In the summer of 2012 I spent 4 weeks living at about 2,500 m above sea level in the Tien Shan Mountains in the wonderful country of Kazakhstan. Kazakhstan is thought by many to have two distinct populations of brown bear, The European Brown Bear in the West and The Tien Shan White Clawed Brown Bear in the East. I was hosted by the several wonderful locals including the amazing Altonbeok, who works as a researcher in the Ile Alatau National Park. Altonbeok is largely interested in birds of prey in the area, but as he had worked in the park for about 25 years he was full of stories about encounters with bears. These stories would sometimes flow from his lips as we hiked a few thousand meters above camp to check camera traps or as we sat around the fire after dinner in the cool night air. My time here helped guide my research approach and helped to solidify some of my ideas about bears. Altonbeok had been in some hair-raising situations with the animals, usually because he was pushing his luck (chasing a bear that he had just woken up from hibernation) or not paying attention (disturbing a bear on a horse carcass he knew was there). Altonbeok had learned that the animals wanted nothing to do with him and also learned to respect them over the years. To him, although encounters were rare, they were regarded as part of his landscape something of wonder and passing interest, like roller bird passing over head, not an animal to be feared.
The longer that I spent up the mountain as spring brought forth apricots and apples the more I suspected that most of the bears were further down the mountain, nearer to people and the spring fruit that ripens earlier there. Locals conformed this and so did one of Altonbeek’s last stories telling us about bears that lived not far from the former capital Almaty, more than suggestive of the idea that the two bear populations may indeed be one.