True Tales of Росомаха, the Russian Wolverine

If there is one country that could, in terms of numbers alone, single-handedly insure the perpetuation of the wolverine as a species, it’s Russia. With nearly one eighth of the world’s landmass enclosed within its borders – a huge percentage of it boreal forest and taiga – Russia probably has the world’s largest wolverine population. Unfortunately, accessible information on this population is scant, and in making some initial inquiries, I’ve heard all kinds of rumors: that no one in Russia has ever studied wolverines; that people have studied Russian wolverines but that the methods were faulty and the data unreliable; that wolverines in Russia run in packs and bring down full-grown, healthy moose. Wolverines in Russia appear to be distributed throughout Siberia, from the Urals eastwards to Kamchatka, and in some areas, at least, from the Mongolian border north to the Arctic Ocean. Beyond basic distribution, however, all other information has been anecdotal.

In Russian, wolverines are “Росомаха” (pronounced “rosomakha”), a word I learned in Mongolia in 2009 when I stumbled across a Russian-dubbed bootleg copy of the most recent X-Men film. Some months before, I’d received an email from a fellow graduate of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, Laura Williams, who had worked for WWF’s Russia program, and married a Russian conservationist, Igor Shpilenok. Shpilenok, in addition to being a hero of the Russian conservation world, is an incredible photographer, and when I mentioned to Williams that I was interested in wolverines, she forwarded a photo that he had taken of a wolverine in Kamchatka. The photo is extraordinary, the wolverine gorgeous in winter pelage tinged by the first light of dawn, the massiveness of its feet emphasized as it walks across the snow.

Subsequently, as I traveled through Mongolia searching for wolverines in the Altai and the Altai Sayan, it became clear that any effort to research wolverines in either range was going to run up against the reality of the Russian border; the fresh tracks that I discovered in 2010 were an easy wolverine jaunt from the Altai Republic, and I nearly created an international incident two days later when I hiked up a valley to investigate a snowfield, only to discover at the last second that the snowfield wasn’t actually in Mongolia. Any work on wolverines in these regions is probably going to require transboundary cooperation, because what do we do if, when we get a collar operation going, a wolverine decamps and drops its hugely expensive GPS collar, containing essential data, somewhere in Siberia? It’s also more than likely that wolverines in Mongolia are genetically closely connected to and dependent upon Siberian gulos. So Russia’s wolverines are a matter of some personal interest.

With all this in mind, I’ve been easing myself into some background reading on Russian conservation and Siberia. Laura Williams has written a book, The Storks’ Nest, on her relationship with Russian conservation work (and, incidentally, with Igor Shpilenok), and although wolverines are not mentioned, the book gives a great overview of the struggles of Russian environmentalists since the collapse of Communism. Williams’ detailed writing about the wildlife in the Bryansk Reserve and the characters in her tiny Russian village makes the book a pleasure to read.  Another great resource on Russia and its system of zapovedniki – strictly protected areas that are reserved for research purposes only – are the writings of Fred Strebeigh; a piece from 2002 gives an overview of the zapovednik system and its history, and a more recent piece from 2010 documents some potentially hopeful developments in Russian conservation, including increasing engagement from Vladimir Putin, whose recent cuddling with tigers and polar bears may – hopefully – reflect an actual commitment to conservation as well as machismo.

In all this research, I stumbled across the photo site and blog of Igor Shpilenok, and thereby discovered that the photo that Williams sent me was one of several amazing wolverine photos. Unfortunately for gulo-loving Americans, the blog is in Russian, but luckily my friend Marissa Smith – veteran of the 2010 Altai Wolverine Quest  – is fluent in Russian and very kindly translated the wolverine-related blog posts.

Here, Shpilenok explains that he was awake one night, in a cabin in the Kronotski Zapovednik on the coast of Kamchatka, trying to find the source of some vermicelli that a rodent had left in his sleeping bag, when he heard a noise in the rain outside. Looking out onto the porch, he found himself face-to-face with a wolverine. Although he stepped outside and took photos with a flash, the wolverine remained on the porch, snorting at him, evidently more frightened of something out on the tundra than of him. Shpilenok speculates that the wolverine was feeling threatened, either by another wolverine or perhaps by a wolf, and that the company of humans was less alarming than the company of whatever was out there in the dark. The wolverine remained on the porch all night, disappearing at dawn. (Shpilenok never found the vermicelli, but he did discover a bottle of vodka under the stove.)

Here, about a month later, Shpilenok talks about discovering that a wolverine is living in a hole in the snow near the cabin. He speculates that this is the same wolverine that came onto the porch in December, and says that she shows signs of having been in a fight (clearly visible in the photo), probably with another wolverine, he says. Aside from the scratches, she appeared to be healthy and fat, and Shpilenok says that she will probably easily recover from her injuries. He watches her at the riverbank as she digs something out of the snow (kizhucha?), saying that she appears to be using her teeth more than her claws. (The idea of a wolverine “living” in a hole is contrary to what we find in North American wolverines, and it seems about two weeks too early for a female to be denning, so maybe the wolverine was simply hanging out near a food cache. Or maybe Siberian wolverines are doing things differently?)

Here, featuring the photo with which Williams originally intrigued me, Shpilenok discusses the habits and reputation of the wolverine, referring to it as “the demon of the taiga,” highlighting the boreal distribution of the creature, and mentioning its sparsity and massive home ranges. Trappers, he explains, dislike wolverines because of their tendency to raid traplines and spoil what they find. Despite the bad rap, however, wolverines should be seen as nature’s cleanup crew: “Its purpose – to clear nature of dead and debilitated residents ranging in size from mice to moose.” Despite common perception, he says, the wolverine should not be seen as a pest, and, like all other residents of the zapovednik, should be protected.

Shpilenok says that he had always hoped to photograph a wolverine, but given their distribution, the chances were low. He had staked out tracks before, but had always been spotted when the wolverine was still at a distance, and the wolverine had always run away. To get a good shot of a wolverine would take the utmost luck. Even luck, though, wasn’t enough to explain these amazing shots.

Some time before these photos were taken in March 2008,  a bear had died in Kronotskii Zapovednik, not far from Shpilenok’s cabin. He had been watching the carcass, which was drawing scavengers from near and far. After a few days, he began to notice wolverine sign as well, first of one animal, then of two. He dug himself a blind in the snow and stacked up some snow bricks, iglu style, and hid there hoping to photograph the animals. For four full days he sat in this blind, but the wolverines came only after dark. By the third day, four wolverines were showing up to eat off the carcass; occasionally they fought with each other. The nocturnal habits of the wolverines made them impossible to photograph, and by now the bear was nothing but a head, a spine, and some skin. On the fourth day, six (!) wolverines showed up at the carcass, and competition between them was so fierce, he explained, that the “weakest could come feed only just before dawn. It was possible to take photos at this time.”

By now, the cold, damp, cramped conditions of the blind had started to get to Shpilenok, so he moved the carcass, by snowmobile, to the yard of the cabin. Then he locked down the place, drew the blinds, and stuck his lens through a small gap in the curtains – a much more comfortable alternative to the makeshift iglu. All six wolverines showed up that night to feed on the last remains of the bear. Shpilenok says that the two foxes that lived nearby were “more afraid of wolverines than of fire,” and were “horrified” by this luring-of-wolverines-into-the-yard. But Shpilenok got his shots; at dawn, five of the wolverines disappeared, while one took a tour around the yard as the sun came up. He says that this photo illustrates the ability of wolverines to “paw ski,” which leaves them unafraid of the vast northern country. He concludes by saying that he is looking forward to further meetings with wolverines.

Throughout these entries, Shpilenok refers to the wolverines as “she,” but Marissa says this is probably an artifact of “rosomakha” being a feminine noun.

The 600+ comments that follow these posts provide an additional wealth of information on Russian views towards wolverines, from stories about old men who walk home from the forest backwards to make sure that wolverines don’t attack them from behind, to the usual “a friend of a friend of mine was chased and attacked by a wolverine,” (Shpilenok responds to all such stories with one word: “legendi.”) to the testimony of hunters and children of hunters about the wolverine’s ability to raid traps and chew off its own paws if caught in a trap, to the story of a Sami village where “rosomakha” is an insult for a sloppy and disorganized woman. The comments also address the question of whether Shpilenok should have moved the bear, or whether that constituted interference in the natural functioning the protected area. But the great majority of the comments express admiration for the photos, the animal, and Shpilenok’s conservation work. I only found one hostile comment, and that was from a guy who had been caught out reposting the photos, without permission, on his website about hunting wolverines.

Special thanks to Marissa Smith for her translations.

New Book on Wolverine Camera Trapping

A new book on wolverine camera-trapping is available here.

Audrey Magoun, the lead author, is one of the great pioneers of wolverine research in the US, from early studies on ecology and biology, to hand-rearing a pair of kits to better understand their behaviors in the natural landscape, to her recent work pushing the boundaries of non-invasive monitoring techniques. In the course of her work, she discovered that each wolverine has a unique chest-patch and that you can therefore monitor individuals  if you can capture images of their patches.

Of course, this involves getting a wolverine to stand up on its hind legs for the camera (you can also tell if a female wolverine is lactating by doing this….) and I’m sure anyone with any knowledge of wolverines is aware that it’s hard to induce a gulo to do anything it doesn’t want to. How do you make a wolverine want to stand up in front of a camera?  It involves placing a bait overhead, and the efforts of wolverines to obtain said bait doesn’t stop with demurely reaching up and snagging the treat; it involves somersaults, hanging upside down, taking flying leaps, and  other acrobatics. As featured in the film Wolverine: Chasing the Phantom, the antics of Audrey’s subjects, even in still imagary, were enough to make the audience laugh out loud.

A 15-page preview of the book is available, and it looks like it is full of great shots. Given the dearth of wolverine imagery out there, it should be enjoyable to look at even if you’re a non-scientist wolverine fan. For those of us who are scientist wolverine fans, it will be fantastic to know how to set up camera traps for gulo studies – we are hoping to use these techniques for my work in Mongolia. I haven’t had a chance to read it yet, but I am looking forward to it.

Proceeds from the sale of the book go to wolverine conservation and research.