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The European Brown Bear

by Michael Thompson

By the time we set off to look for brown bears Ursus arctos, it was dark and raining heavily. But, undeterred, we reached our destination just after midnight. The small Romanian town of Brasov is situated in the eastern Carpathian mountains, in which the densely forested mountain slopes impinge on the outer fringes of the town. These outer suburbs consist of unattractive, poorly constructed blocks of flats erected during the period of the communist regime of Ceausescu. The residents, during daylight hours, place their domestic rubbish in large communal wheeled bins with sliding tops. It is to these bins that the brown bears come to feed in the early hours of the morning, and have now been doing so for some time; so much so, that their presence has become a tourist attraction.

On our arrival, in our ten-seater tour minibus, we bumped over the wet cobbles looking at all the bins we could find, but after completing three circuits we found no bears. We were about to give up when the tour leader, Keith, said we would have another go. No sooner had we reached, yet again, the first bin, than we saw our first bear. In the half-light from the street lamps, we could make out the dark figure of an immature male bear standing on his hind legs rummaging in a bin. My first impression was that of a large hairy human. The bear seemed unperturbed by our presence, in spite of a powerful torch being shone on him. Soon we were joined by a Dutch saloon car, whose occupants were bear watching, and then a full coach load of Germans turned up. We moved on to the next set of bins.

At the next site, we found several bins were in a half enclosure, the back wall being right up against the mountain slope, and it was here that our party was rewarded with excellent views of the brown bear. A large, fully mature female was poking her nose into a bin. Behind her, but slightly reluctant to join her, were three cubs, one of which was limping presumably due an injury. The female, who seemed slightly agitated because of the minibus, extracted food items from the rubbish and presented some to the cubs. From the size of the cubs and the visibility of her nipples, it seemed that she was still feeding them. From time to time, the cubs, followed by the female, would rush up the slope and disappear into the undergrowth, only to reappear. Eventually, the family disappeared for good, but we knew that there were still bears about from the constant barking of the neighbourhood dogs. We left the site well after 1.00 am to return to our hotel.

The temptation had been to go and pick up one of the cubs, but to do so would have been extremely dangerous, for under such provocation the female would attack. The local residents, according to our Romanian guide, Tudor, avoid the bins at night for this reason. These brown bears, it would seem, are still entirely wild. However, like our urban foxes, they are becoming used to human beings in a process scientifically called synanthropization. This process is not without its dangers as both bears and people have more contact with each other and increasingly tolerate one other. In recent years, according to James Roberts, author of a book on Romania’s wildlife, an average of four people are killed in Romania by the brown bear; these rogue bears are sought out and shot.

In Britain the European brown bear used to be part of our native fauna, but it ceased to exist in the wild many, many centuries ago. Archaeological evidence of this species was found at the Star Carr Mesolithic site in Yorkshire [near Pickering]. Bears were imported to Britain for entertainment and bear-baiting in the Middle Ages. However, throughout Europe in the last 50 years there has been a 100% increase in the brown bear population, with 60% or 7500 of them to be found in the Carpathians. Thirty percent of Romania is covered by dense forest, some of which has been felled for commercial reasons, but much remains in its virgin state and is not accessible. These forests make an ideal habitat for this large European carnivore, in which it feeds on berries, small mammals, domestic livestock, deer and carrion. A mature adult, which is Europe’s largest and most dangerous mammal, can weigh in at 450 kg. The Romanian tourist trade sees the brown bear as a money-spinner, bringing in eco-tourists from around the world to see them. The European brown bear is protected by the Bern Convention, but, even so, its numbers have to be controlled. Culling, under licence, is carried out by the Romanians, and the meat is used for human consumption and the hides sold on. At the end of tour dinner, the party was served up with bear salami in a Romanian restaurant; some present refused to eat it!

Michael Thompson. 7.10.03.

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