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Former Bear Hunters Turn on Poachers

The Ainu, a people native to the coast of the Russian Far East and the northern islands of Japan, are tough. Claiming ancestry to bears, ancient Ainu stole newborn bears and brought them back to their villages, where the cubs were kept in cages and breast fed by Ainu women until they grew old enough to be sacrificed and eaten. When they weren’t busy kidnapping grizzlies, the Ainu fought a six hundred year war against the samurai armies of imperial Japan, dealing several defeats to the Emperor.

But the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were difficult ones. Inhabiting the fringes of the Japanese and Russian empires, the Ainu were accepted by neither and persecuted by both. During the Second World War, both sides imprisoned and killed the Ainu on suspicion of being spies and enemy sympathizers. Today only an estimated 30 residents of Kamchatka consider themselves Ainu, while another several hundred live throughout the Far East. Approximately 20,000 Ainu continue to inhabit the Japanese island of Hokkaido, where they fought for equal rights until the 1970s.

Regardless of their small numbers, Kamchatkan Ainu are bringing to conservation the same resilience and stubbornness that helped them survive hundreds of years of persecution and warfare and bear snatching. The Ainu Community Group, a Lach subgrant recipient, has organized its members to protect salmon rivers in the South Kamchatka Natural Park. Last year the community concluded an agreement with the park’s administration and conducted two raids, locating and destroying two poachers’ camps. Aleksei Nakamura, the group’s energetic leader, sees this as a mere beginning. He hopes to train four or five more inspectors for raids next year.

Nakamura’s vision, however, is not limited to anti-poaching patrols. His group also monitors the environmental impact of a local refinery and conducts river cleanups. In the coming years Nakamura hopes to establish an Ainu dance ensemble, expand ethnic tourism, and open an information center for indigenous groups in Kamchatka’s south. The Ainu also refuse to limit themselves to Lach funding; they have applied for grants from Russia’s federal government and local government agencies, and they seek to develop partnerships with local and international tourist companies.

All of these initiatives, the Ainu hope, will give the group the presence and publicity needed to achieve official inclusion on the Russian Federation’s list of Small Numbered Peoples of the North. Addition to this list would give the Ainu access to privileges afforded only to indigenous groups, such as fishing and hunting rights. They have been excluded for the past decades because of geopolitical concerns; Japan has officially announced that all land inhabited by the Ainu is Japanese territory, and Russian officials are hesitant to create possible territorial conflicts.

However, Nakamura and his friends have no intention of backing down. In the past the Ainu battled Russian bears and Japanese samurai, and they will continue to fight poachers and polluters into the twenty first century.