From a distance it resembled a rather large man in a fur coat, leaning tenderly over the grave of a loved one. But when the two women in the Russian village of Vezhnya Tchova came closer they realised there was a bear in the cemetery eating a body.
Russian bears have grown so desperate after a scorching summer they have started digging up and eating corpses in municipal cemetries, alarmed officials said today. Bears’ traditional food – mushrooms, berries and the odd frog – has disappeared, they added.
The Vezhnya Tchova incident took place on Saturday in the northern republic of Komi, near the Arctic Circle. The shocked women cried in panic, frightening the bear back into the woods, before they discovered a ghoulish scene with the clothes of the bear’s already-dead victim chucked over adjacent tombstones, the Russian newspaper Moskovsky Komsomelets reported.
Local people said that bears had resorted to scavenging in towns and villages – rummaging through bins, stealing garden carrots and raiding tips. A young man had been mauled in the centre of Syktyvkar, Komi’s capital. “They are really hungry this year. It’s a big problem. Many of them are not going to survive,” said Simion Razmislov, the vice-president of Komi’s hunting and fishing society.
World Wildlife Fund Russia said there had been a similar case two years ago in the town of Kandalaksha, in the northern Karelia republic. “You have to remember that bears are natural scavengers. In the US and Canada you can’t leave any food in tents in national parks,” said Masha Vorontsova, Director of the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) in Russia.
“In Karelia one bear learned how to do it [open a coffin]. He then taught the others,” she added, suggesting: “They are pretty quick learners.”
The only way to get rid of the bears would be to frighten them with something noisy like a firework or shoot them, she said.
According to Vorontsova, the omnivorous bears had “plenty to eat” this autumn, with foods such as fish and ants at normal levels. The bears raided graveyards because they offered a supply of easy food, she said, a bit like a giant refrigerator. “The story is horrible. Nobody wants to think about having a much loved member of their family eaten by a bear.”
The bear population in Russia is relatively stable with numbers between 120,000 and 140,000. The biggest threat isn’t starvation but hunting – with VIP sportsmen and wealthy gun enthusiasts wiping out most of the large male bears in Kamchatka, in Russia’s Far East. Chinese poachers have killed many black bears near the border, selling their claws and other parts in markets.
The Russian government is drafting legislation to ban the killing of bears during the breeding season.
• This article was amended on 27 and 29 October 2010. The original referred to Masha Vorontsova of WWF Russia. This has been corrected. A reference to winter breeding was deleted.