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Members of the Ursidae family can approach humans visiting national parks. The matter of how to maintain ...
2023-01-30 09:00:00

Wild Beauties
How to Properly Protect Bears

Photo by Sabeth/Pixabay
Wild Beauties
Wild Beauties

They’re powerful and strong, fluffy and sweet, but up close they are wild beasts. Humans are equally fascinated and afraid of them—if we want to protect these animals, we must act wisely.

Read in 11 minutes

Panting loudly, a young bear cub rises on its hind legs, then falls back onto the ground and turns around. Agitated, it runs back and forth, huffing and growling, then climbs onto a small rock and takes a few steps towards the person filming it. It’s sending clear warning signals. After about thirty seconds, the bear runs down the slope and disappears from view, we can only hear its growling. After another few seconds, a man pepper sprays and audibly kicks the animal. The camera captures an ear and part of the animal’s head. Then, in the background, blueberry bushes and the sky flash by; we hear the moans of the retreating bear.

This video was shot in June 2022, during breeding season. Males buzzing with hormones are potentially more aggressive, especially when they see humans as competitors. A Slovak tourist first watched for twenty minutes as the bear slowly approached him, probably unaware of the man’s presence. Then, not only did the visitor not back off, he also ignored all the warning signs. After the incident, the man posted the video accompanied by a detailed account of it on social media. He was met with a wave of criticism—his irresponsible behavior exposed the bear to enormous stress. Such an encounter could affect the young animal and its future attitude towards humans; perhaps it will fear people and become aggressive.

As a rule, wild animals attack humans when they are startled or afraid and see it as their best—or only—form of defense. When it comes to bears, most charges are so-called “bluff charges,” intended to scare off the intruder. Typically, if one reacts correctly—i.e., by staying calm and waiting, or simply getting out of the way—the animal will see that there is no threat and will leave.

Problems with Humans

Usually, it is humans who disregard natural distance when coming into contact with wild animals—just like the Slovak tourist, who approached despite clear signs that he shouldn’t, or the many others who feed (intentionally or not) animals in the Tatra Mountains on the border of Poland and Slovakia. People discard leftover food, banana peel, and—even worse—candy wrappers on hiking trails. Some deliberately leave scraps of food to lure the bears in order to take a photo. Such shortening of the distance almost always ends with the wild animal’s death.

Problems with bears—or rather human behavior towards bears—began in the Tatras in the 1980s, with an influx of hikers roaming the trails by day, night, and during the off-season. The queues for the trailside mountain huts stretched as long as the lines to buy rationed sugar or meat (a common sight in the communist Poland of the time).

In 1987, a small bear regularly visited the garbage dumpsters in the Roztoka Valley in the Tatras. Employees of the nearby mountain hut as well as border guards in Białczańska Palenica started to feed the “poor, hungry bear.” The animal quickly became a local attraction. Two years later, having returned with two cubs in tow, it turned out to be a female. Eventually, Magda—as it was named by locals—needed more and more food for herself and her offspring. She began to break into buildings, dumpsters and food storage units, and even cars. Attempts to scare her off with firecrackers, flares, and warning shots fired by border guards did not succeed. Another two years went by, and in the spring Magda had three more young. All four approached the village almost every day. Photographers descended on the area in the hope of taking a photo of the bears. They lured the mother with treats; eventually, the animals began to charge the intruders. Since they had become bolder and were starting to pose a threat to humans, it was decided they should be caught and placed in Wrocław Zoo. This could never have ended well for a wild animal—especially an adult one—and Magda and one of the cubs did not survive captivity. Within a month, she escaped and as a result of stress and zoo-administered medication, her heart stopped beating.

Do Not Feed the Bears

What later happened to Magda’s offspring is equally distressing: Mago impregnated his sister, Mania. In order to prevent further incest and aggression, the animal was placed in a small, concrete enclosure, where he spent the next eight years. The zoo’s director argued that sterilizing the male would mean the loss of valuable genetic material. Over the years, no space was found for Mago in other zoos or refuges, and there were no funds to build him a proper enclosure. In 2022, Mania was thirty-one years old and still lived, with her daughter, in Wrocław Zoo. Everyone who lives in the Tatras knows Magda’s story; the employees of the Tatra National Park repeat it to deter people from feeding bears. Unfortunately, to no avail. 

As long as animals were given human names, those who deterred them with rubber bullets would meet with harsh criticism. This ended as soon as the bears were deprived of this form of distinct identity. Thus a few years later another bear, Kaśka, appeared in the Tatras and was later renamed Five Hundred. Her behavior was similar to Magda’s; some assume the bear was a daughter from Magda’s first litter. When she brought her three young, the Tatra National Park Authority (TPN) wanted to see whether they would take on their mother’s behavior. It was the start of a program aimed at “resocializing” synanthropic animals—those whose behavior has been shaped under the influence of human activity. Electric shepherds were installed around mountain huts and dumpsters were removed. 

Park workers scared off the approaching bears with rubber bullets, but they were unable to tell whether this actually worked. As soon as they shot one animal, another would approach—but was it the same bear, or a different one? They decided to try to find out. In May 2001, the first of the triplets entered a bait station. The bear’s right ear was fitted with a yellow earring bearing the number 501. The following morning, his younger sister received an earring with the number 502—on her left ear, to make distinguishing between the siblings easier. The third bear was more cautious and did not get caught. Thanks to the earrings, TPN employees learned that the bears were able to quickly travel the pass below Rysy, at an altitude of around 8,200 feet above sea level, and reach the vicinity of Popradzki Staw. One year later, Five Hundred was fitted with a radio transmitter collar. Scientists finally confirmed that the list of “problematic” bears was indeed rather short—and just a few individuals were  seemingly “tamed” and visited various local “buffets” over the course of a single night.

The TPN’s director, Filip Zięba, explained that the GPS transmitter placed in the collar could quickly relay detailed information about the whereabouts of such bears, making a swift response possible. Problematic individuals were thus under control. In the past, seven teams of two people had to be dispatched to different areas to lie in wait and shoot at any animals that appeared close to mountain huts. Today, these kinds of operations are equally difficult—humans need to outsmart the bears, often at night. Park rangers need to flush the animals out so that they escape in the right direction—towards the park, rather than the town. If it wasn’t for the group of experienced TPN workers, bears descending towards the resort of Zakopane would probably be shot with actual, rather than rubber, bullets.

Yet unfortunately public appeals and educational drives, as well as garbage disposal policy around the Tatra Mountains, still leave much to be desired. In order to avoid fees for the removal of garbage or eliminate bad smells resulting from the storage of food waste, restaurants and guesthouse owners dispose of bio-waste by throwing it into mountain streams. Baiting forest animals is also a good way to attract tourists. The latter, as well as the locals, take pictures of the bears and post them online. Some commenters foolishly rejoice, while others encourage the spiraling fears.

Illustration by Marek Raczkowski
Illustration by Marek Raczkowski

Petting a Bear

Telemetry studies have confirmed the scientists’ belief that each animal should be treated individually. For a prolonged period, the bear Iwo fed on poorly fenced dumpsters on the Slovak side of the Tatra Mountains. Because Slovakia doesn’t run a bear deterrence program, TPN workers assumed that sooner or later Iwo would be considered problematic and eliminated.

Once fitted with a GPS collar, Iwo the “dumpster diver” surprised everyone. At one point, he set off on a journey through Hungary and the Bieszczady Mountains, and from there to Ukraine, potentially heading to Romania. During the journey his collar fell off, so it’s not known if or how far he traveled. This showed that a bear that frequents dumpsters and human settlements can change its habits. Moreover, probably thanks to his previous behavior, the bear wasn’t afraid of people, managed to cross a busy highway, and was able to overcome other obstacles. Meanwhile, the lack of links between individual bear populations in today’s highly urbanized Europe constitutes one of the greatest threats to the species.

Thanks to scientific research and observations, we know more about bears and their behavior. Still, the average person struggles to understand the dependencies that govern the natural world. Most of us want to help wild animals, but we often don’t realize that some actions only serve to calm our conscience and do nothing good for them.

One example of this is a video posted online in April 2022. It shows a bear running down a ski slope in Kuźnice. At the time, the TPN had closed tourist routes in the area, emphasizing their role in protecting natural processes. This meant giving the cub a chance to find its mother, but also accepting its potential death. Online, dozens of commenters were outraged that the TPN didn’t help the cub, citing the case of another bear, Ada. They called into question the TPN’s humanity, while one individual called its director “the world’s second-worst man after Putin.” There has been little reflection on the extent to which interfering with nature can actually save animals from suffering.

To Save or Not to Save?

The other bear mentioned by online commenters—Ada, a one-year-old male—staggered into the village of Teleśnica on January 10, 2022. Unfortunately, the decision to catch him wasn’t consulted in time with experts. The latter believed he should be put to sleep and euthanized on the spot, or given medication and taken back into the forest, especially since traces of an adult bear with cubs were later found nearby. Seeing the exhausted, struggling bear, experts predicted that the chances of his condition improving were slim, and exposing the animal to the enormous stress of contact with humans seemed inappropriate. On the other hand, foresters lacking specialist knowledge, concerned about the appearance of an animal close to human settlements, felt that they had to react.

Ada arrived at the Protected Animal Rehabilitation Center in Przemyś­l weighing less than thirty-three pounds—more or less the weight of a three-month-old cub. The center managed to raise a considerable amount of money from online donations, and while it said that Ada would be released following recovery, the animal was put to sleep on January 20. Bears, young ones in particular, quickly become dependent on the food supplied by humans and will later seek it out—so there was no chance of letting the animal back out into the woods. At the same time, refuges throughout Europe lacked the space to accommodate such a large and demanding animal. Bears not only require a vast living space, shelter for the winter, and ground to dig in, but also—and perhaps above all—very large amounts of food every year, for several decades. In captivity, they can live up to fifty, meaning huge costs. Unsurprisingly, the animal shelter that took the bear in tried to save him. After all, it shouldn’t be up to veterinarians—who have no experience dealing with these animals—to decide their fate.

Let’s Keep Our Distance

We don’t know whether the bear seen on the ski slope in the Tatras survived. But even if it didn’t find its mother, at least it died in the wilderness, by the laws of nature. This might sound brutal, but soon enough this or another “sweet bear” would mature and, following previous contact with humans, would approach people on the mountain trails. A case from fifteen years ago, when three tourists brutally killed a two-year-old bear, shows how quickly these animals can turn into beasts. It appears that the animal was baited with food for photos, and when it became aggressive, the group became frightened and reacted impulsively.

If you ever think of calling for the “rescue” of wild animals, especially large predators, please think twice. Such decisions should be made by experts. Unfortunately, Ada’s example shows the cruel consequences of the absence of trained nature protection services, or even a nationwide intervention group dealing with large predators that would react in a timely manner and prevent conflicts between humans and predators (also including wolves).

At a time when various species are going extinct at an unprecedented rate, as humans carelessly destroy their last remaining habitats, we cannot afford to choose the easy route. Yes, culling animals is a much simpler and cheaper way than protection efforts, but the latter does not require teams of people that, for months and years on end, must manage various situations and invent new strategies for keeping animals away from humans, or vice versa. But humans are responsible for our relationship with the natural world. This is why it’s so important to develop effective solutions and use safeguarding tools, such as fences, that even if expensive could protect the lives of wild animals. We should also demand the establishment of appropriate nature conservation services and continuously educate and inform society about the right of wild animals to live close to us—but on their own terms.


Translated from the Polish by Joanna Figiel

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