Romania's Brown Bears

Protecting the largest European population of an iconic species

written byMatt Davies Co-Founder, Mossy Earth

Matt Davies

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.

A European brown bear strolls across a forest path in Romania against a backdrop of green and golden leaves
A European brown bear strolls across a forest path in Romania against a backdrop of green and golden leaves

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 European brown bear climbing up a tree
A Romanian brown bear taking shelter in a tree

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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.

A deer carcass. European brown bears play an important role in culling the weak and cleaning up dead animal carcasses
Bears play an important role in culling the weak and cleaning up dead animal carcasses

Threats

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.

A clear cut area covered in old tree trunks and debris. Such clear cuts are driving Romania's brown bears out of the forests and into villages.
A clear cut area covered in old tree trunks and debris. Such clear cuts are driving Romania's brown bears out of the forests and into villages.

The brown bear is a symbol of what is right with the world

Charles Jonkel, American bear biologist

The Solution

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.

Somebody taking photos from a bear watching hide in Romania
A brown bear watching hide installed Romania's Carpathian mountains

Glossary of terms

Hibernation: Hibernation is a type of dormancy found in some animal species which can see them go inactive. There are many different reasons for hibernation such as short food supply, environmental changes or a need to conserve energy. Some animals heart rate can be reduced up to 95% as well as a much slower metabolic rate, slower breathing as well as a lower body temperature. Other types of dormancy include diapause, aestivation and brumation.

Keystone Species: Coming in many forms, they are organisms whose relationship with their environment can shape the entire ecosystem. If they were removed, it could lead to an ecosystem becoming severely altered or collapsing. Examples of keystone species are birds of prey, wolves, beavers and bees.

Reforestation: This is the planting of trees in an area, where trees once were although they have either been removed or reduced. It usually focuses on the planting of local and native trees that are most compatible with the local soils and species. Reforestation projects can bring many benefits including restoring biodiversity, soil quality as well as carbon sequestration.

Wildlife Tourism: An increasingly growing and popular area, wildlife tourism, or nature-based tourism, is giving people a chance to see wildlife, in their natural habitat. This could be going on guided walks through nature reserves or safaris. It is also a powerful tool for conservation efforts.

Sources & further reading

Peer Reviewed Research Section
  1. Rewilding Romania - Mossy EarthExternal link
  2. Monitoring carnivores in Romania's Carpathian Mountains - Mossy EarthExternal link

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