Journey East to the Land of 10,000 Grizzlies

In the Russian Far East, a former Soviet military base on the peninsula of Kamchatka has become an unlikely wildlife sanctuary. The military kept people out, but allowed nature to flourish. The forbidding landscape of Kamchatka is now home to one of the densest populations of grizzlies on Earth: some ten thousand are believed to inhabit the 100,000-square-mile peninsula.

The peninsula has a volcanic history, as part of the western edge of the Pacific ‘Ring of Fire.’ The spine of Kamchatka is made up of over one hundred volcanoes, twenty-nine of which are currently active. Many of the region’s famous crater lakes, like the beautiful Kurilskoye, fill the empty hollows left by the centers of ancient volcanoes. Today’s volcanoes also play a role in maintaining these lakes by fertilizing them with ash, laying the foundations of their food chains.

The peninsula’s icy rivers teem with salmon as they complete their spawning migration each year. Without any humans around to harvest them or dam the rivers, the salmon populations climb into the millions. But for the grizzly bears that roam openly in Kamchatka every summer, these salmon are breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

Grizzly bear and cubs.
This mother bear is fishing with her cubs, and probably hopes they’ll learn a thing or two. (Photograph by National Geographic Channels)

A hungry grizzly can eat up to eighty pounds of salmon—or fifteen fish—in one summer day. The grizzlies are binging for a good reason: they won’t eat all winter, and need to build up stores of one or two hundred pounds of fat to survive. By the time winter arrives, the last of the bears have packed into their dens for a full six months of hibernation.

The bears are sleeping, but that doesn’t mean all activity stops. In the middle of winter, the new litter of cubs is born while mom is still hibernating. The newborn cubs weigh under a pound at birth and are totally helpless in their first months of life. They can do little other than sleep and nurse until the spring, when they emerge from the den with their mothers to search for food.

The region’s abundant salmon attract other predators, like the Steller’s sea eagle. This impressively large bird of prey has a seven-foot wingspan, and is nearly twice the weight of the American bald eagle. The eagles and grizzlies have other neighbors in Kamchatka, too, like the northern fur seal and the marvelous color-changing arctic fox, whose coat turns white each winter to create camouflage in the snow.

In this preview, a fur seal pup fights to survive after it wanders into a pack of juvenile seasl that vent their frustration on the youngster. He uses every bit of strength he has to make it to shore.

Learn how the bears will survive the frenzy of the coming summer on Land of 10,000 Grizzlies airing this Sunday Sept. 27 at 8/7c only on NatGeoWILD!