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Monday, July 26, 1999 Published at 23:35 GMT 00:35 UK


Europe's bears battle to survive

Bears are retreating almost everywhere, with western Europe's at greatest risk

By Environment Correspondent Alex Kirby

Bears in many parts of the world are facing increasing threats to their long-term survival, according to the World Wide Fund for Nature-UK.

In a report called Wanted Alive! Bears in the Wild, the WWF says "almost all bear species have undergone dramatic population declines in recent decades".

It says the causes include trade in bear body parts (for instance, for traditional medicine), habitat destruction, and conflict between humans and animals.

The report says the effects of habitat loss and hunting on Asian bear species are "devastating".

Knock-on effect

Their decline has meant increasing inroads into north and south American bear populations, and "a dramatic rise" in the early 1990s in poaching of Russia's brown bears.

In western Europe, the report says "some of the world's most endangered bear populations struggle for survival".

[ image: Russia's bears are targeted by poachers]
Russia's bears are targeted by poachers
West of Turkey and the former Soviet Union, bears are found in 24 European countries. In nine, they are thought to be declining.

"In western Europe bears have been reduced to just six tiny populations, numbering as few as four individuals.

"The most vulnerable of these populations are in France, Spain and Italy, where they are likely to vanish unless speedily augmented by bears from other populations."

Killed in error

There are thought to be no more than nine bears in the whole of France, where a farmer shot one animal in 1998.

Spain has between 70 and 90 bears, but they are threatened by the use of poison to kill wolves and snares set for wild boar.

Italy probably has even fewer bears, though some are crossing into the country from Slovenia, where numbers are thought to be stable.

[ image: Climate change may affect polar bears]
Climate change may affect polar bears
Other countries where populations appear to be either stable or increasing are Austria, Slovakia, Macedonia, Albania, Norway and Sweden.

Romania, with nearly 7,000 bears, has more than the rest of Europe combined, apart from Russia.

They were protected by the dictator Ceausescu, and are now a pest in some populated areas where they often raid rubbish dumps.

The only species that still lives throughout its original range is the polar bear.

But a range of chemicals known as persistent organic pollutants is causing sex changes in some animals - in 1997, several hermaphrodite cubs were discovered.

And the report says global warming in the Arctic may be causing maternity dens to collapse, and thawing of the spring ice on which the bears depend to catch seals.

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