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Poaching in Far Eastern Russia Threatens Ecosystem
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Poaching in Far Eastern Russia Threatens Ecosystem

Environment

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

You'll need a passport and a lot else this summer if you're among the visitors to one of the world's great natural wonders. It's Russia's remote peninsula of Kamchatka on the country's Far Eastern Pacific coast.

NPR's Gregory Feifer traveled nine time zones from Moscow to send back this report.

GREGORY FEIFER: It's called the land of fire and ice. Kamchatka boasts nearly 30 active volcanoes, stunning snow-peaked mountains and a unique population of salmon, bears and other wildlife. There are also hot sulfurous geysers. Underground, magma heats water that shoots out of the ground in the peninsula's Valley of the Geysers. It's one of the biggest tourist draws on this 750-mile mostly pristine peninsula roughly the size of California. In early June, a huge mudslide buried part of the valley threatening to turn it into a big lake. Local geologist Udmala Asipenko(ph) says the mudslide has irrevocably changed the valley.

Ms. UDMALA ASIPENKO (Geologist): (Through translator) But it's the normal geological process. You can't talk about it as a good or bad thing. In any case, there are new geysers forming. It's all part of a natural process of change.

FEIFER: There are other sites to see on Kamchatka such as swimming holes in the village of Paratunga, where locals and some of the 8,000 foreign tourists who come here each year, lull in hot thermal springs. Angela Tungki(ph) is visiting from Moscow with her 7-year-old daughter Katya(ph).

Ms. ANGELA TUNGKI (Tourist): (Speaking foreign language)

FEIFER: She says there's no place like this in the world. In Soviet days, Kamchatka was a close military zone with a strategic submarine port. That helped preserve the region's isolation. Even today, there's only one main road leading up the peninsula and it isn't even connected to the mainland. Among regular American visitors here today are bear hunters who pay $10,000 for each brown bear they kill. For others, there's hiking, heliskiing on mountains without chairlifts and boating on the Pacific coast.

(Soundbite of boat motor)

I'm riding in a Zodiac dinghy along the coast of Kamchatka. The landscape is very luscious, very green. There are lots of rocks visible. It's dark volcanic rock, of course. This land was formed through volcanoes and one would see snow-covered volcanoes in the distance, but it's so foggy, you can only see about half a mile.

The weather is one of the biggest problems for tourists on Kamchatka. Many of the scenic sites here are accessible only by helicopters. They're often grounded by rain and fog that can last for weeks. And there are other problems.

Helicopter rides cost hundreds of dollars, double the amount elsewhere in Russia because one company with the license to fly holds the monopoly. Most hotels are shoddy and overpriced. And just getting to Kamchatka is a trial. Flights from Anchorage, Alaska no longer operate. The easiest way to get here is to take the world's longest domestic flight, nine hours from Moscow. Tourist company head Yevgeny Karatayev(ph) said the conditions here probably won't change any time soon.

Mr. YEVGENY KARATAYEV (Tourist Company Owner): (Through translator) Kamchatka attracts a certain type of tourist who can afford to come here for the wilderness and is willing to put up with basic accommodations. It's a limited number of people. If we were to build more hotels here, they'd just end empty.

FEIFER: Fishing makes up the bulk of Kamchatka's economy. Many locals are poor and most of Kamchatka's male population engages in poaching that conservationists say is threatening stocks of salmon, crab and other fish. Environmentalists are also concerned about pollution from mining in the north of the peninsula and the recent discovery of oil off its western coast. Also under serious threat is Kamchatka's indigenous Itelmen culture long suppressed by the Soviet Union.

(Soundbite of woman singing)

FEIFER: At a recreation of a native dugout hut, Itelmen dressed in animal skins and beads perform songs originally sung by their nomadic hunter and fishermen ancestors. Today, they say, what little of the old culture has left helps make Kamchatka unique.

Gregory Feifer, NPR News.

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