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
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
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.