Out of the Far East: A reluctant hunter meets the 'King of the Bears'

KUNASHIRI - In 1988 Alexander Kisleiko had to set out to kill the 'King of the Bears' on Kunashiri Island in the southern Kuriles. But the bear, a heavy, ageing male which had attacked a human, might well have killed him instead.

'When the bear came at me from the bushes, it was not a very pleasant feeling,' said Mr Kisleiko, 28, whom the islanders know simply as Sasha. 'The only thought in your mind then is how to survive.' Sasha is quite a figure on Kunashiri. He is the island's professional bear-hunter. His job is to track and kill bears that have become a danger because they have begun to kill cattle or have attacked a human.

But he is far from the Ernest Hemingway stereotype of a big- game hunter, bragging of his exploits to all and sundry. Tall and wiry, with a beard and sunken cheeks, Mr Kisleiko looks like a Christ figure from an old Russian icon. He is a shy and modest man, and it took several bottles of vodka one night to get him to open up and tell his story.

There are about 150 bears on Kunashiri, and the biggest weigh up to half a ton and stretch to 18ft in height. The 'King of the Bears' had attacked a fisherman, mauling his face and breaking his nose with one paw, and taking a strip of flesh from his stomach with the other.

Mr Kisleiko heard of the attack, and tracked two different bears in the forest close to where the attack took place. He then went to the hospital where the injured man was recovering, to get a precise description of the offending bear. 'It was not a tall bear, but very broad, with a huge belly that nearly touched the ground. He was an old-timer.'

Mr Kisleiko went back to the forest, and after three days picked up the bear's trail again. 'I can smell bears myself, because they smell rather rough,' he said. He found where the bear had been sleeping near a river, and knew it was close. Suddenly the bear jumped out at him from some bushes, at a distance of 12 feet - 'Usually I shoot bears from 60 feet. I shot twice quickly, trying to get him between the eyes, but the first bullet hit him in the throat, and the second went through his jaw.'

The bear reeled around as Mr Kisleiko's dog distracted it from one side. With its brain undamaged it was still highly dangerous - and angry as well. But the dog gave Mr Kisleiko time to take aim again, and after two more shots the bear fell dead.

In mainland Russia, foreigners now pay up to dollars 10,000 ( pounds 5,300) to shoot a bear for fun. Few foreigners come to the Kuriles, but when I asked Fyodor Steizel, the head of Kunashiri's nature reserves, what he thought about bear-hunting as a sport, he said, 'If a Japanese gives me dollars 10,000 to shoot a bear, I will tie the bloody beast to a tree for him,' and roared with laughter.

Mr Kisleiko, however, does not like the idea of killing bears unnecessarily. Asked how many he had killed, he became embarrassed. 'I am a religious man. I do not put a notch on my gun for every bear that I shoot. Let's say that I am 28 years old, and I have killed more bears than my age. I do not like killing bears.'

Mr Kisleiko, who was born in Belarus, came to Kunashiri in 1982 to do his obligatory military service, and liked it so much that after his two years in the army he decided to stay. He became a wildlife inspector for the island's forests, and says that hunting bears is only a small part of his job. How long his beloved bears would survive if Moscow returned the disputed Kurile Islands to Japan and the big Japanese timber and development corporations moved in is a question Mr Kisleiko does not even want to think about.

'I will only go after a bear if it is absolutely necessary. For example, if a mother attacks a man because she feels her cub is endangered, I will not shoot the mother. That is the man's fault.'

There are one or two bear attacks on humans every year on the island, but, according to Mr Kisleiko, 80 per cent are provoked by the humans.

He does not make much money in his job. 'What I like most is the freedom. I am my own boss, and I alone evaluate what I do. If once I am injured by a bear, it is time for me to quit.'