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.'

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Administrator

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company has a track record...

Recruitment Genius: Solar Field Sales Executive

£40000 - £70000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Relations Officer

£13000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join ...

Recruitment Genius: IT Help Desk Support

£14500 - £15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An IT Help Desk Support individ...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans campaign: Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after £300,000 gift from Lloyds Bank

Homeless Veterans campaign

Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after huge gift from Lloyds Bank
Flight MH370 a year on: Lost without a trace – but the search goes on

Lost without a trace

But, a year on, the search continues for Flight MH370
Germany's spymasters left red-faced after thieves break into brand new secret service HQ and steal taps

Germany's spy HQ springs a leak

Thieves break into new €1.5bn complex... to steal taps
International Women's Day 2015: Celebrating the whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Simone de Beauvoir's seminal feminist polemic, 'The Second Sex', has been published in short-form for International Women's Day
Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Why would I want to employ someone I’d be happy to have as my boss, asks Simon Kelner
Confessions of a planespotter: With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent

Confessions of a planespotter

With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent. Sam Masters explains the appeal
Russia's gulag museum 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities

Russia's gulag museum

Ministry of Culture-run site 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities
The big fresh food con: Alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay

The big fresh food con

Joanna Blythman reveals the alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay
Virginia Ironside was my landlady: What is it like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7?

Virginia Ironside was my landlady

Tim Willis reveals what it's like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7
Paris Fashion Week 2015: The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp

Paris Fashion Week 2015

The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp
8 best workout DVDs

8 best workout DVDs

If your 'New Year new you' regime hasn’t lasted beyond February, why not try working out from home?
Paul Scholes column: I don't believe Jonny Evans was spitting at Papiss Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible

Paul Scholes column

I don't believe Evans was spitting at Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible
Miguel Layun interview: From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

Miguel Layun is a star in Mexico where he was criticised for leaving to join Watford. But he says he sees the bigger picture
Frank Warren column: Amir Khan ready to meet winner of Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao

Khan ready to meet winner of Mayweather v Pacquiao

The Bolton fighter is unlikely to take on Kell Brook with two superstar opponents on the horizon, says Frank Warren
War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable