A seven-year, controversial attempt to reintroduce the bear in the French Pyrenees is set to fail because the number of animals is unable to guarantee the survival of the species. Céline Serrat reports.
For the moment, a team supervising three Slovenian bears which were let loose in the mountainous area in the mid 1990s says they have multiplied to just six.
Only parents Pyros and Ziva from Slovenia have survived, along with four adolescents born in France and named Caramelles, Boutxy, Kouki and Nere.
A third bear brought from Slovenia, Melba, was killed accidentally, by a hunter in 1997, and two babies were found dead in 1997 and 2001.
But to the six must be added a residual population of about a dozen native bears which survive in the western part of the mountain chain that separates France and Spain.
Pierre-Yves Quenette, who is in charge of the surveillance team, said there was still a high risk that the bears would become extinct once again.
"There are only two females and one of them is old," he said. Quenette added that it was difficult to give a figure for a viable population - "whether 20 or 50 or more individuals."
Scientists, however, say that the bears have adapted well to the Pyrenean environment, with a low death rate among the baby bears, the sexual maturity of Caramelles and feeding and hibernation behaviour similar to that observed in other countries.
Meanwhile, the reintroduction operation still encounters opposition from some local parliamentarians and farmers.
Quenette said it was necessary to reintroduce more bears to ensure the survival of the species, but that France's environment ministry hoped to reach a consensus between the two opposing groups before the end of 2002.
Opponents and supporters of the bear are separately trying to win support.
The tourism group ADET, which took part in the reintroduction, is trying to promote the central Pyrenees as "home of the bear," with the backing of local hoteliers and restaurateurs, beekeepers, craftsmen and mountain guides.
But the anti-bear group ADDIP, which wants the animals out, has denounced low rates and tardiness of compensation for the slaughter of sheep killed by the bears.
"The compensation does not take into account the sheep injured by the bears, nor abortions, nor the sheep that have simply disappeared", said Alain Naudy, president of the ADDIP, adding that the presence of bears discouraged young farmers from setting up in business and scared off tourists.