Trips and Tales (Part 80)
Bears. Baikal has bears. Each a muscle-bound mass of several hundred kilos with teeth in one end and claws bigger than my fingers. I read with some unease that they are “not true hibernators and may be aroused easily”. That sounds like a potential nightmare for any green-horn city dweller who decides to undertake a little wandering about. Does it go without saying that you should always take seriously what your guide tells you? Does it go without saying that you shouldn’t attempt to feed or touch them? No, sadly. In a world where supposedly rational human beings still attempt to stick parts of their anatomy into the mouths of “cute” wildlife: nothing is obvious.
At the other end of the physical scale there are ticks and their grisly hitch-hikers. Ticks can carry selections from a truly appalling cocktail that includes: Tick borne encephalitis (screws up your brain and central nervous system -you need those- to potentially crippling degrees), Q fever (possible respiratory distress and more), lyme disease (messes up your cognition plus plenty of extras) and tularemia (considered a viable biological warfare agent). Can they carry anything else? Who knows, that’s plenty for starters.
Oh, and there are the infamous mosquitoes too, which at the very least will suck your blood and drive you crazy. No mention of mosquitoes would be complete without reference to malaria. Well it’s still possible to catch it but incidences don’t compare with the massive outbreaks of history. Apparently, the world’s biggest did occur in Siberia in the 1920s, who’d have thought? In the middle-ground I’ve read about occasional camp-site meetings with packs of wild dogs on the lookout for food. I’d probably fear them more than wolves; the domestication has made them less wary of us, whereas in all but the rarest cases wolves just want to stay out of our way.
Frankly all of the above makes bears seem positively appealing. I read that some vaccinations (not much use against bears) require several weeks or more to become effective and that 100% protection is not guaranteed. Something to consider if you choose that route. And speaking of vaccinations, another one to consider is rabies, yes it exists in Siberia. All reasons to get good, qualified medical advice early; i.e., not from me!
Personally, I look at the list of nightmarish possibilities and think that these are not reasons to avoid a trip, but are very valid reasons to get smart in advance, take appropriate precautions, modify your plans if necessary for your own peace of mind, and then get on the plane and enjoy the ride. I’m living with the potential of lyme disease, right now here in the UK. It doesn’t stop me leaving my house. In 2010 there were just a under 1000 confirmed cases. 1000! Shocking! Right, that’s out of a population of over 60,000,000. So a little perspective helps. Did you know that nearly 6000 people were hospitalised by their trousers in 1999? Approximately 5 times more than by chainsaws? Beware of your trousers. I knew it, I’ve never trusted them. Compare all of this with the 200,000+ injuries caused by UK road traffic in 2011. We still cross the road and drive to the shops.
Back to the (much safer) wildlife: Of course the flip-side of the coin is that humans do worse to wildlife than the other way round, and not just for the sake of survival. Furs for instance: OK if you were historically located out in the middle of Siberia, then frankly what else were you going to wear when it’s minus 30° or worse? But, out of that came the modern notion of fur as fashion.
It’s not surprising, considering the Siberian winter, that there is a wealth of fur bearing animals out in the Baikal region. Way-out-East has long been ground zero for the Russian fur trade. There are around 70 fur bearing species in Siberia, and just under half are represented in the Baikal region, not necessarily exclusively, though two thirds of the 1700+ total species of all animals and plants found here are.
So, it’s possible to see ermine, sable, American mink (a Canadian import) and the red fox, along with smaller co-habitants: squirrel, chipmunk, muskrat, alpine hare, et al. Frankly though, they’ll probably hear you clomping around miles away and be gone long before you arrive.
Other important “commercial”species include: the Siberian red deer, roe deer, reindeer and elk then there’s also musk deer, wild pigs. wolverines, lynxes and wolves. “Commercial” too are the 53 species of fish which inhabit the lake, although these probably won’t look so good draped around your neck. But hey, never say never, right?
Next time: Trips and Tales (Part 81) Lake Baikal: Offshore life
[Photo by Sergey Gabdurakhmanov]