be taken off the tree, so people did it with their bare hands. The bear, however, clearly understood that her new caretakers were not her mother. She would scratch and bite,” Andrey recollects. “I decided to find new hosts for her. At the time, we were already keeping an old bear named Mashka, and a second animal was too much for us. When staff members heard about those plans, they all came to me asking not to give Umka away. They had become attached to the animal, so I had to give in and build a new enclosure.”

The reserve boasts hundreds of interesting stories. You might think that it’s dull to be in the forest but its secrets are only revealed to those who are dedicated. More than 40,000 tourists come to Berezinsky Reserve every year, and many find a common language with nature. They return, exchanging the comforts of a prestigious sea resort for the tranquillity of Berezinsky Biosphere Reserve. Bears don’t mind having nature-loving guests.

By Yelena Begunova
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