There are parts of the world so wild, so distant from places inhabited by men, that when things happen, they happen without witnesses. The traces slowly disappear; they melt with the snow in spring, get washed away by rain, carried off by ravens. Eventually, it becomes unclear whether they happened at all.
Such a thing happened here.
Charlie Russell closed up his cabin at Kambalnoye Lake, on the remote tip of the Kamchatka Peninsula in Russia's Far East, and said goodbye for the winter to the bears he had studied for seven years.
There were 20 in all. Among them: Brandy, who often left her three cubs with Russell for baby-sitting while she went fishing. Walnut, a young male. Biscuit, whom Russell had raised as a cub and who, pregnant with her own offspring, would sometimes come bounding to greet him when he landed his plane, brushing against his leg or nibbling his boot.
Russell left last November for his home in Canada, confident that the bears would soon be safe in their snow-shrouded slumber. He returned, as usual, in spring. But instead of finding Biscuit emerging with blinking cubs from her den, all he found was stillness.
Biscuit did not appear. Nor did Walnut or Brandy or any of the bears. Russell searched for two months without finding a trace of any of them. What he did find, when he opened his cabin, was a bear's gallbladder, hung from a nail on the wall.
What had happened during those weeks before impenetrable drifts of snow settled over the valley, before the bears would have lumbered off to the safety of their dens? Who left the gruesome artifact on the wall, and was it an oversight or a message? And the question that haunts Russell most of all: Did Biscuit walk up to greet her killers?
Kamchatka prosecutor Alexander Voitovich is investigating the case as a poaching. The "mass killing" of an estimated 20 bears, he said, appears to have been the result of a search for gallbladders, whose contents are valued in Asia for use in folk medicines. "There is a strong possibility that we will solve this ugly crime very soon," he said.
But Russell and others who work around Kamchatka's famous brown bears aren't so sure. For one, it is not clear why someone who wanted gallbladders would have wasted one on Russell's cabin wall. For another, a lot of people had reason to resent Russell.
In fact, singling out someone who might have wanted to send a warning to the Alberta rancher -- who helped uncover corruption in the Kamchatka government, warred with the local scientific establishment and organized measures to thwart the region's billion-dollar poaching industry -- is like trying to find the bad bean in a pot of chili.
"This was obviously an action to prevent Charlie from doing his work. And it achieved its result," said Alexei Maslov, a scientist who has worked frequently in the South Kamchatka Wildlife Reserve, where Russell's project was based.
"It was a demonstration of power," added Maslov's wife, Ekaterina Lepskaya, also a scientist. "They demonstrated that they own the lake, not Charlie."
A strategic Soviet military region that was closed to outsiders through most of the last century, the Kamchatka Peninsula has remained one of the world's most vital stretches of wilderness, a primeval landscape of steaming, snow-covered volcanoes and black-sand beaches. Up to a quarter of all wild salmon in the Pacific spawn in its cold rivers. Brown bears up to 10 feet tall roam in untouched birch forests and tundra berry meadows.
Now international conservation organizations regard it as one of the most threatened of the world's natural treasures. The United Nations has placed parts of Kamchatka on its list of World Heritage sites, which are eligible for international protection because of their universal value. The U.N., with other organizations, will spend more than $13 million over the next several years to protect Kamchatka from the hazards of rural Russia's post-perestroika meltdown.
The poaching to which Russell's bears probably fell victim has become a potent economic engine on the 1,000-mile peninsula. Riverbanks this summer and fall were littered with dead salmon cast aside by villagers who had stripped them of eggs to be sold as red caviar. Fishermen in the Okhotsk Sea off Kamchatka routinely ignore their fishing quotas, and bears -- already shot at the rate of up to 1,000 a year, both legally and illegally -- will face critical food shortages if the salmon poaching isn't stopped, biologists say.
"The federal government is so preoccupied with macroeconomic problems, it doesn't even occur to them what is really happening on the outskirts of Russia," said Robert S. Moiseyev, a Kamchatka economist. "In Moscow, they give us directives to manage the Okhotsk Sea. But in reality, the Okhotsk Sea is being pillaged by everybody."
As a Soviet military outpost, Kamchatka had a robust fish-processing industry and state farms that produced milk, meat and vegetables for markets all over Russia. But the post-Soviet economic collapse hit here hard. Even as military forces drew down, the economic transition led to the closure of most state farms and fish plants.
Now there are entire villages without a single job, and the regional government, officially bankrupt, announced recently that it couldn't afford to buy sufficient fuel for the coming winter. Many apartment buildings and most schools are without heat. It is perhaps not surprising that most Kamchatkans are losing little sleep over poached fish or dead bears.
"In summer, everybody's fishing. And if you get enough caviar, you sell it. We have to survive, and that's the only way," said Yuri Slobodchikov, who once worked as a cattle breeder at a state farm in the village of Sokoch. Now the farm is a mass of crumbling, abandoned barns, and Slobodchikov is unemployed.
Wildlife managers say bears -- harvested legally at the rate of 500 a year -- often die at the hands of American and European hunters, who pay $8,000 or more to hunt a big male trophy bear. "American hunters would come, they were 70 or 80 years old. They were hunters with poor eyesight," said one former hunting guide, who said he quit because the abuses "made me sick."
An industry has grown up around guiding foreign hunters to their targets, but critics say even the legal hunts are often conducted using illegal tactics.
Helicopters, the former guide said, were routinely used to drive bears into killing zones. The illegal practice is particularly controversial in Kamchatka because it allows trophy hunters to eliminate the biggest bears and poachers to kill large numbers.
"It happened often. Very often," he said. "You could ask American clients. They don't admit it. But 90% had their bear shot with a helicopter, and of course, I took part in this kind of thing many times. We shot them even directly from the helicopters. It was not very pleasant."
Moiseyev says an entire generation in Kamchatka is being raised with a new indifference to the region's resources.
"For 12 years now, children have been growing up in families in which their parents have no other job but illegally catching fish. How are we going to get them back to a normal economy? It has become not an economic problem but a moral problem," he said. "God save us from living in an epoch when an entire country is stolen from you. Because it steals human souls."
Side by Side With Bears
Russell and his partner, artist Maureen Enns, were not unaware of the dangers facing Kamchatka wildlife when they arrived for their first summer in 1996. But it was only here that they could realize their dream of living side by side with wild brown bears and raising orphaned cubs -- which would not have been sanctioned in North America.
Russell, 61, grew up on a ranch at the border of Alberta and Montana. He had spent 18 years studying North American grizzlies, seen their habitat diminishing and wanted to find ways to enable humans and bears to live in harmony.
Even in Kamchatka, the endeavor was difficult. The couple won reluctant permission from local officials to launch their study, and when they began to succeed, they attracted funding from a variety of foundations in the U.S. and Canada.
Russell wanted to prove that brown bears -- Kamchatka's are larger but otherwise identical to the widely feared North American grizzly -- could coexist peaceably with humans, so long as people adhered to a protocol of respect and caution.
Russell rejected the conventional wisdom that bears need to maintain a healthy fear of people and that those who become too accustomed to humans will inevitably display aggression and end up being shot.
"Bears tend to like to be around people. A lot of them do, anyway," he said. "So these bears often come toward people when they meet them on a trail ... and that makes people uncomfortable."
Russell hoped his work in Kamchatka would answer two questions: Are brown bears as unpredictable as most biologists believe? And are bears that lose their fear of people invariably dangerous?
Russell and Enns chose one of two federally managed wildlife reserves in Kamchatka as their base, built a cabin and began quiet interactions with bears. Over the vehement objections of local scientists, they adopted three orphaned cubs and raised them as essentially wild, encouraging them as they grew to feed themselves and roam the surrounding hills.
Biscuit and the other orphans, Chico and Rosie, would disappear for days at a time, then reappear to seek out Russell's company for walks or play. Several other bears seemed to grow comfortable around the couple, allowing them to walk the trails with them or watch them fish.
"Some of the bears would come and sort of invite us on a walk. They'd come to the cabin, and if we made a move to get our pack ready, they would kind of wait for us," said Russell, who wrote about his project in a popular book, "Grizzly Heart."
Rosie was killed by a large male bear early on, and Chico disappeared in 2000, possibly to strike out for new territory. Biscuit, Russell hoped, was going to present him with her first cubs last spring.
As his friendships with the bears progressed, Russell racked up enemies as well. In his plane, he frequently spotted large-scale fish poaching along the rivers, and one of his reports resulted in charges against a prominent local official. He reported poachers trapping a large male bear in a snare, then leaving it to storm and bleat for days to increase the volume of valuable bile in its gallbladder.
Russell managed to raise more than $25,000 a year from North American contributors to support new rangers in the southern reserve, supplementing their salaries -- most earn about $83 a month -- and building new cabins to house them. But he also managed to alienate potential allies in the Russian scientific community, who had opposed his petition to raise the cubs and saw him as a foolhardy amateur.
One of Russell's main adversaries was the man with whom he probably had more in common than anyone in Kamchatka: Vitaly Nikolayenko, a ranger and amateur scientist who had spent 25 years living with bears on the 2.8 million-acre Kronotsky state reserve, 110 miles north of Petropavlovsk. The reserve is one of two managed by the federal government in Kamchatka. The south Kamchatka reserve, where Russell operated, is more remote.
Nikolayenko had made a life's work of harassing poachers and monitoring bears, naming them and chronicling their habits. For 22 years, Nikolayenko followed an enormous male he named Dobrynya, forming such an easy bond that the bear would often curl up for a nap just a few feet from him.
Russell and Nikolayenko clashed when the Russian ranger was called in to review Russell's project.
Nikolayenko strongly objected to feeding the half-grown cubs, arguing that it rendered the research meaningless and had the potential to make the cubs dangerously eager for human handouts.
Russell felt the cubs needed the kind of nourishment they would have received from their mother to make them strong enough to fend off predators. The men argued bitterly throughout their acquaintance.
But they perhaps also wound up having something tragically in common. Dobrynya disappeared in 2001, sometime after Nikolayenko saw the bear to its den and stood by as it fell into deep sleep.
Dobrynya was not seen in the spring, nor during all of 2002. When Nikolayenko returned to his cabin this spring, he found large tufts of hair and bones -- obviously the remains of an enormous male bear -- less than two feet from his window.
It could have been a bear injured in a fight, but why so close to his cabin?
"I think it was my old Dobrynya who came and died near my hut, early in spring, when I was not there," Nikolayenko said.
"I try not to think about it, but sometimes I can't help but see him injured and bleeding, running to my hut for help when I am not there."
The bear, he said, "was the main thing in my life.... I just can't bear the thought that he was killed like this, by poachers or somebody who doesn't like what I am doing here and doesn't want me to be here anymore."
Nikolayenko's cabin is stuffed with notebooks, the record of his daily journeys around the reserve. He is 65, and his leg is deeply scarred from a poacher's shot several years ago. Still, he walks six miles a day -- across the meadow, over the river, up to the spring-fed lake from which the river flows. He counts the number of chum salmon in the lake, scuffs at the abundant piles of fresh scat to see what the bears have been eating. He meets bears -- often half a dozen times a day -- and quietly watches from the reeds as they leap and splash in the river 30 feet away.
Nikolayenko's notebooks fill three walls, and though they constitute a remarkable documentary of bear behavior, it is unlikely, given budget cutbacks at the reserve over the past decade, that they will ever be widely published.
"It is sad for me to realize that what I am doing here, I am largely doing just for myself," he said.
The solitude, in fact, has usually been the undoing of those appointed to watch over the reserves, Nikolayenko notes. "One inspector hanged himself. Three drank themselves to death. People can't stand being lonely.
"It gets to the point that they can't even stand themselves. There have been moments when I began to read aloud because I was afraid I would forget how to speak. And when the bears are asleep, who do I talk to?"
Unlike Russell, who never even fired his pepper spray, Nikolayenko has fallen down bluffs to avoid charging bears and been chased up trees. He helped conduct an inquiry after Michio Hoshino, the renowned Japanese American bear photographer, was pulled out of his tent and eaten by a bear in 1996 in the southern reserve.
Nikolayenko never underestimates the bear's potential for ferocity and resists the urge to ascribe human emotions to the animals. Even Dobrynya, he says, probably only tolerated his presence.
"A bear thinks only of himself, his own needs. He never thought about me," Nikolayenko said. "I thought about him."
'I Think We've Lost'
At the reserves' headquarters in the town of Yelizovo, near the town of Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy, manager Valery Komarov sat in his dark, chilly office. The building is in a thicket of high weeds, its paint peeling and concrete crumbling. It looks, a Russian translator observed, "like the last building standing in Stalingrad."
Nonetheless, it is the bureaucratic fortress from which the fight to protect Kamchatka's wildlife is fought. Although the reserves were relatively well funded during the Soviet era, Komarov said, his staff now includes only 30 rangers and six scientific researchers. Once there were twice that many.
"No one wants to work for a miserable salary," he lamented.
The poachers, he said, "are very powerful people, and all our legislative system is available to be bought and sold. There is no real protection."
Russell hired former soldiers who had fought in Chechnya and were unafraid to chase poachers into remote corners of the peninsula. But there were never enough of them, he said.
Although he initially thought about leaving Russia forever after the horrors of the spring, he is considering returning again next summer to help expand the ranger program.
Arnold Zaslavsky, chief ranger for the Yelizovo district, said the upper reaches of some rivers are now devoid of fish because poachers have depleted the spawning grounds. Bears, he said, must travel farther and farther downriver to find food.
This spring, he added, rangers found the remains of eight bears in south Kamchatka, all shot in the back of the head -- clearly from a helicopter -- two days before hunting season opened.
"I think we've lost," Zaslavsky said, his eyes brimming with tears. "I can't sit and do nothing. I would like to do something useful for nature, but I don't have possibilities."
Komarov believes there is little doubt about what happened to Russell's bears.
"Russell's activities were in the way of this criminal structure, and he crossed their path.
"Maybe they just did it for revenge," he said. "It was a very cruel revenge."
Times staff writer Sergei L. Loiko contributed to this report. Additional photos and previous coverage of Charlie Russell and the bears of Kamchatka are available on the Web at www.latimes.com/bears.