Russia's "Land of Fire"
In Russia, the word "Kamchatka" has conjured images of distant adventure and rugged natural beauty ever since the first explorers returned with reports of "a land of fire." For westerners Kamchatka has long been a mystery; even though generations of young cold warriors battled over the territory in the board game Risk, the peninsula was closed to foreigners during the Soviet period. And while the fall of the iron curtain brought renewed interest in Kamchatka's natural grandeur, poaching and resource extraction projects increasingly threaten this fascinating wilderness.
The 1,000 kilometer-long Kamchatka peninsula juts into the Pacific Ocean at the far northeastern edge of the Russian Federation. Nearly half of the peninsula's 350,000 residents are concentrated in the main cities of Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky and Yelizovo.
Outside of the cities, Kamchatka is a rugged, mountainous landscape dominated by volcanoes, some of which are UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The tallest, Klyuchevskaya Sopka, is the largest active volcano in the northern hemisphere. Seismic activity throughout the area creates hundreds of hot springs, geysers, and thermal vents that support unique species of plants, fungus and lichen.
Kamchatka's volatile seismic activity is not of interest only to volcanologists and tourists. The offshore Kamchatka shelf is thought to hold significant oil reserves, and in recent years Russian and foreign companies have begun making plans to drill, threatening destruction of marine ecosystems and on-shore habitat similar to what has already occurred on Kamchatka's close neighbor, Sakhalin Island. Moreover, increased mining activity on land threatens to ruin natural areas, pollute rivers and lakes, and increase erosion.
In between Kamchatka's volcanoes, a network of clear, fast-flowing rivers provides habitat for diverse populations of flora and fauna. Snow sheep, wild reindeer, beavers, and thousands of brown bears inhabit valleys filled with hundred-year-old spruce trees. Three species of endangered eagles share the peninsula each year with thousands of migrating geese, sandpipers, ducks and gulls.
Throughout the peninsula, thousands of native Koryaks and Evens still inhabit villages built by their ancestors. Despite an influx of Russian settlers during the 20th century, native peoples continue to tell ancient folk tales, eat traditional foods, and perform customary dances.
The animal that is key to life on the peninsula does not even inhabit Kamchatka most of the year. Every summer thousands of salmon enter Kamchatka's rivers from the Pacific Ocean and the Sea of Okhotsk to reproduce and die. The salmon feed the bears, eagles, and, for millennia, native Kamchatkans, and their carcasses provide nitrates that fertilize rivers and streamside vegetation. Kamchatka is the only place in the world where all six species of anadromous Pacific salmon migrate to spawn. Kamchatka's salmon, however, have faced a crisis ever since the fall of the Soviet Union, as poachers routinely remove up to 95% of salmon from some rivers.