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Established: 1984
65,365 ha (654 km2)
Buffer zone:
41,475 ha (415 km2)

Contact information:
Grigoriev, Evgeny Mikhailovich, Director
Russia 694500,
Sakhalinskaya oblast,
pgt. Yuzhno-Kurilsk,
ul. Zarechnaya 9,
PO Box 42

(7-424-55) 2-15-86


A foggy shroud envelops the enchanted island of Kunashir, pierced only by the tops of menacing volcanoes. The fiery cones reach skyward, leaving the turbulent seas far below at their feet. Kunashir Island, half of which is protected by Kurilsky Zapovednik, is the southernmost link in a chain of volcanic islands reaching a thousand kilometers from Japan north to Kamchatka. The islands separate the icy waters of the Okhotsk Sea from the warmer Pacific Ocean. Emanating from the seas, salmon choke Kunashir’s pristine rivers in their fight to give life to new generations. Bears gather in force to reap the bounty of overcrowded rivers. Perhaps it is this abundance of resources -- from caviar to gold to thermal energy, that has kept the magical island of Kunashir in the political spotlight for more than a century.

Zapovednik Images
Zapovednik Facts

Images of Kurilsky Zapovednik
Click on each photo to see a large version.

1996, Igor Shpilenok

This seemingly flat mat of vegetation is actually a dense, impenetrable grove of bamboo.

© 1996, Igor Shpilenok

Basalt columns at Stolbchaty Cape were once the core of an ancient volcano.

© 1996, Igor Shpilenok

Rocky cliffs line the Okhotsk Sea coast of Kunashir Island

© 1999, Igor Shpilenok
Three species of snakes are put K 1 here endemic to Kunashir Island.

© 1999, Igor Shpilenok

Ptichy Waterfall impedes the passage of salmon to spawning grounds upriver.

© 1999, Igor Shpilenok

More than 200 brown bears inhabit the small island of Kunashir.

© 1999, Igor Shpilenok

Tyatya is the highest and most spectacular volcano on Kunashir.

© 1996, Igor Shpilenok

Nothing can grow along the acidic stream that flows from a sulfur lake in Golovnino Crater



Zapovednik Facts:

More than 200 brown bears (Ursus arctos) roam Kunashir Island, probably the highest density of bears in all of Russia. Dark brown, sometimes straw-colored bears concentrate along rivers and streams in mid-summer, as salmon begin to swim upstream to spawn. Remains of partially eaten salmon are strewn up and down the rocky banks of the Tyatinka, Saratovka, and Tenaya rivers. Smaller mammals on the island include mountain hare (Lepus timidus), large-toothed red-backed vole (Clethrionomys rufocanus), and large Japanese field mouse (Apodemus speciosus). Sable (Martes zibellina) and red fox (Vulpes vulpes) prey on these and other rodents for food. European mink was introduced to the island in 1981, and has since spread throughout the zapovednik. There are no ungulates (hoofed animals) on Kunashir.

Most of the pinnepeds inhabiting the southern Kuril Island Chain are centered in rookeries around Kunashir and neighboring small islands. Largha seals (Phoca vitulina largha) gather near the mouths of rivers during summer salmon runs to gorge themselves on fish. Endangered pinnepeds in the waters off of Kunashir include the Steller’s sea lion (Eumetopias jubatus) and a subspecies of harbor seal (Phoca vitulina kurilensis). A rare subspecies of sea otter (Enhydra lutris kurilensis) feeds mainly on mollusks near the Kunashir coast. Killer whales (Orcinus orca), humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae), and other cetaceans are sometimes seen near the island.

Sea birds and raptors make up the majority of the 260 bird species found on the island. Twenty-one birds are listed in the Russian Red Book. Numerous bird colonies front the ocean on rocky cliffs of Kunashir and smaller islands, where a cacophony of calls can be heard from slaty-backed gulls (Larus schistisagus), tufted puffin (Lundra cirrhata), rhinoceros auklet (Cerorhinca monocerata), and others. In the spring, ducks (Anas spp.), eiders (Somateria spp.), and cackling geese (Anser spp.) throng together to head North for the breeding season. Kunashir is located along one of the nine major migratory routes for birds in the world. Birds wintering in Australia, New Zealand, Indonesia, and Japan fly here and beyond to nesting places along the coast of the Eastern Pacific and Alaska. Forests on the island are filled with the chirping songs of tits (Parus spp.), gray-capped greenfinch (Carduelis sinica), and pipits (Anthus spp.). Jungle crows (Corvus macrorhynchos) find perches in spruce forests. The Blakiston’s fish-owl (Ketupa blackistoni), one of the largest predatory birds on Earth, glides silently along the floodplains of rivers, searching for dolly varden char (Salvelinus malma) and East Siberian char (S. leucomaenis). With only a few dozen pairs of the fish-owl left in the world, the fate of this extremely rare bird remains uncertain. In wintertime, flocks of Steller’s sea-eagle (Haliaeetus pelagicus) migrate to Kunashir Island from the North to hunt along rivers and coastlines until spring.

Many endemic species of animals, birds, reptiles, and insects inhabit Kunashir Island. The metallic-tinted far-eastern skink (Eumeces latiscutatus) is found nowhere else. Three endemic species of snakes keep warm by staying close to thermal springs: chicken snake (Elaphe climacophora), small-scaled snake (E. quadrivirgata), and Japanese snake (E. japonica).

The southern Kuril coastal waters are some of the richest in the world, due to the convergence of cold and warm sea currents. Economically valuable fish from cold water climates include walleye pollock (Theragra chalcogramma), cod (Gadus morrhua), mackerel (Scomber scomber), flounder (Platychthys spp.), halibut (Hippoglossus hippoglossus), and salmon (fam. Salmonidae). Other fish species like Pacific saury (Cololabis saira), tuna (Thunnus spp.), and sardines (Sardina spp.) swim to the coastal waters of Kunashir from subtropical waters. Most of the migration routes for salmon pass through the southern Kuril Islands. Rivers and streams on Kunashir appear to boil from the hundreds of thousand of pink and chum salmon (Oncorhynchus gorbuscha, O. keta) drawn to their birth places to spawn each summer. Invertebrates of all types live off the coast of Kunashir Island, of which only a small number has been described. Many of these are species of economic value, such as crab, shrimp, sea urchin, squid, sea slug, and scallop.


The greenhouse like climate of Kunashir Island supports an amazing diversity of plant life. Of the 1,215 species of vascular plants found in the southern Kuril Islands, 1045 grow on Kunashir. Forests cover more than two-thirds of Kurilsky Zapovednik. Broad leaf and mixed coniferous/broadleaf forests grow at the foot of volcanoes, and dark coniferous forests of spruce (Picea spp.) and fir (Abies spp.) grow at higher elevations up to 700 m. Crooked birch stands (Betula spp.) reach up the slopes of volcanoes, while dwarf pine (Pinus sibirica) hugs the terrain even higher. High elevations of the Tyata Volcano are covered with tundra vegetation.

Spring comes to the island at the end of March, when the snowy white forest landscape turns verdant green with a blanket of Amur pheasant’s eye (Adonis amurensis). Hues gradually change to blue as corydalis (Corydalis ambigua) comes into bloom in meadows. Pollen from Manchurian alder (Alnus birsuta) and Asian skunk cabbage (Lysichiton camtschatcensis) coats everything in a fine dust. Soon trilliums (Trillium camchatcense) open their white blossoms, while the huge, palm-shaped, leathery leaves of Japanese magnolia (Magnolia hypoleuca) and sen (Kalopanax septemlobus) begin to unfold. The end of spring brings a riot of color: the royal hues of iris (Iris cetosa) in fields and along edges of forests are replaced by the shocking orange of daylilies (Hemerocallis spp.) and the delicate blue of plantain lily (Hosta rectifolia).

High grasses take over the landscape in summertime, ending the colorful festival of spring. Indian plantain (Cacalia robusta), meadowsweet (Filipendula camtschatica), and cow parsnip (Heracleum lanatum) grow to heights of two to three meters in fields and river valleys. Giant coltsfoot leaves (Petasites amplus) substitute for umbrellas in summer downpours. Rare orchids flower in mid-summer. Sweet-scented butterfly and feather-leaf orchids (Platanthera spp.), golden-hued Venus’s slipper (Cypripedium macranthon), and blushing Japanese pogonia (Pogonia japonica) bloom in forests and meadows.

In the fall, oaks (Quercus crispula, Q. mongolica) turn yellowish-brown, while Korean mountain ash (Sorbus commixta) and cherry trees (Padus ssiori) turn purple. Black drupes of the Sakhalin cork tree (Phellodendron sachalinense), succulent grape clusters (Vitis coignetia), and bunches of actinidia berries (Actinidia colomitka, A. arguta) hang heavily on trees and vines.

At the end of November, strong winds and rains of autumn typhoons tear away the last of the leaves on the trees, and the forests become bare. Only spruces (Picea ajanensis, P. glehni), Sakhalin fir (Abies sachalinensis), dwarf Japanese stone pine (Pinus pumila), and sasa shoots (fam. Bambuseae) remain green through the winter. Sasa is the island’s faithful guardian, standing in dense, impenetrable walls and protecting the land from wind, erosion, and even trespassers.

Kurilsky Zapovednik ranks second of all Russian zapovedniks in protection of rare and endangered species; 34 kinds of vascular plants, five species of mushrooms, four species of lichens, and four types of mosses are endangered on the island. Rare plants include: cordate angelica tree (Aralia cordata), Daimyo oak (Quercus dentata), downy Japanese maple (Acer japonicum), Gray’s umbrella leaf (Diphylleia grayi), Japanese flag (Iris ensata), Japanese yew (Taxus cuspidata), long-bracted helliborine (Cephalanthera longibracteata), tiger lily (Lilium lancifolium), and Wright’s viburnum (Viburnum wrightii). Japanese yew trees, common on Kunashir and Shikotan islands, can live for several thousand years.

Geographical Features

In the Russian Far East, a long chain of islands stretches from Kamchatka to Japan, dividing the frigid Okhotsk Sea from the vast Pacific Ocean. Geographers have designated two groups within the islands, referring to the Small and Big Kuril Island Chains. The Small Kuril Chain, including the islands of Shikotan and Kunashir, makes up the southern end of the chain nearest to Japan, while the Big Chain stretches North to Kamchatka. The Ainu people originally settled these islands several thousand years ago. The Ainu called themselves the "Kur," thus the islands came to be known as the Kuril Islands. Kunashir, directly across the Kunashirsky Strait from the Japanese island of Hokaiddo, means "black earth" in Ainu, probably named for the dark volcanic soils that make up the island.

Kurilsky Zapovednik protects three different areas of the Small Kuril Chain: the northern half of Kunashir Island; a southern portion of the island; and part of the lesser Kuril chain, around the Demina and Oskolki islands. The majority of the reserve is on Kunashir Island, where the zapovednik headquarters is located. Kurilsky Zapovednik is also responsible for protection and management of the federal-level Maly Kurily Zakaznik (nature refuge). The zakaznik covers an area of 450 km2, including 252 km2 of coastal and marine areas. Maly Kurily Zakaznik plays an important role in protecting unique natural resources that were not included in the zapovednik, namely Shikotan, Zeleny, Yury, Tanfilyeva, Anuchina, and Polonskoro islands with adjacent rocks, reefs, and Russian territorial waters one mile wide.

Much of Kurilsy Zapovednik’s territory is mountainous with volcanic formations. Four active volcanoes and many inactive ones permeate Kunashir Island, making it a fascinating site for volcanic research. Tyatya Volcano juts 1,819 meters from the sea, making it the highest point on Kunashir and the second highest volcano in the Kuril Island Chain. Tyatya, which stands at the northeastern edge of the island, is considered the third most perfectly formed volcano in the world after Fuji and Vesuvius. The last time the volcano erupted was in 1973. Ruruy Volcano (1,486 m) marks the northern edge of the Dokuchayev Mountain Range (with elevations of 900 to 1180 m) at the North end of the island. The southern end of Kunashir Island has more gently rolling hills. This is where the large crater of the Golovnin Volcano is situated. The crater holds two mineral lakes heated by volcanic gases, which are aptly named "Boiling" and "Hot" Lakes. The colorful blue and yellow tinted lakes are separated by cupola-like magma formations from the last eruption.

Mineral and thermal springs are found throughout the island, with varying temperatures and mineral and gas compositions. Lakes of differing origin, such as calders, craters, lava-ponds, and lagoons, are protected in the zapovednik. Ptichy River, in the northern part of the zapovednik, is one of the most spectacular rivers on the island. Cascades and waterfalls along the entire course of the river send crystal-clear water tumbling down into the Okhotsk Sea.

Weather patterns on Kunashir Island are forever changing. The climate is characterized as coastal monsoon, with relatively warm winters (the average temperature in February is -4.7°C), and cool summers (the average temperature in August is 16.6°C). Fog often blankets the island, especially in June and July. Heavy rains, strong winds, and choppy seas mark the typhoon season, lasting from May through October. Snowstorms and winds pervade in winter. Blizzards hit on occasion, covering the island with a thick blanket of snow and impassable snowdrifts, where only treetops are visible. Towards the end of winter, sea ice locks in even the southernmost Kuril Islands.

Conservation Status

Kurilsky Zapovednik is perhaps one of the most politically complicated zapovedniks in the Russian protected areas system. The southern Kuril Islands, called the "Northern territories" by the Japanese, have been the center of a political dispute between Russia and Japan since Russia reclaimed the islands after World War II. Overfishing in the region by the Russians and Japanese has developed into a major problem over the past decade, and the recent press to mine for gold in the buffer zone of the reserve has sparked concern as to the fate of this unique island.

The most recent infringement on the integrity of Kurilsky Zapovednik and the nature of Kunashir was an attempt to liquidate part of the buffer zone in the northern part of the island, where "exploratory" gold mining operations have been underway since before the reserve was created. In 1999, the Kurilsky Mining and Geological Company began to push for the right to large-scale excavation and enrichment of gold ore in the zapovednik’s buffer zone. Any forms of mineral excavation, logging, or use of chemicals are prohibited by buffer zone status, in order to prevent adverse effects on the adjoining fully protected ecosystems. According the gold-seekers’ plan, the ore would be taken from the Udachnoye mine three kilometers inland and dumped at the mouth of the Zolotaya River, a mineral river that runs into the Okhotsk Sea. A proposed gold ore enrichment plan would involve the use of sodium cyanide, a substance that dissolves instantly in water, placing at tremendous risk the entire riparian and coastal ecosystems downstream. The Governor of the Sakhalin oblast signed a resolution in August 1999 to liquidate part of the buffer zone and allow full-blown gold mining activities to proceed. Within months, this decision was reversed and the resolution declared illegal by the Federal Prosecutor’s office. The zapovednik’s buffer zone was soon reinstated. However, gold fever has not subsided, and it remains to be seen whether or not gold mining will indeed proceed in the buffer zone of the zapovednik. For the estimated 500 kg of gold and 120 kg of silver that might be taken from Kunashir to make a few people rich, one wonders if it is worth putting at risk an island with spectacular volcanic formations, pure rivers, untouched forests, and endangered plants and animals.

Overfishing in the seas around Kunashir Island is perhaps even more complicated and far-reaching than the issue of gold mining. Since the Kurilsky Zapovednik was created, the pattern of use of marine products from this region has undergone major changes: in 1996 Japanese ports began accepting marine products caught by Russian vessels. As a result, moderate levels of fishing escalated to an uncontrolled plundering of the sea, with enormous quantities of crab, shrimp, squid, and sea urchin from the southern Kuril Islands going directly to Japan. A marine buffer zone was established around the Kurilsky Zapovednik in 1996 to begin to address the problem, but the zapovednik has nowhere near the resources to control illegal fishing by Russian and Japanese vessels along the coast and in the open seas. Recognition of the zapovednik as a UNESCO World Heritage site would help ensure conservation in the region, regardless of political boundaries.

On top of the problems posed by mining and overfishing, Kunashir Island is caught in the middle of a long-standing political dispute between Russia and Japan. Following Russia’s defeat in the Japanese-Russian War (1904-1905), the Japanese annexed the southern Kuril Islands. Japan had jurisdiction over the Kurils until the end of World War II, when the territories were ceded to the USSR. Japan to this day claims the Small Kuril Chain, including the islands of Kunashir and Irturup. Some people fear that if the Japanese were to reclaim the southern Kuril Islands, the unspoiled nature of Kunashir and other islands would be turned into urban business centers and parking lots by the Japanese. Others, however, feel that Russia is not committing enough funds to either the social-economic situation or nature conservation on Kunashir Island. Towns on the island constantly lack fuel, and the electricity is turned off repeatedly. The zapovednik is constantly short of funds and resources to cope with poaching and overfishing in the region. A small group of people is advocating that the countries resolve the dispute in a peaceful manner, by creating an International Peace Park to protect the unique nature of the islands in perpetuity for the enjoyment of Russians, Japanese, and people from around the world.


"Biodiversity Briefings from Northern Eurasia," (special supplement to Russian Conservation News). Center for Russian Nature Conservation, v.2,1 1999.

Zapovedniks of the USSR: Zapovedniks of the Far East. Mysl publishing agency. Moscow, 1985.

Alekseeva, L.N. Flora of Kunashir Island. Vladivostok, 1983.

Barkalov, V.Yu. "Flora of the Kuril Islands." Thesis paper. Dalnauka publishing agency. Vladivostok, 1998.

Berzan, A.P. "Rare species of vascular plants on Kunashir Island," in Red Book Plants in Russian Zapovedniks. Compilation of scientific works, published by the TsNIL Hunting and Zapovednik Management Agency of the Ministry of Agriculture of the RF. Moscow, 1994.

Schwartz, E.A. and M.A. Vaisfeld. "Problems of conserving disappearing species of animals of the island." Discussion papers on introducing the European mink to Kunashir Island. Successes of Modern Biology, v.113,1.

Pyzhyanov, F.I., ed. "Fregat: a historical and geographical almanac." Volume 1. Yuzhno- Kurilsk, 1992.

Text by compiled by Laura Williams, based on materials written by Irina Nevedomskaya and Natalia Yeremenko, staff members of Kurilsky Zapovednik.

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