MOSCOW -- Vitaly Nikolayenko, one of Russia's best-known bear researchers and a man who spent 25 years living with the enormous brown bears of the wild Kamchatka peninsula, has been found dead in an apparent bear mauling, authorities said Tuesday.
The body of Nikolayenko, 66, whose lonely journeys allowed him to compile one of the most exhaustive documentaries on the giant, 9-foot cousins of the North American grizzly, was found at a lake near his remote one-room hut on the Tikhaya River. The 6 1/2-inch pawprint of a medium-sized male bear was found next to his body, along with an empty can of pepper spray with which Nikolayenko had apparently tried to defend himself.
Just two months ago, American bear researcher Timothy Treadwell and his girlfriend were killed by a bear in Alaska's Katmai National Park.
The diminutive Nikolayenko, a self-educated researcher and photographer, walked more than 620 miles a year through the remote river valleys and coastal plains of Kamchatka, whose giant brown bears are under increasing threat from foreign hunters and poachers.
A senior ranger on the Kronotsky Wildlife Reserve, Nikolayenko battled illegal hunting and fishing in the reserve. His patrols kept him in the wilderness for months on end. He spent each day from dawn to dusk following bears, documenting their feeding, mating, and social habits.
By night, he would return to his hut, light a kerosene lamp and fill what became hundreds of journals, a body of work that eventually became one of the most important biographical records of brown bear behavior in existence. He documented an average of 800 bear contacts each year.
Two Los Angeles Times staffers spent several days in the Kamchatka wilderness with him last fall. During those days, Nikolayenko plunged into constant encounters with bears.
In an interview, Nikolayenko had said he had no regrets about his life's work.
"Why have I wasted my life following bears? It's the wrong question. I didn't waste any time. I lived happily," he said.
Nikolayenko, as usual, was out in the snowy wilderness this month much longer than he had planned, probably because not all of his bears had yet gone to their dens. He had been waiting for a helicopter flight out of the reserve and was last heard from on Friday, sources in Kamchatka said. A helicopter arrived to pick him up on Saturday, but found no sign of the researcher. A search was launched on Monday.
Victor Rebrikov, a tourism guide and longtime friend of Nikolayenko who was on the search team that found the body, said it appeared that Nikolayenko had followed a large male bear to the small, spring-fed lake that lies less than a mile from his hut.
"Vitaly must have begun to take pictures of the resting bear, but the tree trunks and branches were in the way, and he must have decided to get inside the grove. His footprints lead into the grove after the bear. He approached the bear at a distance of three meters," Rebrikov said.
A large swath of orange pepper spray indicates Nikolayenko tried to defend himself, and a flare gun was lying next to the body, unfired. Half his body had been consumed.
His camera was broken and bloody nearby. The film has not yet been developed. The researcher's wife, Tatiana Nikolayenko, had spent most of last week trying to find a helicopter flight to bring her husband home in time for the New Year's holiday.