Despite the preservation of the bear population in the southern forests, 2023 year showed that they began to come out to people more often in search of feed due to poor crop. The Caucasian State Natural Biosphere Reserve completed the bear ‘census’ held in June. The beginning of autumn is an important time in the life of bears. Right now, the bears are preparing for hibernation. It is known that they spend three to four months in dens without eating anything but using accumulated fat reserves that are up to one third of the animal’s weight. The minimum amount of fat required for a winter sleep is close to a quarter of the animal’s biomass, and to accumulate such an amount of energy resource, abundant high-calorie feed is needed.
“Based on signs known only to them, bears begin to move in August to places where feed resources are concentrated,” the Caucasian Nature Reserve reported. “Long-term studies have shown their close territorial relationship with the location of forage plants, including wild fruit, chestnuts, beech, and oak trees. Back in the early 1950s, Svetlana Chernyavskaya, an employee of the Caucasian Nature Reserve, described the dependence of bears on the harvest of fruit and nut trees and confirmed Andrey Nasimovich’s opinion that in years of poor harvest of plants used as feed, almost all bears leave the Caucasian Nature Reserve, and it turns ‘into a seasonal reserve’. This has been repeatedly confirmed by our long-term observations.”
For more than 15 years, the scientists of the Caucasus Nature Reserve have been monitoring the number of bears visiting wild pear plantations in the Eastern Department. The use of cameras made it possible not only to track the beginning and duration of using this food resource, but also to obtain the information about each bear visiting this area.
It’s worth mentioning that wild pear is the first fattening feed that ‘triggers’ the bear’s digestive mechanism for making fat reserves. The early wild pears finish falling in October. By this time, chestnuts, beech nuts and acorns grow ripe. Bears know this schedule very well and, having accumulated their ‘starting fat’, migrate to places where they can eat the next higher-calorie feed, and later on, they go to their winter dens.
Over many years of observations, the number of bears visiting the stationary site varied from five or six to 17 animals. While analyzing the photographs, it was possible to identify individual animals that have been visiting wild pear plantations for many years.
“We gave names to three of them,” said Anatoly Kudaktin, Doctor of Biological Sciences. “So, a bear named Kordonsky was first seen when the animal was at least eight years old and it has been recorded by cameras for 12 years. Now, Kordonsky is at least 20 years old, and the bear still keeps on coming to this place. This bear is very peaceful and conservative and it has six favorite trees where gets feed and has rest. When a horse rider or any person approaches, the bear ‘grumbles’ angrily and leaves to return in an hour or two and ‘guard’ his place from competitors.”
Bears orientate themselves by smell, they feel where the first ripe pears fall and, following from one tree to another, they make clearly visible paths, along which they can explore the entire area where these trees grow. In years of good harvest, animals explore the area - maintaining a hierarchy - and get feed at nights. During this time, their feed consumption can exceed five to seven kilograms of fruit per day. The period of feeding using pears is 25 days (according to our calculations), and one bear consumes about 150 kilograms of fruit depending on its body weight.
The harvests have been poor in the last three years and the animals had to move a lot in search of feed. Surveys of the area at the end of August-beginning of September this year showed that the wild pear harvest was poor and wild pear trees grew only in the ravines and floodplains of the river. There were no fruit on trees at all at the altitude above 1,200 meters above sea level. On a 200-hectare stationary site, up to eight bears were recorded along the tracks, while their rotation continued. The animals moved to the low-mountain forests of the Pregradnensky and Mostovsky districts and to Adygea.
A similar situation was on the southern macroslope. In the Southern Division, four or five bears are traditionally seen in the Achipse River valley and two or three animals - in the Biryuchka River area. A poor harvest in the area of Pslukh and Engelman Glades do not attract a significant number of bears there. Due to a harvest failure, animals start roaming around a large area in search of feed. They go to outskirts of settlements, as well as to corn fields, gardens and summer cottages.
As a rule, from June 4 to June 10, a bears’ mating season starts in the Caucasus; bears are mostly in the alpine zone and can be easily visually counted in good clear weather. This year, a residual snow cover forced to shift the recording period to a later date, and therefore no mating groups of bears were seen.
“Ten female bears - ‘mothers’ - were met with cubs born this year: six female bears with one bear cub, two female bears with two cubs, and two ones with three cubs,” noted Sergey Trepet, lead researcher of the Caucasus Nature Reserve. “The cubs born this year were also seen without a female bear. We saw two female bears with two one-year-old cubs each and three female bears with 1 one-year-old cub each. The total number of female bears with cubs was 18 animals, 7 one-year-old cubs, and 17 cubs under one year.”
The most effective bear population recording was carried out in the areas of Bambaki, Dzhuga, Yatyrgvarta, Achipsta, and Sergiev Gai. The total number of bears counted in these areas reached 87, or 58 percent of all bears counted. The data obtained from Sinyaya, Chugush, Khuko areas is still being processed. No bears were seen at the Atamazhi area. This year, low figures were obtained for several areas - Lagonaki, Tybga, and Malaya Chura - where bears are traditionally seen, there were only three single bears in each.
“One of the most important tasks of the reserve is the scientific activity,” said Sergey Shevelyov, director of the Caucasus Nature Reserve. “The records in the reserve have been kept since 1927. And it is important for us to observe the nature changing every year, the number of animals changing, and to analyze what the reason for these changes are. And the annual census of bears is a mandatory job for researchers.”
In general, the census results indicate that there have been no noticeable changes in the bear population over the past few years. The number of bears in the Caucasus Nature Reserve is likely at the same level as in 2020, when it was estimated at 300 animals, experts say.
“A female bear and its cubs often come to us, straight to our place even during the day, it has already ‘stolen’ almost all the chickens in the neighborhood and breaks everything, damages the plants, but most of all I’m afraid for the children who go out for a walk or are on the playground next to our private houses,” complained Alexander Nenev, a resident of the garden non-profit partnership Health located in the Khostinsky District. “Workers from the Sochi National Park located around, came to us, looked at photographs of ‘uninvited guests’, took our request and made a helpless gesture. They cannot do anything to prevent the bears’ visits!”
Bears often get into gardens, attack goats and geese, and destroy chicken coops and cages with rabbits. Last year, a brown bear made its way onto the terrace of a mountain restaurant in Krasnaya Polyana, and another bear was seen on the roadway of a tunnel in Adler. Why do bears start visiting people more often in Sochi?
“We invaded their area where they have always lived and, naturally, the animals have to respond,” explained Anatoly Kudakhtin. “In Canada and North America, ‘scavenger’ bears have long become the norm. And we, unfortunately, have the same problem - synanthropization. One day, I receive a call from the Ministry of Emergency Situations ‘Come as soon as possible, a bear has climbed into the yard and is eating chicken!’ This happened not far from my home in Adler. We came and scared the bear away, and we began to figure out what attracted the animal. It turned out to be a market place. The shelves were full of food, people enjoyed barbecue, and leftover scraps of food were stored there, and a bear could smell all this at a distance of three kilometers.”
There is one more point: during the massive development of Sochi in recent years, bear fattening stations were destroyed, thus, one third of the bear population living on the southern slope of the Main Caucasus Range disappeared.
“The planned crossings for the animals were not arranged,” concluded the chief researcher of the Caucasus Nature Reserve. “That is why there are bears on highways and tourist campsites. A bear knows that a chestnut tree is on the other side, it climbs over the fence, and then the noise of car horns frightens the animal and it is in panic. Of course, even now, these crossings can be built, but, firstly, their cost will be 10-20 times higher, and secondly, will these ‘bridges’ become comfortable, will the animals return to the places they inhabited earlier?”
The question remains open. Today, the construction of a highway from Sochi to Caucasian Spas area (a cluster of mineral water springs at Essentuki, Zheleznovodsk, Kislovodsk and Pyatigorsk) is under discussion. And the highway should be designed the right way without damaging the main migration routes and animal’s habitat areas; fortunately, technical means allow to do this. All that remains is to ease the residents’ and tourists’ anxiety: the Caucasian bears are peace-loving vegetarians unlike, for example, the Kamchatka bears.