Unlike Shakespeare’s play, this story of Romeo and Juliet does not take place in fair Verona but in Kuhmo, Finland. Much like their namesakes, this star-crossed twosome would normally be enemies, but in an unexpected turn of fate, they became friends.
Our story comes from Lassi Rautiainen, a wildlife photographer with a passion for documenting and conserving Finland’s large carnivores. Lassi brings people close to the wildlife he so admires and his efforts have positioned him as a key figure and pioneer in the field of Finnish photo tourism. He first developed a love of photographing bears in April 1978 when, perched in a tree, he hoped to capture photos of a bear who had killed an elk near where he sat. Bears captivated him, he says: so much so that they “took over my whole life.” He soon expanded to wolverines and eventually to wolves, writing books about all three, making observations and lecturing on these carnivores he so respected at international events and arranging photo safaris for nature-lovers.
He first became captivated by wolves in the morning of July 1992 when he spotted his first wolf in the mist of Kuhmo, Finland. After photographing bears and wolverines for many years, his next dream became wolf photography. In the past, wolves had been impossible to photograph; they were hated and killed by local people. “Wolves are fantastic animals to observe and photograph. Making a book about wolves began to be possible – no one had had been able to do it before in Finland”, Lassi explains.
He was soon travelling the world photographing and documenting wolves. Then, in 2003, his passions seemed to converge. He spotted the first encounter between bears and wolves that he had ever seen. He continued to spot bear and wolf encounters in Finland over the following years, but these were typically brief and, often times, aggressive. For wolves, says Lassi, “the presence of bears is like showing a red rag to a bull”.
Then, in the summer of 2006, he photographed something the world had never seen before: a friendship most unusual between a young male bear and young female wolf. First, Lassi spotted a shy bear cub who kept to himself, and tended to feed alone. If other larger bears appeared, he would quickly depart. He followed this young bear cub, documenting him for several nights, until a shy, female wolf cub joined the young bear. She, too, seemed to keep to herself, avoiding conflict with other wolves. How unusual was this encounter?
At the time, Lassi had been documenting and researching bears for over twenty years, and said that “in the realm of the bears I had never before seen an individual which did not, in one way or another, behave threateningly towards a wolf, if not by actually charging, at least by emitting that characteristic smacking together of the jaws or a low-pitched warning growl.” Lassi named the bear Romeo, and the wolf, Juliet.
Lassi continued to follow the pair, and photograph them for several more nights. Although both were cautious of each other at first, they soon began to meet each night to share a meal. In these secretive encounters, Romeo would appear first, with Juliet following soon after, having made sure that no other bears or wolves were around. “If they had been of the same species,” Lassi said, “one would have surmised that deeper feelings were at work”. Their friendship lasted several weeks before they went their separate ways. Lassi saw Romeo several more times, but always on his own, and Juliet re-joined her relatives.
The first time Lassi spotted the duo of a bear and wolf, it was a surprise. “No one had ever thought that bears and wolves could be friends. We didn’t realise it was biologically possible”. Although this story of Romeo and Juliet defies our expectations of a friendship in nature, it’s a phenomenon which Lassi has seen since, and managed to capture on camera.
Visitors to Kuhmo hoping to catch a beautiful moment, like the photograph above, may need to make their own luck, however. When we spoke to Lassi, he said that his advice to photographers was to be patient: “staying one or two nights in the area is a lottery. You need to stay in the area for quite a few nights to have the good fortune of spotting a wolf and bear pairing”. Lassi himself often spends weeks camped out, following and documenting wolves, wolverines and bears. After more than 35 years, his interest is still not satiated.
To get photos like Lassi’s, it’s not enough to be lucky; you must have a patience which can only come from passion. “Fresh experiences in nature and the recording of them is a constant drug for me. The mind yearns for something not as yet seen or for improvements to previous photos.”
From a relatively humble feature in a Finnish nature magazine, Lassi’s photos were spotted by the Daily Mail in 2013 who requested permission to share them with the world. Since then, Lassi has had many requests to republish the images in different publications. They have now been featured in countless sources in over 30 countries.
So how has this explosion of interest in his photographs affected his career? Tourists, whose curiosity was piqued by the shots, are now drawn to the area. Lassi takes groups on photo hikes and wildlife safaris with the help of his sons. Articmedia, the family business, has thrived on offering visitors a chance to observe and photograph the incredible natural scenery and wildlife around. One family even made the long journey from Australia to try their luck at spotting a bear and wolf, and last year his company escorted 650 visitors from 32 countries to photograph Finnish wildlife, including owls, eagles, and landscapes as well as bears and wolves.
Thanks to Lassi’s dedication to protecting the nature around him, wildlife poaching is rare near his photo locations, and general acceptance of wildlife and wildlife tourism has spread.
Today, Lassi is a pioneer in Finland’s photo tourism. His passion led him to create the book “Fighters” which recounts his fantastic experience of wolves, bears and other large Finnish carnivores in the wild, which is available from his website
What’s in Lassi’s kit bag?