The Kamchatka Peninsula harbors one of the most spectacular volcanically active environments on Earth. Kronotsky Biosphere Zapovednik, abutting the Pacific Ocean in the very northeast of Russia, is so remote that its magnificent Valley of the Geysers was only discovered in the middle of this century. The towering volcanic range of 11 active cones and as many inactive ones permeates the coast, making the nature reserve one of the most geologically dynamic regions in the world. The landscape is warmed from below the Earth's crust and exposed to the wrath of the great Pacific Ocean from the East. The result is a mixture of volcanoes and geysers, tundra and glaciers, transparent lakes and rivers percolating with fish, and dwarfed trees and unruly grasslands. The rugged coastline and protected marine habitat host large colonies of seabirds and marine mammals. Brown bear, caribou, and other large animals roam the wilderness in the remote interior. Kronotsky Zapovednik has been proclaimed a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.
The unique geographical features of the Kamchatka landscape accommodate a diversity species found in arctic, boreal, and coastal habitats. Brown bear (Ursus arctos), arctic fox (Alopex lagopus), caribou (Rangifer tarandus), and Kamchatka sable (Martes zebillina) are all highly sought-after species that take refuge in the Zapovednik. The sable especially thrives in the larch forests (Larix kamtscatica) in the basin of Lake Kronotsky. In all, the Zapovednik protects 60 species of mammals.
Swamp, lake, and river ecosystems are home to a variety of aquatic species and waterfowl. Salmon species (Salmo mykiss, Oncorhynchus spp.) swim up-river to spawn in the Zapovednik, dodging the greedy paws of bears.
Coastal and marine ecosystems make up 10% of the reserve territory. Otters and seals inhabit the coastal regions of the Okhotsk Sea, hauling out on protected shores to breed. One of Kamchatka’s largest breeding grounds for the eared seal (Eumetopius jubatus) is safeguarded in the reserve. Nine rare species of whales inhabit the seas, as well as the only population of sea otters (Enhydra lutris) found in the Eastern Pacific.
There are 260 species of birds in the Zapovednik, including 13 rare birds listed in the Russian Red Book. The largest protected population of Steller’s Sea Eagle (Haliaeetus pelagicus) nests in the reserve. Enormous wintering flocks of swans (Cygnus cygnus) are also found here. Aleutian Terns (Sterna aleutica) wade in the shallow waters along the shore and make nests on the rocky coast.
Much of the diversity of Kamchatka’s natural ecosystems is preserved in the Zapovednik. Tundra, forest, and meadow maritime biomes and vegetation types are all represented here. Stands of Erman’s birch (Betula ermani) are widespread, as are forests of Japanese stone pine (Pinus pumila). Wind-swept dwarf alder stands (Alnus fruticosa), found in alpine areas, cover more than a quarter of the territory of the reserve.
Genuine tall forests of Kamchatka larch (Larix kamtscatica), mixed with aspen (Populus tremula) and Yeddo spruce (Picea jezoensis) grow in the basin of Lake Kronotsky. The sole habitat of the Sakhalin (or graceful) fir (Abies sachalinensis) on Kamchatka is protected in the Zapovednik.
Alpine and coastal tundra, as well as swamps and bogs, cover a large portion of the territory. Along the coast, cereal grasses (Gramineae spp.) form wind-swept meadows. Water accumulates near the source of rivers to form swamps of various types.
There are 745 species of vascular plants protected in the reserve -- a complete representation of Eastern Kamchatka’s flora. Sixteen of these are endemic to Kamchatka. One such plant is found only of the territory of the Zapovednik. Thirteen species are rare and listed in the Red Book of Kamchatka and the Far East. Because the Zapovednik is located at the transition zone between tundra and boreal ecosystems, 40 plant species grow at the northern or southern edge of their ranges. Hydrothermal fields (near hot spring outlets) create unique microsites where resilient forms of rare and endemic vegetation survive.
Although average annual temperatures are relatively high for this Northern latitude, the climate is otherwise unfavorable for the growth and development of woody vegetation, due to high levels of precipitation, strong winds, frequent fogs, and cloudiness. Large amounts of snow blanket the landscape in winter. Spring is cold and dry, summer short and cool, and autumn is mild, quickly changing into winter.
Kronotsky State Biosphere Zapovednik, located in Eastern Kamchatka, forms part of the Eastern Volcanic Belt. The highly volatile volcanic system affected the formation of both the relief and the plant and animal worlds. Eleven active volcanoes and as many dormant cones permeate the region. The highest peak, the Kronotskaya Volcano, towers 3528 m above the neighboring sea.
Alpine glacial landscapes are more common here than anywhere else in the Russian Far East: glaciers occupy a significant part of the protected territory (14,000 hectares). Eleven percent (46) of Kamchatka’s 414 glaciers are located in the reserve, including two of the peninsula’s largest, the Koryto and Tushevski glaciers.
The contemporary area of the Zapovednik is 1,142,134 hectares. Forests make up 640,960 ha; unforested lands (swamps, glaciers, rivers and lakes) cover 487,239 ha; glades and other partially forested areas consist of 13,935 ha; and wetlands cover 166,720 ha, including 31,720 ha of rivers and lakes. The marine area protects 135,000 hectares along a three-mile coastal zone. In 1992 the valley of the Kamchatka River, with an area of 43,000 ha, was included in the Zapovednik territory.
Despite isolated human influences at a local scale, the natural systems of the Zapovednik, especially vegetation, are virtually undisturbed.
There are several natural sites of scientific, recreational, and aesthetic value on the territory of the Zapovednik. Among these are the world-famous Valley of Geysers, Death Valley, Caulders of the Uzon Volcano, Kamchatka Fir Grove, the Kronotsky Lake ecosystem, and Kamchatka Volcanoes.
Kronotsky Zapovednik was included on the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 1996, thanks to the large number of unique natural sites in the Zapovednik formed by volcanic activity.
Although remote areas of the Zapovednik are relatively pristine, geological and prospecting work carried out in its central part from 1940-1970 inflicted significant damage on the protected natural ecosystems. During that period, the population of caribou (Rangifer tarandus) was substantially reduced - and has not been restored to this day. European brown bear (Ursus arctos) experienced a severe decline due to hunting. The largest population of Siberian Capercaille (Tetrao parvirostris), in the basin of the Kronotskaya and Bogachevka Rivers, has been almost completely knocked out of existence. Even 30 years after mining was stopped in the reserve, the scars on the fragile landscape are still visible: a system of roads not yet overgrown, temporary landing fields, construction material, abandoned equipment, and remains of drilling areas.
A lengthy encampment by military subdivisions on the protected territory led to degradation of broad tracts of land from the coastal zones to the mountain tundra. No restoration activities have been carried out on these tracts since the military units departed. Soil erosion continues along old roads. Isolated parcels of land are littered with refuse and covered with spilled oil products.
The most serious threats to the integrity of the natural system at present include:
• domestic reindeer-herding on the population of wild caribou;
• timber harvesting in the coniferous forests of the Kamchatka River valley; and
• industrial fishing in Kronotsky Gulf coastal waters for populations of rare species of marine mammals (eared seal, sea otter, whales, and others).
Regular ranger patrols and creation of a buffer zone are some of the measures that would help improve protection of the Zapovednik’s ecosystems. Scientific monitoring and educational activities are also important for the long-term preservation of Kamchatka’s natural heritage.