Both Duarte and I have been 'fortunate' enough to come face to face with brown bears in Romania’s Carpathian Mountains. I was shepherded down a snowy mountain trail by a female with young, while Duarte spent a rather restless night as a brown bear hounded his tent. Despite shaking in our boots, we were both left spell bound by our separate experiences with this incredible creature. Here we’d like to share an insight into Romania's brown bears, their behavioural patterns, feeding habits, their importance as a keystone species, the threats and what we are doing to protect the Romania's brown bears.
The Loveable Beast
Few animals capture the imagination quite like European brown bears. They can stand on two legs, walk on the soles of their feet, pick things up with their “fingers,” and often eat what we eat. This, coupled with their ability to communicate with one another through scratch marks left on trees, smells and sounds, establishes a similarity to our own way of life.
Habitat, Behaviour and Feeding
Romania is home to 60% of Europe's brown bears. There are believed to be over 200,000 brown bears in the world, of which 6,000 of them roam Romania’s forests in the Carpathian Mountains - the largest population of bears in Europe. Romania's brown bears are mostly found in mountain woodlands, as they require areas with thick, dense cover in which to shelter by day. Bears hibernate from autumn to late spring in a burrow, either on a sheltered slope under a large stone or among the roots of a large tree. Brown bears mate from May to July, with the birth of cubs usually while the female is still in hibernation from January to March. The cubs stay with her until two or three years old. Their diet varies depending on the season and includes grass, roots, berries, apples and nuts, plums, as well as insects and mammals and, of course, honey. Brown bears usually forage in the morning and evening, and rest under dense vegetation during the day.
A Keystone Species
Healthy bear numbers are a sign of a healthy, productive forest environment, rich in herbs, mushrooms, forest fruits and wild animals. Given their dependence on these large natural areas, brown bears are important management indicators for a number of other wildlife species. Brown bears also play important roles as predators who keep other animal populations in check, culling the weak and cleaning up dead animal carcasses, which would otherwise spread disease in the forest. Additionally, they act as seed dispersers, roaming large territories and thus scattering undigested plant seeds all over.
Romania'ss brown bears have fallen prey to poaching, loss of habitat due to illegal logging and other conflicts with rural communities who view them as a pest. Illegal logging is not only guilty of destroying the bears habitat but sends bears away from the forests because of the noise. They often end up in areas closer to villages or other populated areas. Though bears are a protected species by international and Romanian laws, bears can be killed, by way of a warrant. If a bear has been seen to cause serious damage or pose as a threat to human populations, a warrant may be issued. While this may seem like a reasonable situation, a bear straying from the mountains is quickly labelled as dangerous by the trophy hunting sector usually, as big money can come out of killing it.
The brown bear is a symbol of what is right with the worldCharles Jonkel, American bear biologist
Proceeds from our tree planting in Romania go toward the salaries of rangers, who monitor and protect the existing old growth forests from logging and poaching. The reforestation efforts also help create new habitats and corridors for Romania's brown bears. Our partners on the ground are also working hard to educate those that have to live alongside bears, as well as facilitating eco-tourism in these rural communities. - With wildlife tourism slowly developing into an important source of income for communities living in the Southern Carpathians, it has significant potential for enhancing public acceptance of the species. For example, a bear watching hide installed by the Romanian State Forestry can receive more than 1,000 visitors, generating between € 20,000 and € 30,000 of income annually, that is double what the hide could earn from hunting.
If you would like to learn more about potential solutions, we suggest heading over to our Rewilding Romania article.