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Last Updated: Saturday, 3 July, 2004, 08:37 GMT 09:37 UK
Romania's bears at bay
Bear in skip, BBC
Bears are now a common sight in many villages
Romania's brown bears are increasingly descending from the country's Carpathian Mountains and raiding local towns in an effort to find food.

The bears are known to trek up to 20km (12.5 miles) a night in their search for food, and are regularly seen rummaging through litter bins and skips in the quiet suburbs of foothill settlements.

They are now drawing crowds on warm evenings, and remote villages in particular are visited regularly by wild animals.

"Suddenly I heard a great noise - a bear was trying to break into a stable where the sheep were closed in for the night," one villager told BBC World Service's The Carnivore Trail programme.

"I shouted to my husband, 'Gheorghie, wake up! A bear is attacking the sheep'."

In this case, the bear was chased off by villagers awoken by the noise.

Endangered species

Brown bears, being scavengers and omnivores, are quite able to live off the food that Romanians throw out.

But there are increasing fears that they will soon become extinct in this part of the world. Romania is one of the very few countries in Europe that permits limited bear hunting.

Earlier this month, a number of people - including French President Jacques Chirac and actress Bridgette Bardot - wrote a letter to Romania's Prime Minister Adrian Nastase to voice their concerns about the fate of the bear.

Bear raids a skip, BBC
Bears will travel many miles a night to find food
Their letter was partially in response to the government's decision to allow the shooting of 300 bears this year.

Hunting-tourism has become big business in Romania's Carpathian Mountains, the last place in Europe, apart from Russia, where many large carnivores - bears, wolves and lynxes - can be found.

Laszlo Szeley-Szabo, the president of the Carpathian animal protection group the Aves Foundation, has also sent a report to Mr Nastase which detailed evidence that the bear population was down from the official figure of 6,300 to 2,500.

"Romania's kill figures for the trophy-hunter market are way above a sustainable cull," the Aves Foundation report argued. "They endanger the species."

The report goes on to say that official figures relied on evidence from local farmers' sightings, and argued that different witnesses may be seeing the same bear at different points along its journey into the foothills.

The European Union last year responded to the Aves Foundation's concerns by pointing out that member states "have to ensure a favourable conservation status of natural habitats and species of wild fauna and flora of Community interest".

Gunther Verheugen, the EU commissioner supervising EU membership applications, has said that if Romania joined the EU - as it hopes - EU laws would prohibit the bear hunting.

Poacher threat

The Romanian government, however, says that its figures are accurate.

It also says that "foraging hungry bears are now causing serious damage to the livestock of people living in the small mountain villages of the Carpathians".

One Carpathian shepherd told The Carnivore Trail that bears did sometimes take sheep, and that unless he could prove they had done so he would have to cover the cost of their loss himself.

However, he added that last year only a "handful" had been killed by bears.

Bear with plastic bag, BBC
Romanian rubbish provides a tasty take-away
But even were bear hunting to be banned in the future, the bears would still face another ongoing threat - poachers.

A number of poachers currently roam the mountains hunting the large carnivores, and their kills are not included in the quota.

Some who have killed bears say that they were attacked and acted in self-defence, but studies of bear behaviour - which have shown they are wary of humans - indicate this may be unlikely.

"A man was recently attacked by a bear in the forest - but there is something fishy about the whole story," one shepherd said.

"He refuses to explain what happened, or where it was. He may have been a poacher. Bears are afraid of humans. They don't attack unless they're provoked."

Summit to assess Carpathian peril
24 Nov 03 |  Science/Nature

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