Recent deaths by brown bears in Romania reignite management debate

Experts estimate that Romania is home to about 6 000 brown bears (Ursus arctos). And the Carpathians, specifically Romania, have the highest population of brown bears in Europe. But the increasing bear population is straining Romanians’ acceptance of their huge neighbours. And a recent slew of deadly bear attacks have brought this relationship again to the fore. From 2000 to 2015, brown bears killed 11 people in Romania. And the 3 recent deaths occurred within over a month. Incidents and general encounters are also on the rise. This is all leading to a debate on how to handle the bear population and on just how bad the problem is. A recent BBC article on these deaths stated that the “mood is such that some politicians have waged something akin to a war on bears.”

Role of the media

Like many large carnivores, brown bears need extensive areas for roaming. So, in addition to the deaths there have been extensive accounts of property damage along with an atmosphere of fear. In response to the rising population, certain hunting groups want to reverse a 2016 ban on bear trophy hunting. They blame the law on the recent rise in attacks. The media’s enflamed coverage of the bear problem is also stirring a desire for action against bears in the public. Responding to this, Romanian legislators recently permitted the hunting of brown bears for the next five years. This is a noticeably more liberal quota than what was allowed in the 2018 Action Plan.

Global rise in bear numbers

shutterstock_522023629.jpg - European Wilderness Society - CC NonCommercial-NoDerivates 4.0 International

Romania is not the only country with an increasing bear population and subsequent rising tensions, however. Large carnivore attacks are actually on the rise globally. These attacks appear quite sensational in relation to increasing population trends. And, publishing dramatic responses to bear attacks can unduly increase fear if unaccompanied by facts or tips on avoiding and handling bear encounters. Furthermore, there are misconceptions between increasing bear populations and bear attacks related to myths of bear habits in developed areas. An article published in Nature that looked into worldwide brown bear attack trends mentions the role and power of the media to either negatively or positively influence future encounters. As exemplified in Romania, the media can focus on fear rather than education, distorting the reality of the threat brown bears pose to humans. Additionally, anti-bear biases may spread outside of countries like Romania with large bear populations to places where populations are threatened, harming conservation efforts.

Education, not hunting

The Nature article stated that “one of the most important ways to minimize this type of conflict is to gain a deeper understanding of the circumstances triggering large carnivore attacks, as well as of potential factors associated with such incidents.”

This is sound advice across the board. But, one must acknowledge Romania as an exceptional country of bear attacks. The article states that there is annual attack rate of 18.2 in Europe (from the years 2000-2015). But, 8.2 of those attacks occurred in Romania. Also, the behavior of the people involved in the attacks in the country was quite different than elsewhere. The article specifically suggests the implementation of educational campaigns in Romania. And fascinatingly, it mentions that they found, globally, “no significant difference in the number of attacks between ‘hunting’ and ‘non-hunting’ countries” (emphasis added).

“…one of the most important ways to minimize this type of conflict is to gain a deeper understanding of the circumstances triggering large carnivore attacks, as well as of potential factors associated with such incidents.”

Bombieri, et al.
Nature

For more information on why hunting large carnivores is sometimes justified, see our article:

So investigating the major causes of brown bear encounters in Romania, rather than focusing on culling, should produce better results. For example, studying the effects of forestry on bear habitat or the gender dynamics of their scavenging of human food/waste should reveal more logical ways to mitigate attacks. But using and sharing this knowledge with the public would only solve part of the issue in Romania. The country’s lack of data and out-of-date protocols on brown bear management, for example, are also significant hindrances to establishing effective protocols. Whether through research, reporting, or policy, any response to large carnivore attacks must be based on facts and their objective interpretation.

Wild Carpathians

The Romanian brown bear population is but one of many exceptional features of the Carpathian Mountains. While heavily fragmented by roads, logging, and farming, the Carpathians nevertheless hold some truly wild nature. Within secluded dells and gorges yet live ancient groves, and the country is a web of beautiful streams and rivers. Yet protecting these ancient woodlands and rivers has hit road bumps like with the brown bear problem.

Nevertheless, some of the wilderness has fortunately been protected, such as the Retezat Wilderness, and efforts continue. In fact, EWS presently leads one of the most important and ambitious protected area projects in the region, Centralparks. An extraordinary vision requires an extraordinary plan. So, Centralparks seeks to conserve nature in the Carpathians using a long-view approach with strong involvement with local stakeholders and communities, and with careful consideration of the economies and ways of living present in one of Europe’s natural and cultural treasures.

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