Reprieve for the brown bear
As this species seems to be fast disappearing from the European Alps, there is a battle to ensure its survival. GUNVANTHI BALARAM writes.
Increased human mobility ensures a heavy strain on bears.
IN autumn 1904, the last brown bear was hunted down in the Swiss Alps. Its death signalled the disappearance of this magnificent beast from every part of Europe's celebrated Alpine range, except its small Slovenian section where a hundred or so survived the hunter's bullet. Given that the Alps cut a vast swathe across northern Italy, Switzerland, Austria and a part of Slovenia, this was a tragedy of continental proportions.
In autumn 2004, apart from the few dozen that continue to survive in Slovenia, no more than 30 bears are to be found in the Alps. Switzerland has none; Austria has between 15 and 20; Italy 10 or 12. This small count of brown bears in the Austrian and Italian Alps today is the result of a big multimillion-Euro bear-reintroduction effort over the last 15 years by the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWFN) in tandem with the European Union.
It's not as though Europe has no brown bears at all. But the count is a precarious 14,000 some 1,700 in Scandinavia (Sweden and Finland), 8,000 in the Carpathian Mountains (Romania, Slovakia, Ukraine, Poland) and 3,000 in the Balkan (former Yugoslavian countries and Greece). And the Alps, which boasted thousands of bears in the 1800s, are unlikely to help the continental count grow.
Alps too urbanised
Bringing the brown bear back to the Alps is among Europe's greatest environmental challenges today, according to wildlife biologist Gerald Dick, who leads Austria's Brown Bear Life Project launched in 1989. That is because the Alps, especially the tourist Mecca of Switzerland, are too densely urbanised and widely farmed to provide the beast with the home range it requires. Moreover, given that the bear and the wolf and lynx vanished from collective memory a century ago, people are terrified by the very thought of having these beasts around again.
"Getting the local people and local governments to facilitate the return of the brown bear back is proving to be a tough task," declares Dick. "Over the last decade we have made a breakthrough in Austria and Italy, but it has taken some doing. Switzerland is still a no-no."
Austria has had to struggle hard to build up its less-than-20-strong bear population, say Dick and his colleague, Norbert Gerstl. "These bears, which roam the mountainous wilds of Carinthia, Lower Austria and Styria, need constant monitoring and protection. About a third are the offspring of Djuro, a male bear imported in 1989 from Slovakia and two female Slovenian bears, Mira and Cilka. Two others are Mira's cubs by an older solitary male, the famous "Oetscherbaer", that startled the country by unexpectedly resurfacing in the Lower Austrian limestone Alps way back in 1972," says Gerstl. "Another male, a troublesome fellow, ambled over in 1994 perhaps from Slovakia. And the rest stumbled in from Croatia after the war. We could tell they were fleeing the war because they bore wounds and were suffering from shock and exhaustion."
The bears adapted quite well to Austrian terrain but their numbers have not grown as much as the conservationists had estimated. "We had expected to have at least 30 bears by now, but we suddenly lost some young ones. They weren't killed, but we do not know what exactly happened to them. A few, like Mother Mira in 1993, may have died of injuries sustained from falling off a rock," says Gerstl. Adds Dick, "Only two bears have been shot dead in Austria since our project began. In 1994, two bears were shot dead in Lower Austria when they plunged into a farm and attacked its beehives. The beasts were after the honey, but the farmers were so terrified they shot them in reflex action."
In Italy, luckily, there have been no killings since the bear re-introduction project began in 1999 in the Trentino National Park. The bear population there is developing well. In this project, a few wild bears were brought in from Slovenia and released in the sanctuary. Europe has no bear breeding projects, only bear releases.
The bears in Trentino are just 35 km away from the Swiss border, but none has thus far migrated to Heidiland. If they do, they may find it tough going, fear Stefan Triebs and Walter Abderhalden, conservationists at Zernez, the headquarters of the Swiss National Park located in the picturesque Alpine region of Engadine, and Fridolin Zimmermann of KORA, a wild carnivore research and conservation society based in Spiegel-bei-Bern.
Politics and wildlife
"That's because though the European brown bear, along with the lynx and wolf, has been protected in Switzerland since 1962, the actual political situation here is not in favour of large carnivores," Zimmermann explains regretfully. "There have been passionate debates about creating sanctuaries and management plans to facilitate the return of the brown bear, but no actual facilitation like re-introduction and bear corridor construction schemes," he adds. However, "once the bears actually show up here, which we hope they will, we hope that our people will change their mind-set," remarks Stefan Triebs.
Gerstl, Zimmerman and scientists in Trentino reveal that their biggest challenge is building up public opinion in favour of the bear. Apart from keeping track of the bears' health, reproduction figures, hibernation and migratory patterns, adjustment problems to the local environment and the threat they pose to local crops, their teams are constantly travelling, holding periodic lectures and roadshows in the "bear zones". They counsel farmers and foresters, beekeepers, livestock breeders and hunters on how to act during a bear encounter for instance, to use rubber bullets to scare off the bears and to install electrified fences to keep them out.
The WWFN and the EU offer subsidies for the purchase of such equipment and compensation for crop destruction by bears (and other wild carnivores). They have also dedicated millions of Euros to hike the brown bear population in the Alps, and of late, elsewhere in Europe. New projects have just been launched in Sweden, Romania and France and additional schemes sponsored in Austria and Italy.
Talks are being held with various Alpine communities on creating bear corridors by reducing infrastructural barriers like streets, railroads, says Gerstl. "The future of the brown bear in the Alps," he declares, "depends on sound spatial planning on the one hand and an intelligent brown bear management scheme on the other."
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