Muezersky District is situated at the boundary between the northern and middle taiga subzones. There prevails the hilly-ridge, moderately paludified landscape with pine forests. It determines the species composition, distribution and abundance of mammals. The district is inhabited by 7 species representing insectivores, 1 - bats, 1 - lagomorphs, 16 - rodents, 13 - carnivores and 3 - even-toed ungulates (tab. 1). Thirteen of the species are listed in Red Data Books of Karelia (1995), Russia (1983), Finland (1992), East Fennoscandia (1998).
Table 1. Mammals in the Muezersky District
Small mammals - insectivores and rodents - play an important role in biocenoses and occur throughout, although they are not immediately visible to ordinary nature tourists. The species composition of small mammals is typical of northern and middle taiga, with conspicuous dominance of two species - the common shrew and the bank vole (46.5 and 44.2% of all small mammals captured in surveys). A way to show insectivores and rodents to eco-tourists is installation of pitfall traps with cylinders, which are useable for most small mammals. The animals can be kept alive there for a while, if the cylinders are filled with forest litter and some forage, and shelter from bad weather is provided.
Muezersky District hosts most hunted animals of Karelia, except for the brown hare, European beaver and roe deer. The first one is rather scant even in the south of the republic; the distribution range of the second one lies much farther south than the district; and the third one does not reside in our lands.
The game animal that deserves special notice is the American beaver. It occurs throughout the district. Yet, the animals settle at a considerable distance from each other, because of the scarcity of forage resources. Beavers were first sighted in the district in the early-mid-1950s. The animals spread widely throughout western Karelia, peaking in abundance in the late 1960s (Danilov 1975). As we have already said, forage suitable for beavers is quite limited in most lakes and rivers of the district. Therefore, in many places, beavers exhausted the forage resources within 15-20 years, and a substantial decline in the population ensued. Now, that deciduous species have partially regenerated in former beaver habitats, the animals are beginning to resettle the abandoned grounds. According to the latest censuses and surveys, the Muezersky District has 38 beaver colonies (tab. 2).
Table 2. Record of beaver colonies in the Muezersky District
The river beaver is a very active animal producing significant impact on the biocenosis and the sphere of human activities. Its life style, including cutting down trees, building huts, dams and canals, storing food for winter is an interesting subject for learning and ecological tourism. The presence of beavers becomes particularly conspicuous in the so-called "conflict situations", when beavers' actions result in the flooding of forestland, roads, bridges, simultaneously creating favourable conditions for waterfowl, muskrat, mink, otter.
Many game species: mountain hare, red squirrel, stoat, wolf, marten, red fox, moose, are fairly common in the district, although their numbers are relatively low (fig. 1-9). Some of the species - red squirrel, stoat, mountain hare, moose - are quite evenly distributed across the territory, whereas others display a clearly mosaic distribution. Variations in the population size between years are the lowest for the pine marten (fig. 5), and the greatest - for lynx, wolf and moose (9, 2, 7).
Amateur hunting of fur animals and wildfowl has always been a popular kind of active recreation for local people. Especially noteworthy are traditional ways of hunting with hounds of the breeds specialising in grouse, which is fairly abundant. Moose and taiga reindeer hunting is also quite popular. Annually, 35 to 54 moose (43 on average) are harvested.
Wolf hunting in the district is negligible - 1-5 animals a year. However, driven wolf hunting is a major attraction for European hunter tourists, because the predator is protected in EU countries and wolf hunts are prohibited there.
The population of another predator - the brown bear - in the Muezersky District, just like in other parts of central Karelia, where pine forests and moss mires prevail, is not high, staying on average within 0.4 animals per 1000 ha. Simultaneously, some areas, such as areas around lakes Tulos, Koroppi, Rovkulskoye and some others, were found to shelter very high numbers of the predator - to 1.6 animals per 1000 ha. Tracks of large bears - with a front paw sized 14-16 cm, which corresponds to 200-270 kg of weight - have been sighted. Such animals are a desirable trophy and an interesting object to be watched in oats fields and over bait. Legal take of the brown bear in the district has lately been 3 to 8 animals a year (5 on average), i.e. 3 to 7% of the species harvest in the republic at large. Since the bear, too, is protected in most EU countries, it may become a valuable object of foreign hunting tourism, the more so, because the population size permits 4-5 times more animals to be harvested than is done currently.
Taiga reindeer occurs throughout the district and deserves special attention because the Runa-Lendery and Nyuk herds (subpopulations) comprise genetically pure representatives of the taiga reindeer (Rangifer tarandus fennicus Lonnb.) - a form unique for Europe (Heikura et al. 1986; Danilov et al. 1986; Hakala et al. 1996). Reindeer of the Runa-Lendery subpopulation are of particular value as a source of animals for dispersal and restoration of the past distribution range of the species. Construction of the so-called engineering facilities resulted in the isolation of part of the Runa-Lendery subpopulation from the bulk of the herd and from the key breeding grounds. Reindeer have lately been most often seen fawning near lakes Koroppi, Sula, Aimo. The importance of numerous islands on lake Tulos as summer grounds, where reindeer find shelter from blood-sucking insects, should be stressed specifically. In these conditions and owing to the absence of predators on the islands, juvenile mortality is the lowest possible and adult animals live through the difficult times with least problems and enter the breeding season in good shape. These two factors secure a maximum population increase.
Isolation has gradually led to a decline in the number of reindeer in the lake Tulos area. The process was aggravated by growing poaching, which peaked in the late 1980s - 1990s, and still continues. As a result, no more than 25-30 reindeer have survived in the lake Tulos area to date as opposed to a herd of up to 70 animals regularly seen at the lake in the late 1980s. According to the aerial survey of March 2003, only 18 animals remained in the area. No reindeer currently reside on the Finnish side (communicated in person by K. Heikura). Thus, the Runa-Lendery herd of the taiga reindeer is in critical condition. It will inevitably go extinct from the area unless people take adequate measures.
Some years ago, annual reindeer harvest in the district had been 6 to 10 animals (7-15% of the total for the republic), but a dramatic decline in the species population in the republic urged the authorities to ban taiga reindeer hunting in Karelia since 2001.
A brief review of the status of wildfowl belonging to the tetraonid family may also be of interest. All four species - capercaillie, black grouse, hazel grouse and willow grouse - are sufficiently abundant in the Muezersky District to be intensively used both in ecotourism and in hunting. The most potentially attractive activities in this respect would be bird watching in capercaillie and black grouse mating grounds in spring, as well as limited hunting.
Thus, game, as a crucial renewable component of the living nature, and hunting, as a most exciting way of active recreation, may serve as a basis for the development of ecological and hunting tourism in the Muezersky District. They offer opportunities for involving all kinds of services related to nature-based leisure.