Bears worry experts by raiding villages

Bears worry experts by raiding villages

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The increasingly human-savvy animals have been attacking beehives, cattle and orchards in Asturias for the past few years.

IN August 2004, beekeepers in Somiedo in the northern region of Asturias found a bear cub eating honey out of their beehives. The young bear showed up every day for the sweet course, and was quite happy to be photographed. A few months later, in December of the same year, a bear cub came into the village of Quirós on several successive days, knocking over garbage bins, and leaving footprints in flour which it had spilled.

There are dozens of similar cases and though this is a sign that the species is in relatively rude health in terms of conservation, it is also a problem. The Cantabrian brown bear, Ursus Arctos, is getting increasingly blasé in the presence of humans.

In the mountains of Asturias 20 years ago, spotting one of these bears was a rare occurrence, but now it is fairly common, as local scientists, game wardens and residents agree. Not only are there more sightings, but also attacks on beehives, cattle and orchards, which have even become a drain on local coffers, even though the state pays compensation.

Several factors contribute. First, protected status has meant that over the last 20 years the bears have seldom been shot at. The brown bear population, reduced to about 70 in the early 1990s, is now estimated at 120. And while there are more bears, there is also more garbage within their reach.

On the other hand, there are more people in the mountains and some experts point out that there are now less blueberries in the Cantabrian Mountains - perhaps due to global warming - and that the dearth of this staple in the ursine diet may be driving bears into the valleys.

Yet too much of a good thing may turn against the bears. In the words of Javier Naves Cienfuegos, a biologist and bear expert at the University of Oviedo, "It isn't a good thing for bears to become used to man, instead of finding their own food in the wild. A bear that depends on man for his food is dead."

Cienfuegos echoes the case of Yellowstone Park in the United States, where in the 1960s authorities closed the garbage dump where the bears had been scavenging: "About 150 bears died, but in the long run it was better for their conservation," he explains. In Slovenia, Romania and Austria, bears that have got used to man have also become a problem.

"You have to scare them off, and we ought to be thinking of solutions," says Naves. One much-used option is rubber bullets. "This hurts, and they get the message."

Meanwhile some firms, such as the British-based Naturtrek, offer hiking tours into bear habitats. Scientists fear that, if the bears' familiarity with man is not stopped, and attacks on beehives, garbage and livestock increase, local people may be tempted to go back to shooting these rare beasts.


text by El Pais / Rafael Mendez / Expatica
photos by Malene Thyssen and


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