Interview with Naturalist Reno Sommerhalder: Protecting Kamchatka’s Bears

We continue our series of interviews highlighting Kamchatka, Russia. Today we are interviewing Reno Sommerhalder, an internationally recognized bear naturalist, conservationist, wildlife guide and photographer who has traveled to Kamchatka since 2003 to study Kamchatka brown bears.


Photo: Reno Sommerhalder

Q: Tell our readers a little bit about yourself. When and how did you discover your passion for bears?

I was fresh off the boat, so to speak, when I had a first very close encounter with a bear in the Canadian Rocky Mountains, where I make my home today. This story took place more then 32 years ago. During the day I would hike around with a small cowbell attached to my pack. At night that same bell became my doorbell, hanging from the ceiling of my little tent. The ringing of this bell woke me one night and as I sat up I starred into the face of a bear who had torn open the side of my little abode. We stared at one another, likely both in shock, for no more then 2 seconds until he fortunately pulled out his head and shuffled off. This encounter left me wondering about these animals and instead of being scared-off, I was intrigued about them from that moment onwards.


Q: You have studied bears for several decades and have traveled around the world. What draws you back to Kamchatka?

I have observed and spent time with bears on all continents where they occur. If you have a love for wild and intact places, Kamchatka is probably one of the most pristine areas left on our beautiful earth. I will always remember the one time I landed in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky with various volcanoes, clad in velvet green, sticking out of a sea of fog. It seemed like I was about to land at the end of the world or on another planet all together.


Q: What makes Kamchatka’s bears unique?

Wherever bears live on this globe, people often refer to their own area as harbouring the largest bears or the densest population of them. I believe that Kamchatka is home to the biggest density of brown bears I have ever seen. If extensive hunting and poaching practices were absent from this peninsula, the density would be at another level all together, certainly out numbering all other places on earth. What makes Kamchatka such a heaven for bears is the fact that next to various different species of berries and salmon, they also have access to fat rich pine nuts on most of the peninsula. A crucial food source that for example Alaskan brown bears do not have available. This rich environment is mainly what’s responsible for the naturally very high density of bears here.


Q: What is the greatest threat to bears on Kamchatka, and what are the greatest challenges to protecting them?

Poaching and over fishing of salmon currently poses the greatest threat to Kamchatkan brown bears and to nature in general. Salmon, like nothing else, ties together entire ecosystems and making them as vibrant as this landscape still is to a large degree today. Trophy hunting, to a lesser degree, can also be very detrimental. This old school mentality, to continuously kill and eliminate the largest bears from the system can have a big impact on the genetics over time. Thirdly, habitat loss through road building, mining and other resource extractions can pose another nail in the coffin. Protecting salmon is certainly the number one concern and because of the relatively poor local economy that is a huge hurdle to cross.


Q: You have led many tours. Is it possible for travelers from North America to join your expeditions? How would they learn more?

Most of my groups are currently hailing from Europe but I would certainly welcome anyone interested in sharing time with me amongst the bears. Simply contact me at reno@renosommerhalder.ch with questions or a request.

Q: What is a typical day on the tour?

In the centre of the trips I guide is the bear as the indicator for a healthy, intact landscape. So accordingly, we take every precaution we don’t alter the animals’ behaviour we’re watching. While we humans are simply visiting, bears are trying to survive. Sometimes we watch bears all day long how they catch fish, graze, rest or play. Sometimes we’re taking excursions on foot in the area and explore this magical landscape along ancient bear trails. So you’re basically immersed day in and day out in the life of a bear on these trips. We always have a Russian chef along and are treated to wonderful fresh Russian cuisine. Some say they’ve gained, not lost weight on these trips!


Q: What do your travelers enjoy the most in your Kamchatka tours?

Most of the time trip participants have either never seen bears before or have not been so close to them. Sometimes it takes a couple of days for people to realize that they have entered a place that has not been changed by humans, likely in thousands of years. There is hardly a better symbol then the mighty bear to express this ancient wildness that is inside all of us. I think it is this feeling that pulls at our most deep-rooted heartstrings that sometimes makes people weep of joy.


Q: You are a strong advocate for bears around the globe. What are your tips for visitors to practice responsible tourism/wildlife watching?

No matter where on the planet you enter the natural world or spend time with our four legged brethren, always do so with respect and try to adapt to natures’ cycles and rules. Be observant, use your senses and do your best to avoid changing animals’ patterns due to your presence. Their survival may depend on it. If you’re part of an organized tour make sure that your leaders are doing the same. In our own homes, wherever we live, we can greatly contribute in various different ways to the wellness of nature. Our lives and how we live them, no matter how trivial you may think it is, will have reverberating impacts on all life on the planet.


Q: You have lectured about bears throughout the world and have written books about your experiences with them. What inspires you to undertake these projects?

If I am honest, I do these trips at least partially because I love spending time in nature and among bears. What most humans seek is living our short lives as consciously as possible. When immersed in nature among bears you have no other choice then being in the moment which is what that state of consciousness is all about. We also live at a time when wilderness and its furry occupants are disappearing at an alarming rate, mainly due to human impacts of all sorts. I see it as part of my responsibility to do what ever I can and be an advocate for bears as a key stone species. Bears and all other wildlife species should be able to expect and deserve the same that humans take for granted as well: freedom and a fulfilled life in the wilds, which is exactly what the process of thousands of years of evolution had in store for them.


Q: You have seen many bears in your life. What was your most memorable encounter with a bear in Kamchatka?

After literally thousands of encounters and countless hours spent with these animals over the past decades, there are no single encounters that stand out. A certain segment of all these observations, however, does. These are moments, when a female with little spring cubs is nursing her wee ones a mere twenty feet from us, falling asleep doing so or when a large male chooses to have a snooze right next me, because he knows he won’t be bothered by other bears or when a female bear is leaving her cubs with us while she’s fishing for salmon. These scenarios are only possible between bears and people when our behaviour provides them with the trust necessary so they can relax. From the bears perspective there are almost no limits to this tolerance. From the human perspective this level of tolerance is too often guided by irrational fear, which in the end is not about the bear but about how we perceive ourselves.


Q: What’s on the horizon for you in 2020 and beyond?

For this summer I have only accepted one guiding request from a few photographers who want to spend two weeks among bears in Kamchatka. For the rest of the summer I will be working on a new documentary in Alaska. Bears and our relationship with them and the natural world will be the red threat throughout this film. But the film is going to be about much more then that. We will try to explore what it takes to live in greater harmony with nature as the provider of all things. In 2021 however, I plan to be back in Kamchatka with several bear trips.

Photos were provided by Reno Sommerhalder

Reno Sommerhalder:
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  1. Love your comments and the narration with all of your photos. We see the responsibility to leave no footprint on the bears and their habitat, as the same. It is our sacred responsibility.

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