Blood in the snow

Charlie Russell found international fame living in the wilds of Russia with his best friends - wild brown bears. Then someone massacred his companions. Why? Andrew Meier returns with the naturalist to Kamchatka to investigate

The helicopter took off at daybreak, skirting the leaden bay before rising to thread through the volcanoes surrounding the city of Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky. The old chopper, an MI-8 with the carcass and portholes of a rusting tanker, eased out over the tundra as the peninsula narrowed, flying low as it headed toward the southernmost tip of the land. It was early in the long Kamchatkan winter - November 2002, according to the best guesses that came later. The first snows had blanketed the valleys slanting off the volcanoes, and the white earth below was barren except for the stone birches, their fat branches twisting skyward.

The helicopter took off at daybreak, skirting the leaden bay before rising to thread through the volcanoes surrounding the city of Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky. The old chopper, an MI-8 with the carcass and portholes of a rusting tanker, eased out over the tundra as the peninsula narrowed, flying low as it headed toward the southernmost tip of the land. It was early in the long Kamchatkan winter - November 2002, according to the best guesses that came later. The first snows had blanketed the valleys slanting off the volcanoes, and the white earth below was barren except for the stone birches, their fat branches twisting skyward.

Packed in close, the men sat stiffly as the chopper bobbed south, covering the 135-mile stretch to their wilderness destination in roughly two hours. Drowned out by the roar of the blades, they said little. Each held tightly to his weapon until, below them, there appeared a small, pristine lake. As they touched down beside a cabin, the men crunched into the hard snow.

They probably had little trouble accomplishing their mission. After all, the bears of Kambalnoye had lived in close quarters with two North American researchers for seven years. One or two, expecting a familiar face, may have even run up to greet their killers.

That's how wildlife researcher Charlie Russell imagined it, anyway. But all he really knew was this: in a well-orchestrated operation that amounted to mass murder in the wild, as many as 20 Kamchatkan brown bears - or grizzlies, as the species Ursus arctos is known in North America - were shot in the area around his cabin on Kambalnoye Lake, in the 500,000-acre South Kamchatka Sanctuary, a state-run preserve that is home to the densest population of brown bears on the planet. Among the victims were several subjects of his groundbreaking and controversial research, a group of bears that had been studied as closely as the Rwandan gorillas made famous by the late Dian Fossey.

Russell, now 63, discovered the massacre in May 2003. He returned to the lake, as he did every spring after spending the winter back home in Canada, to find one of the cabin windows pried open. Inside, hanging on the wall, was a small sack of lifeless, twisted flesh. It was the gall bladder of an adult grizzly.

"At first I couldn't even look at it,'' Russell recalled. "I tried to pretend it wasn't there, that it couldn't be what I knew it had to be.''

Dried and sold as an aphrodisiac and cure-all in Asia, Russia, and North America, bear gall has long been treasure for poachers. At the height of the black market, a few years back, 100 grams could fetch £1,600. (A dried gall bladder weighs roughly 60 grams.) But by 2003 the market was glutted, and the price had fallen to a dollar or two a gram. To Russell, the economics did not add up; the slaughter didn't seem worth the poachers' efforts.

Other than a few bits of hide and hair in the snow, there were no signs. Then, slowly, clues began to surface: two rubbish bags full of empty food tins turned up hidden in the pines * behind the bin, then a bag of spent shotgun shells, which had been loaded with lead slugs. Finally, as the snow melted, heavy boot prints emerged, stamped into the previous season's first snowfall. Over the course of a few days, Russell surmised, a small group of men had used the cabin as a base. The bears had probably been easy to pick off as they made their last prehibernation fishing forays down to the lake.

Russell felt excruciating responsibility for the bears' demise. A filmmaker, rancher, and self-taught grizzly expert, he had first come to Kamchatka in 1994, with his personal and professional partner, Canadian artist and wildlife photographer Maureen Enns. They shared an audacious idea: both believed that grizzlies were not innately dangerous and unpredictable, it was our fear, not their aggression, that was the problem. They set out to live among bears but ended up going further. The couple decided to raise three grizzly cubs in the wild - cubs orphaned by poachers. They would teach them to live on their own, proving that bears could form long-term, trusting bonds with people.

From the start, Russell's plan stirred debate among bear experts. He was not a biologist - he gained his years of experience with grizzlies by shooting wildlife films in Canada - and to scientists, his methods had always seemed naïve.

Russell didn't just take on the scientists. Over the years, as he became dismayed by rampant poaching in the South Kamchatka Sanctuary, his idealism evolved into activism. Stymied by official channels, he'd recruited and financed a small, well-armed force of rangers at the sanctuary's Kurilskoye Lake, a prodigious breeding ground for wild salmon - and thus a very attractive spot to bears. What had started as a personal experiment became a civic crusade, and it was this turn that likely led to the bears' deaths. Russell knew the rules of Kamchatka. He knew how corrupt its officials were, how venal the bosses who controlled its hunting territories - and how lethal their union could be for his bears.

In the months following the discovery of the massacre, the crime remained shrouded in mystery. There wasn't even an official investigation. Names were whispered, of bosses angered by Russell's success, including the man who controlled nearly everything on Kamchatka. His name was uttered without introduction, like Bush or Putin: Kovalenkov. But there was no evidence. And in a region suffering from an interminable Soviet hangover, the deaths of a few bears didn't rank high on anyone's list of woes.

Russell, however, couldn't let go. So in May 2004, just as the Kamchatka bears were emerging from their dens, he decided to go back. Enns, however, would not accompany him. She wanted no more of Kamchatka, and she decided to end her relationship with Russell as well.

When Russell and Enns scouted Kamchatka, the region had only recently been opened to foreigners, after decades of Soviet lockdown. To them it was an Eden, unspoilt bear country where they could make their own rules. And, of course, finding bears would not be a problem: In Kamchatka, some 10,000 grizzlies roam an area one-sixth as big as the territory inhabited by 30,000 bears in Alaska.

The 1,000-mile-long peninsula was stocked with ICBMs, MiGs, and nuclear submarines, the first line of defence on the Soviets' eastern front during the Cold War. Since Kamchatka was off-limits to most Soviets, its wildlife was protected by default. But after the fall of the Soviet Union, in 1991, the region was again opened to the West and the Moscow elite. With this, Kamchatka's vast natural resources suddenly faced 21st-century threats.

Today, some of what's happening is low- impact tourism - 500 Western fishermen fly in every summer to catch and release salmon; snowboarders and heli-skiers make fresh tracks on Kamchatka's volcanoes; and thousands of tourists helicopter to the famed Valley of the Geysers. But the real growth industry has been bear hunting, along with poaching of everything from salmon to snow sheep to lynx.

When conservation funds dried up after the Soviet collapse, Kamchatka's Kronotsky Biosphere Nature Reserve - the 2.4-million-acre centrepiece of Kamchatka's five protected areas and the agency that administers them - was only too happy to host Russell and Enns. The couple's money helped warm the relationship. In a decade, Russell said, they spent more than $1m on their bear project, raised almost entirely through small grants from Canadian and US foundations and individuals.

In time, the reserve's officials granted the couple extraordinary autonomy. In 1996, they built a cabin on Kambalnoye Lake. The next spring, they learnt that three female cubs orphaned by poachers had turned up at the zoo in the town of Yelizovo. With a discreet nod from the zookeeper, the Canadians "stole'' the cubs, as Russell put it, and took them down to the lake by helicopter, convincing the reserve to legalise the "adoption'' after the fact. They named the cubs Chico, Rosie and Biscuit, and started training them to re-enter the wild.

For six seasons at Kambalnoye, from 1997 to 2002, Russell and Enns worked with the cubs as they grew into 500lb grizzlies. They taught them to fish, kept predator males away with an electric fence, and showed them new territory by leading them in kayaks across the lake, Enns paddling as the bears swam behind. Even as independent adults, the three stayed uncommonly sociable. Every spring, after the annual return to Kambalnoye, Russell and Chico would rub noses, and he would place his palms on hers, knitting his long fingers through her claws. The biggest surprise was that wild bears befriended the couple as well. One female, nicknamed Brandy, even took to leaving her young with them to baby-sit.

By the fall of 2002, the project was nearing completion. Rosie went missing in 1999 - killed, the couple believed, by a predator male. Chico took off on her own in 2000. Only Biscuit remained. Meanwhile, Russell and Enns had gained international fame; they were covered in television documentaries and in newspapers around the world.

Most important, they believed Biscuit had bred; if all went well, she would nurse her first cubs in the spring of 2003. Reintroducing bears was remarkable enough; having one breed and successfully raise a new, wild generation was astounding. But Russell never saw Biscuit again. He feels certain she was killed.

Nine time zones and 4,000 miles east of Moscow, Kamchatka's sole city of Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky - known to foreigners as PK - sits above one of the world's most alluring harbours, Avacha Bay.

I joined Russell on his difficult return trip in 2004. We met in May, when the spring thaw had already lured the first Westerners; heli-skiers taking advantage of the last snows and American hunters streaming in from the backcountry in mud-caked jeans, carrying long rifle cases and duffels heavy with skins.

At first glance, Russell looks better-suited for retirement than for animal wars; his unruly curls long ago turned silver, and he moves in an easy shamble. Mindful of his blood pressure - he has had surgery on his aorta - he tries to stay away from sweets and stress. But his face is craggy from years in the wild and his large hands are like paws. You can't spend much time with him without being awed by both his ease in the natural world and his willpower.

The Yelizovo Zoo, naturally, distressed him. Tucked away in a grim Soviet-era outpost half an hour northwest of PK, it could easily have been mistaken for a roadside animal market. Two new cubs had come in - orphaned, like Russell's, by poachers. Anatoly Shevlyagin, the stout director who had given Russell his first three bears, knew the cubs could drum up business, but it would be hard to keep them.

Though he's spent a decade navigating Kamchatkan officialdom, Russell speaks only two words of Russian comprehensibly - da and nyet. He asked me to translate as, shyly, he gave Shevlyagin a wad of roubles to help support the cubs. The zookeeper thanked Russell warmly. But he warned that the money wouldn't go to the cubs. He had to buy a new pump for the zoo's tiny pond.

Across town, in the cinder-block headquarters of the Kronotsky Reserve, it was so cold that the staff wore down jackets. To some in Kamchatka, I was starting to see, Russell was a source of amusement or, worse, a thorn in biologists' sides. Vladimir Mosolov, the head of Kronotsky's scientific department, was candid about this. "Our Canadians dreamed of becoming famous like those Brits in Africa with their lions,'' he said, alluding to Born Free, George and Joy Adamson's 1960 tale of returning the * lioness Elsa to the Kenyan grasslands. As for the massacre, the reserve had taken a hard line, refusing to believe that any bears had been poached.

I heard more of the same when I phoned the regional prosecutor, Aleksander Voitovich, to ask about the investigation. "There is no case, because there is no proof these bears were killed,'' he told me.

In the decade since the Soviet collapse, no region of Russia has fallen further or faster than Kamchatka. There are projects to mine gold and nickel, and a natural-gas pipeline has been haltingly under construction, but it has failed to lure the multi-billion-dollar petroleum deals of its neighbour, Sakhalin, across the Sea of Okhotsk. A big question, as always, is whether development and wildlife can coexist.

Poaching is a huge problem - illegal salmon caviar, for example, is helicoptered out by the ton. But the big money comes from the spring trophy hunt, a legal, state-sanctioned harvest in which Westerners pay as much as $12,000 (£6,500) for a chance to shoot a giant grizzly. The hunt would raise an outcry in many countries. Dark bears make slow and easy targets against the white snow, and guides are used to flush animals toward clients who have snowmobiled in.

Kamchatka's bears are generally larger than American grizzlies - females can top 700lbs, males as much as 1,400lbs. US Fish and Wildlife Service inspectors in Anchorage, who greet the weekly flights from PK, recorded 148 bears coming back through Alaska in spring 2003. Of the 108 hunters who travelled through Anchorage, only six had not killed a bear.

This rate of culling cannot be sustained, especially when there are even more bears poached each year. No one knows the exact size of Kamchatka's bear population, but it is estimated that 10,000 live in the peninsula. Kamchatka's Hunting Regulation Department sets the annual kill quota at 500 to 550, but that's just the legal take. Multiply that two or three times, said Igor Revenko, a ranger and biologist who worked with Russell and Enns, and you'll get the number of illegally poached bears.

There have, however, been recent signs of hope. The great mass of Russians, all too aware of the Soviet ecocide that decimated their land, have a passionate sense of the need to protect their environment. And though funding remains almost nil for state-run environmental operations, international groups have taken up some slack: the United Nations Development Programme is providing $13m (£6.9m) for Kamchatkan ecotourism and biodiversity projects and $14m (£7.5m) for salmon conservation.

More encouraging was the shocking move that came last July, when Kamchatka's governor, Mikhail Mashkovtsev - after a visit from Vladimir Putin - suddenly reversed course and banned the spring hunt, beginning this year. All 500 or so tags would now be issued for the autumn hunt, when far fewer Westerners brave the conditions and bears are harder to find.

In Moscow, I'd heard how Kamchatka had become a political problem for Putin. "The president is aware of the mess,'' said Yulia Latynina, a commentator for The Moscow Times, "and he is determined to clean house.''

"Charlie got in people's way,'' the old hunter was telling me. "Most of all Kovalenkov's.''

Roman - whose name I've changed - was driving us out of PK in his battered truck. We barrelled along, past wooden shacks slanting in on themselves, ruins of fishing villages.

Roman advanced a theory that I'd first heard in the headquarters of the Kronotsky Reserve, where a scientist, one of Russell's opponents, had pulled me aside. "Forget the poachers,'' he said. "There's one power on this peninsula.''

By all accounts a man of charm and ingenuity, businessman Anatoly Grigorievich Kovalenkov seemed to embody the best and worst of Russia's post-Communist evolution. Back in Soviet days, Kovalenkov had sat atop the regional gospromkhoz, the "state hunting enterprise'' controlling the harvest of Kamchatka's game, fish, and fur. When the Soviet Union fell, the first spoils went, naturally, to those in the closest reach - and those with the firmest grip. Kovalenkov was no mobster, no bandit, but he'd succeeded in building an empire out of Soviet ashes when no one else could.

With only a handful of helicopters available on Kamchatka for taking out hunters and ecotourists alike, Kovalenkov's company, Krechet, had for years enjoyed an unyielding monopoly on the tourism trade, turf that Kovalenkov, sources said, protected ruthlessly with help from a private corps of the peninsula's best guides, running it as a de facto preserve for his own hunting, fishing, and ecotourism clientele.

"Krechet has enjoyed a certain exclusivity,'' said Armen Grigorian, of the Biodiversity Conservation Centre, Russia's largest environmental organisation. Grigorian spent months last year writing a management plan for Kamchatka's protected areas. With considerable dexterity, he explained the tangled relationship between Krechet and the Kronotsky Reserve. "In the 1990s, all the reserves in Russia faced the same terrible problem: no money. Not for science, not for protection, and certainly not for any kind of ecotourism infrastructure.'' Kronotsky got into ecotourism for one reason: poverty. Tourism filled the reserve's budget. But much of the money, Grigorian said, "went to the side, under the table and into the pockets of local businessmen". For his part, Russell at first thought he could work with Kovalenkov. After all, the chopper that ferried Chico, Rosie and Biscuit to Kambalnoye had been provided by Krechet. Over the years, however, the Canadians' relations with the boss would sour, though it began with promise.

Nothing, and no one, on Kamchatka is black-and-white. Conservationists are hunting guides, and local bosses are among the community's most generous benefactors. Kovalenkov, in addition to his business holdings, was known for his civic ventures, funding scientific research, aiding the region's decimated native peoples, and, at one point, launching a local television station.

"If you get him involved from the beginning, he likes that. But try to do something on your own or with someone else - watch out,'' said Igor Revenko, the former sanctuary biologist.

No one has formally accused Kovalenkov of anything but Roman, who worked for him for more than a decade, felt sure he would have no qualms about being involved in the massacre if it suited his interests. As for why Kovalenkov might go after Russell, he said that was simple: "Charlie flew. That was his offence. He could see.''

Early in his Kamchatka adventure, Russell had brought over from Canada a Kolb ultralight, a small aircraft powered by a 65-horsepower engine and built by Russell himself. The Kolb was his magic carpet; flying low over the sanctuary, he started to see snowmobile tracks and other poaching evidence that no one else could. One September afternoon in 1997, from a thousand feet up, Russell and Igor Revenko spotted a Soviet military ATV churning up a hillside deep inside the sanctuary. Russell swooped lower, bringing the Kolb in close. Inside the ATV, he'd later learn, were freshly poached snow sheep and brown bears.

Maybe it wasn't the smartest move to buzz a posse of well-armed Russian hunters deep inside a protected area. But the bet paid off. Revenko captured the scene on video and presented it to prosecutors in PK. It turned out one of the passengers was Valery Golovin, the director of the sanctuary himself. To everyone's surprise, prosecutors brought criminal charges in the winter of 1997.

Emboldened, Russell had gone further. "I couldn't believe what was going on around Kamchatka,'' he told me. "It was just poaching everywhere - for caviar, for salmon, for bears. And if there's no fish, there are no bears. That's why I realised we had to go after the poachers, of all kinds, no matter their prey.''

Cobbling together more small grants, Russell gave the reserve money to pay four rangers and build a cabin for them. In 2000, when the reserve's crew proved inept, he brought in two Russian special forces officers who had come home from the bloodbath in Chechnya. The men loved their summer in the bush, and they did their job well. They not only found caviar poachers; they arrested them.

In PK, the news made headlines. But it was probably the last straw. The tax police and the FSB, the secret police who are the heirs to * the KGB, went after Russell for flying an unregistered aircraft in the sanctuary - a border zone, they claimed, with military significance. In 2003 the reserve took possession of the ultralight.

Roman said the saga made his stomach turn. But did he have any evidence Kovalenkov was involved in the massacre? To him the economics were damning enough. No small-time poacher would rent a helicopter to kill 20 bears. But there was no real evidence and Kovalenkov would deny the claims.

For more than a week last spring, the dismal Hotel Petropavlovsk had become home. Each day, in the gloom of its lobby, Kamchatka's strange mix of foreigners - snowboarders, heliskiers, hunters - gathered to wait for "weather'', as the Russians call skies clear enough to fly. While we waited to get permission to visit his ranger station, Russell fumbled around town trying to get his plane back from the reserve.

Finally, one morning, the smokestacks in PK belched straight up. We decided to forget about getting permission and recruited Viktor Podakysonov, a burly helicopter pilot famed among the cognoscenti as Kamchatka's ace.

Viktor's ride was a tiny, 18-year-old Soviet Mi-2 helicopter. He lifted the rust bucket up high; almost immediately the solitary huts and swirling snowmobile trails receded and Kamchatka's geography took centre stage. The tundra turned pure white, a desert of plush, untouched snow.

All the way south, Russell scanned the cliffs and valleys. On occasion, his eyes would come alive. "Skid marks!'' he'd yell, pointing to ridges where newly risen bears had come out to play. But now, as Viktor swooped low across the lake, just 50ft above its silvery sheen, we saw one: a dark mass alone on the rocks at the water's edge.

Viktor set down near the forlorn little ranger post, a hundred yards from the lake. The four rangers, a scruffy lot who did not inspire confidence, scrambled to fetch us on snowmobiles.

The snow was too deep to hike, so we again took to the sky. Suddenly, not in minutes but in seconds, bears were everywhere, the dark centrepieces of the white landscape. First one boulder came to life, then another. As we circled up high over the woods, the windscreen filled with a gorgeous female clambering up the ridge. Two cubs scampered behind, struggling in the snow. Russell yelled at Viktor to fly higher.

Everywhere in the dark copses I saw bears. Russell and I counted nearly 50. "Too many," he yelled, "to keep track." Russell was smiling wide for the first time in two weeks. He hadn't slept much for days. He'd been seized by a new idea - a vaguely articulated dream to start a foundation that could give the bears a safe future. Half a million dollars a year, he reckoned, could lock up the whole reserve. Russell already had a plan to start over: he would turn his old cabin into a rehabilitation facility. He would raise the cubs we'd seen at the zoo.

To an outsider, the scheme may have seemed delusional, but sitting in the deafening Mi-2, it felt entirely within reach. I looked hard and saw Russell for the first time. Here was a self-made naturalist, all alone in his 64th year, but more determined than ever to save a slice of the world's remaining wilderness - not, truth be told, so that humans could delight in its wonders, but to ensure the survival of his truest friend on earth.

Back in PK, Russell landed hard. He knew that, unlike the international conservation groups, he didn't have the clout to get funding from the UN's Development Programme. To save Kamchatka's bears, he now was convinced, the programme would have to be home-grown and Russian-run.

In fact, in the months he'd been gone, a new order had quietly emerged, one in which he'd have more of a chance. All winter, the locals joked, Kovalenkov, had been in hibernation. There'd been an accident: in August 2003, an Mi-8 headed for the Kuril Islands, southwest of Kamchatka, came into heavy fog and crashed. On board was a VIP delegation led by Igor Farkhutdinov, the governor of Sakhalin. All 20 aboard were killed. Pending the inquiry, both Krechet's flying license and Kovalenkov's personal one were suspended.

In the meantime, a new force had emerged. A mini-oligarch had come to Kamchatka. If Kovalenkov embodied the old Soviet ways, Stanislav Belan personified the new breed of Russian entrepreneur - many of them fluent in Western finance, pedigreed with MBAs, and protected by foreign passports.

In 2002, Belan had created Bel-Kam-Tour, advertising it as a purveyor of "VIP tourism'' on Kamchatka. Things did not get off to an auspicious start. Bel-Kam-Tour's first hotel burned down. But it had been rebuilt, and another would open soon. Like a character in a 19th-century Russian novel, Belan seemed to have come from nowhere. Locals knew little about him, except that his two customised Mi-8P helicopters, the first of their kind on Kamchatka, had cost $2.5m (£1.3m) apiece and that his stated country of residence was Switzerland.

People talked of little else. Belan had brought the prospect of a changing order, the hope of a competitive market. Kovalenkov's camp, however, claimed there was nothing fair about the challenge. They had a point: while Krechet was temporarily grounded, Belan's company had suddenly gained exclusive flying rights in the region.

Kovalenkov himself had retreated further into the shadows. I'd caught him one day on the phone, but he wouldn't talk. Then, on my last day, Roman came to me with stunning news: "He came on the radio,'' he announced.

"Anyone got tracks?'' the old boss had asked. "Anyone got kills?'' The urgency had surprised Roman, but he understood.

"They've taken his eyes,'' he said. Along with his licence, Kovalenkov had lost his ability to spot trophy bears for his clients.

It was the Sunday after Victory Day, the celebration of the Soviet triumph over Hitler. Roman and I drove out of PK along the old route, past the shacks and the birches lashed with bouquets, the plastic memorials to those taken by the road. On the far side of the bay, we came to a sign shaped like a helicopter: Krechet.

A tall wall enclosed the compound. A guard emerged from the watchtower. Past the gates, I could see half a dozen log dachas nestled along a private lane. The guard pointed at one and said, almost coyly, "Give it a try.''

The door opened. A figure, taller and leaner than I'd expected, took a hard look at me. His face was covered with grey whiskers, his eyes bloodshot, his shirt half buttoned. But the flair was in evidence. His hair was raffishly long, and a hunting knife hung by his side.

We spoke for a bit. I tried to tell him what I'd seen, where I'd been. But he knew it all already. When I asked about Russell's work, Kovalenkov looked right through me, as if to survey the fields at my back. "I know a thing or two about journalists,'' he said, "and I've no use for them.''

He'd had enough. "Next time,'' he said, retreating slowly, almost sideways, "we can talk all about your favourite subject - tourism on Kamchatka; its history and troubles.'' A grin rose on his face. He seemed younger than a man in his sixties, a grey wolf who, even in the face of the changing tide, refused to give in.

In the months after our trip, Russell bashed on undeterred. Returning to Kamchatka had given him new hope. Soon came the biggest news: Kovalenkov had cashed out. The old boss had sold his helicopter monopoly to Kamchatka Airlines, a conglomerate controlled by Stanislav Belan's Bel-Kam-Tour.

Russell would never forgive the massacre of his bears. But Kamchatka, he felt, might at last be ready for a genuine, small-scale protection programme. In late June, he called me from the cabin at Kambalnoye Lake. He had planned to leave Kamchatka in May, he said, but things had taken "an amazing turn''. He'd hired a Russian, a former hunting guide for Belan whose wife was Russell's biggest supporter in the regional natural resources department, and had managed to adopt five new cubs - the pair from the zoo, plus another three orphans. This time he would stay until the snows came, to make sure the cubs denned up. He had scant funding, little help, and no guarantee that another experiment would not end in tragedy. But he'd won his plane back, and even though he could no longer fly it in the sanctuary, he was dreaming again.

In long e-mails, composed alone late at night and sent via satellite phone, Russell was alternately giddy and distraught. He wrote about watching his five cubs grow, detailing how, on hot days, the one named Sky would escape under the electric fence to swim in the lake; how Buck was a slowpoke; how Gina and Sheena, the zoo cubs, wandered off for four days; and how he'd managed to save Wilder and Sky from a large predator bear stalking the cabin.

By late September he was worn out. The predator finally got one cub, Wilder, and though funding still trickled in, the hurdles remained huge. But despite the fatigue, something had come back to life in him. Russell recognised that this new chapter had the potential to end in carnage or to redeem all his failings.

"I guess I'm stubborn," he told me on the phone in September, "and stupid, too." Though he was thousands of miles away, I could hear it in his voice. He would not give up on Kamchatka.

'Black Earth: Russia After the Fall' by Andrew Meier is published by Harper Perennial, priced, £9.99

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His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam