Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Romania's bears a headache for the authorities

BUCHAREST (AFP) — Authorities in Romania, one of the last countries in Europe with a large bear population, have grown worried about the animals' increasing forays into town, after several people were killed in recent years.

In the latest case, a 20-year-old man was ripped to shreds last week by a bear searching for food, as he was sleeping on a bench in an alleyway near downtown Brasov, in central Romania.

Local hunters, authorised by the environment ministry to track down the animal to prevent further attacks, found the female the next day, not far from the place where she had attacked her victim, and shot her dead as she tried to rush at them.

"Brown bears usually don't attack people. On the contrary, they'll run away if they see one," Dorel Noaghea, the head of the Brasov hunters' association, told AFP.

According to him, man was to blame for a dozen incidents in recent years, in which several people were killed or injured.

"He does not respect the bears' habitat, or worse, tries to turn them into a tourist attraction," offering them food to allow visitors to take pictures alongside them.

Noaghea, a 51-year-old forester who says he has "run into hundreds of bears" during outings in the Carpatian mountains, argues that bears from the area surrounding Brasov began venturing into town in the late 1970s, when the holiday resort started spreading to the neighbouring woods.

Frightened at first, the bears slowly grew used to rummaging in dustbins for food, under the eyes of amused locals, who have since nicknamed them "binmen bears".

And this quest for food has led them to some unusual places.

"One day I got a call from a person who said: 'there's a polar bear in my pantry'," says one hunter.

Upon arriving at the flat, he found a female bear covered in flour, after having apparently raided the food cupboard.

The same animal gave residents a fright a few months later when she climbed with her cub to the third floor of an apartment building, looking for food, the hunter added. The two were captured after a few hours.

Last September, another bear was found with its head stuck in a container of leftover food in a sanatorium in Predeal, some 140 kilometres (90 miles) north of Bucharest, after it had climbed in a window.

Such outings have increased in recent months, prompting the authorities to find a solution to the problem, without harming this protected species.

"We have launched a relocation programme for binmen bears in distant regions where they will find sufficient food, so that they will want to stay," says Mihai Manoiu, who is in charge of biodiversity at the environment ministry.

Romania, which currently has between 6,000 and 6,200 brown bears, suggested exporting them to countries where the species is dying out, "but since they were binmen bears, those countries said no," he adds.

The authorities say however that they will not lift hunting restrictions, despite pressure from hunters, especially as the European Union is keeping a close eye on this issue.

In the 2007-2008 season, Bucharest authorised 333 bears to be hunted down, "and only in regions where we reported damages or deadly incidents," says Manoiu.

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