Page last updated at 08:44 GMT, Wednesday, 19 November 2008

Campaigner's hope for bear plight

By Gemma Ryall
BBC News

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Victor Watkins explains why he wants to help bears

A wildlife expert is hoping a new TV documentary about a bear sanctuary he helped set up will highlight the plight of the animals around the world.

Victor Watkins, 54, from Merthyr Tydfil, has spent the last two decades trying to eradicate bear cruelty and improve their conditions in captivity.

He has established bear sanctuaries in countries including Greece, Thailand and India.

His latest project is in Romania and will eventually house 50 bears.

The Bear Sanctuary programme broadcast on the Animal Planet channel (found on satellite and cable) follows the work of a team from the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA) who are aiming to house the rescued and abandoned bears in the sanctuary, which recreates their natural homes in the wild.

Mr Watkins, who is the WSPA's wildlife advisor, said bear cruelty had been a major issue in Romania, which has an estimated 5,000 European brown bears in the wild - the highest number in Europe.

They are often sat in dirty and squalid cages for 20 years or more
Victor Watkins

"A lot of them are hunted legally and illegally, the mother bears are killed leaving the baby bears orphans," he said.

"Some are sold or given as pets and they are put in cages in someone's garden or next to a restaurant as a tourist attraction.

"They will have been put there when young and they grow very quickly. They are often sat in dirty and squalid cages for 20 years or more."

The sanctuary, in the Carpathian Mountains, has 69 hectares of dense forest and pools for the bears, who also receive veterinary care and food.

About 30 bears have been taken to the sanctuary already but Mr Watkins said there are about another 20 bears they are aware of that need rescuing, which they intend to do within the next year.

An educational centre will then open to visitors.

Gretel the bear
Gretel, one of the rescued bears, relaxes in the bear sanctuary

Since Romania joined the EU in 2007, the country has had to comply with its animal welfare standards, which Mr Watkins said has started to change the way the government approaches the subject.

It also means zoos that do not comply with the new regulations are being closed down, their abandoned bears being re-housed in the sanctuary.

"The public in Romania are changing their attitudes to bears," said Mr Watkins, who oversees and advises a team of local builders and animal welfare officers at the sanctuary.

"If we just rescue a new bear, all the Romanian TV crews are there. Whenever we ask them why they are filming, they say it's fantastic, nothing's been done like this before."

He said he hoped the documentary, which will be shown on digital and satellite channels in numerous countries, including the UK and Romania, will help raise awareness about the problems.

"The aim is to get to the public and governments around the world to see what can be done, that there's a solution to these situations," he added.

Dancing bears

After leaving Cyfarthfa Castle Grammar School in Merthyr Tydfil, Mr Watkins gained a degree in zoology from Oxford Brookes University and has worked for WSPA since it was founded 25 years ago.

He said that while he was working on animal welfare issues around the world, he realised there were no specific campaigns to save bears.

It led to him setting up the WSPA's Libearty campaign in 1991 and since then, he has been involved in creating sanctuaries around the world, the first being in Greece, where the charity helped eradicate dancing bears.

Bears in the Romanian sanctuary
The bears have forest and pools within the Romanian Bear Sanctuary

He said there are still huge issues to address to ensure that bears are kept in the wild.

The fact that development and agriculture means bear are losing their natural habitats is one of the biggest problems facing the animals today, he said.

"We are trying to show governments there are other ways," he added.

"If a bear comes into a farm to eat corn, farmers often just shoot them. But it doesn't solve the problem - it just means another bear will come down. A simple solution would be to put up an electric fence."

There is also concern about bears being farmed for their bile in Asia, particularly in China.

"There are 14,000 bears being used for their bile in Asia. They are put in a small cage, then a tube is put through their abdomen and into their gall bladder for bile to drain out," he said.

"They use it for an old traditional medicine and they believe it cures certain things. But there are other alternatives. It's about getting the message out there."

Bear Sanctuary is on the Animal Planet channel on Thursdays from 2100 GMT until 4 December.

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