Bear project report 2022-2023

Bear in the water Bear in the water
© SURZet/deposit

Together for Europe's bears

Brown bear near the water with reflections
© DHDeposit

Brown bears still find areas of refuge in many places in the Balkans. They roam over mountain tops and through deep gorges. Their populations are small and under threat from inbreeding, but it is down to us to give them the space and respect they need to be able to grow again. The attitudes of local people are key to this. Thanks to the commitment of many EuroNatur partner organisations and the support of EuroNatur donors, knowledge about the management of large carnivores such as bears, wolves and lynx has multiplied over the last 20 years, extending from the Dinaric Mountains to the Albanian Alps, the Pindus Mountains and the Rhodope Mountains. Camera traps and genetic surveys are providing distribution data, government officials are taking wildlife management requirements into account, and environmental education in schools and universities is sparking interest in ecological interrelationships and a fascination for bears. But this is not yet the case in all the Balkan countries, and there remains a lot of work to be done. Furthermore, managing large carnivores is a never-ending task. We are continually having to adapt measures and develop next steps. With the help of our EuroNatur donors, we will be campaigning hard to further expand and professionalise bear conservation in the Balkans. Our major goal is the peaceful coexistence of people and bears. To achieve this, we want to continue to expand the bear conservation network in the coming years and encourage exchange between partners.

Yours Antje Henkelmann, Project Manager, Bear Conservation

Contact:

Antje Henkelmann

antje.henkelmann@euronatur.org


Bear conservation in Spain

Seedlings in tree nursery

Fruit trees for the bears grow in the Fapas tree nursery in Tuñón. Fapas is planting them as an additional food source for the bears.

© Katharina Grund/EuroNatur
Alfonso from Fapas fixes camera on tree

Roberto Hartasánchez’s brother, Alfonso, hangs a wildlife camera covered in moss and ivy from one of the trees in the bear area. This camouflage is essential; in recent years, cameras have been repeatedly stolen by poachers.

© Katharina Grund/EuroNatur

Bears extend their range

We know from many years of experience in Spain, that protecting brown bears requires close cooperation with the local population. By maintaining a permanent presence in the bear area, our Spanish partner Fapas has gained the trust of local people and helped to reduce poaching. Over the past two years, Fapas rangers have again spent thousands of hours on the ground in the bear area in the Cantabrian Mountains. They have set up and checked camera traps, removed illegal traps, planted fruit trees and tended bee colonies. Cooperation with the local and regional authorities has not always been easy. Often, local governments are heavily influenced by agricultural associations that see nature conservation as a mere nuisance or even as an enemy. “We focus on building relationships with local people and earning their trust by explaining things and helping them to prevent damage caused by bears,” says Roberto Hartasánchez, outlining the Fapas strategy. This requires a great deal of perseverance, but Fapas has proven time and again that the effort is worth it: in recent years, the bear population in the eastern part of the mountain range has remained stable at a low level. Against a backdrop of increased poaching during the Coronavirus pandemic, this can be considered a success. In the west, where collaboration with the authorities and nature park administrations is better, bear numbers have increased. The first animals have already migrated south to the region of Omaña and west towards the Portuguese border.

bear-safe beehives

Bear fences developed by Fapas keep the snack-loving bears away from beehives...

© Mareike Brix/EuroNatur
Bears ravage beehive

...making images like these a thing of the past. The first successes are already being seen.

© FAPAS

Bear-proof electric fences

“When bears expand their range, we hear about it first from the beekeepers. In early spring they suddenly find their hives have been plundered,” explains Roberto Hartasánchez of Fapas. The bears are less interested in the honey than in the protein-rich bee larvae. When bears wake up from hibernation, they are emaciated and need protein-rich foods to regain their strength. At that time of year, they find these mainly in the form of carrion and insect larvae. A bee colony with hundreds or thousands of larvae is a rich source of food. The honey is just an extra treat.

To avoid any conflicts, Fapas has drawn on decades of experience to develop a low-cost, bear-proof electric fence. At a certain distance from the wire of the fence, an additional metal band is installed. Should a curious bear push against it with its sensitive, moist nose, just a small jolt of electricity is all that is needed for the animal to very quickly learn its lesson. In 2021, seven large apiaries in the south of the Cantabrian Mountains were equipped with this type of fence. With success: in 2022, each and every one of them, without exception, was spared from bear attacks.

Sustainable bear tourism?

The fact that bear tourism is increasing in the core bear area - in the Somiedo Natural Park, for example - is actually good news. Visitors who stay overnight bring income and jobs to the remote mountain communities. The network of hiking trails is improving all the time, and in the Spanish summer in particular, the cool heights of the Cantabrian Mountains are a popular nature travel destination. However, some tour operators are trying to offer their guests something extra special by getting closer to the bears than the rules in the nature park allow. If they encounter females with young, this can be dangerous - less so for the tourists than for the bear cubs. If disturbed, mother bears often leave their home territory and take their offspring to safety in an area which is undisturbed. If another male is present there, there is a risk that he will kill the cubs. This is because the female bear only becomes ready to conceive again when she is no longer rearing cubs. The other male bear can therefore reproduce more quickly if he kills the bear cubs. To prevent tourists from causing these deadly disturbances, the Fapas team is also actively monitoring local bear guides and, where necessary, reporting infringements to the nature park administration.

Biologists in front of a stone house in Spain

EuroNatur and Fapas staff at a briefing in front of the new Fapas base in Omaña

© Katharina Grund/EuroNatur

Pilot area in Omaña

“Bears do not need vast areas of wilderness that are devoid of people,” says Roberto Hartasánchez with certainty. The best example of this is a female bear in the Somiedo Natural Park. She has by far the most offspring in the area, and for years has given birth to her young in a cave situated less than 1,500 metres from the nearest house.

Since the first cubs migrated south from their heartlands in the west of the Cantabrian Mountains to the Omaña area a few years ago, Fapas has put a great deal of energy into informing and enlightening the local population. Roberto and his team now want to establish the area as a pilot region exemplifying the peaceful coexistence of humans and bears. The successful protection of the hives has increased confidence in the bear conservationists' work and collaboration with the Omaña nature park administration is also good. In order to have a presence on the ground, Fapas has bought a house and several abandoned plots of land. This also includes the right to hunt - which Fapas will not exercise - but which enables them to establish valuable connections with the hunting community. “This is very important, because the hunting community is divided,” says Roberto Hartasánchez. “Many hunters are interested in protecting nature and the bears, but others have an unwelcoming or even hostile attitude to newcomers.” Fapas will continue to expand its local network in Omaña, planting fruit trees for the bears and getting out and about in the area so that, soon, the first bear offspring will be born there too.

In our new project area in Omaña, we want to show the population how to live peacefully with the bears.

Roberto Hartásanchez from Fapas Roberto Hartásanchez, Director, Fapas
EuroNatur partner organisation in Spain

Partner: Fund for the Protection of Wild Animals (Fapas)
Funding: EuroNatur donors


Bears in the Balkans

Bear population census

While professional wildlife research has been taking place in Spain, Croatia and Greece for many years, basic data on the bear population is often still lacking in the countries of the Western Balkans. Some data has already been collected - for example using camera traps, hair traps, faecal samples or by examining bears that have been found dead - but up till now this data has not been systematically compiled. Through a genetic study carried out with EuroNatur support in December 2021, Tomaž Skrbinšek from the University of Ljubljana is providing an important building block that will help to complete the bear map of the Balkans. The biology professor and his team are analysing genetic material from the Prespa Lake area in the border triangle region of Albania, North Macedonia and Greece. From over 200 faecal samples, it has been possible to identify 51 bears. It also turned out that at least two animals were "switching sides", sometimes staying in the west on the Albanian side and sometimes in the south-east, on the Greek side of Lake Prespa. Another genetic study in August 2022 examined the bear population in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Montenegro. The findings of Tomaž's team suggest that there is currently little genetic exchange between bears in the south-west Balkans (Albania and Greece) and those northeast of Montenegro. Further studies are needed, because the more precisely we know where bears are living and how many of them there are, the more effectively we can protect them.

Bear protectors in the forest

The bear intervention team in Bosnia and Herzegovina prepares the trap into which, a short time later, Maglić the bear will walk.

© CZZS
stunned brown bear in front of biologists

Maglić was the first bear in Bosnia and Herzegovina to be fitted with a GPS transmitter collar. When this photo was taken, he had only been anaesthetised. A short time afterwards he disappeared unharmed into the forest.

© CZZS

Government in Bosnia and Herzegovina also playing its part

In Bosnia and Herzegovina, the national bear management plan was submitted to the Ministry of Agriculture, Water Management and Forestry in 2022. It sets out important cornerstones for bear conservation, such as scientific data collection, mapping of bear areas, training of experts, setting up administrative structures for bear management and much more. In addition, in May 2022, the intervention team led by vet Oliver Stevanović succeeded in fitting a transmitter collar to a bear in Bosnia and Herzegovina for the very first time. The Bosnian bear conservationists were supported by Professor Duško Ćirović from the University of Belgrade. They named the male bear “Maglić” after the highest mountain in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Unfortunately, just one month later, Maglić was killed by poachers. Despite this setback, the bear intervention team has proven that it is ready for action and was able to free a female bear from an illegal trap elsewhere. The work of EuroNatur's partner CZZS has also brought about a positive change in attitudes towards bears among the authorities and the public. The ministry has signalled its willingness to continue constructive cooperation, with the result that the management plan is expected to be officially adopted in 2023. Although there is still much work to be done, Bosnia and Herzegovina is now well on its way to having professional and science-based bear management.

paw of the brown bear Miglac

The huge paw belonging to brown bear Maglić

© CZZS
conservationists with pupils in the forest

Aleksandar Perović from CZZS introduces schoolchildren to brown bear ecology.

© CZIP

Bear teams and environmental education

Meanwhile, in addition to Bosnia and Herzegovina, both Montenegro and Albania have also been provided with coordination groups and intervention teams. The bear teams consist of several experts and a network of volunteers. They are able to respond to urgent problems and undertake data gathering. To aid bear population monitoring - the scientific evaluation of bear numbers - hair and camera traps were deployed and additional volunteers received practical training. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, five beekeepers were equipped with electric fences. In addition, environmental education work in schools, media work and interaction with the population has continued and been intensified. In Montenegro, there was an art project on the subject of "Protecting large carnivores", and EuroNatur partner CZIP ran an educational project on the ecology of bears, wolves and lynx for Year 7 pupils and biology students.

The newly established intervention teams are a huge step forward for bear conservation in the Balkans.

Aleksandra-Anja Dragomirović Aleksandra-Anja Dragomirović, Biologist at CZZS
EuroNatur partner organisation in Bosnia and Herzegovina

Partners: Center for the Protection and Research of Birds of Montenegro (CZIP), Center for Environment in Bosnia and Herzegovina (CZZS)
Funding: Bernd Thies Foundation, Fondazione Capellino, EuroNatur donors


What our donors say

As part of a survey, we wrote to around three and a half thousand EuroNatur supporters. Almost 15 percent of the addressees then invested their time and energy to answer questions about EuroNatur via an online form. Here is a small selection.
 

“I support EuroNatur because...

...Europe needs wilderness. (Lutz Horn)

...I trust the people who work there. (Dietrich Langbein)

...I find the dedication and also the successes of EuroNatur impressive. (Gunda Deermann)

...I am confident that my money is being used wisely and that it is going where it will help. (Andreas Gabler)

...because, in my estimation, this organisation is one of the most credible and efficient actors in European environmental and nature conservation. (Herbert Österreicher)

…because EuroNatur has clear goals, which it pursues in painstaking detail and through good cooperation with other nature conservation organisations. (Dieter Meister)

...EuroNatur works transparently and efficiently. (Jessica Glaß)

Our next big challenges

mother bear with cub
© Jakub Mrocek/deposit

Rugged terrain, political instability and multiple national borders make bear conservation in the Balkans a particular challenge. But with the support of EuroNatur donors, we will continue to work to protect the last bears in the Balkans. Among the things we want to do are:

  • Achieve the adoption of a national bear management plan in Montenegro too.
  • Continue and expand bear monitoring across the Balkans.
  • Campaign for protective fences along motorways in Croatia.
  • Train local nature conservationists and further promote transnational cooperation.
  • In Spain, we will continue to support Fapas in their work in core bear areas as well as in potential new bear habitats in the south and west of the Cantabrian Mountains.

Please help us to continue supporting bear conservation in Europe by making a donation!

How you can help
Donation

Future needs nature. EuroNatur cares for it. Please help anyway you can. With your donation you will make an effective contribution to protect brown bears in Europe.

Bear sponsorship

Once widespread throughout Europe, brown bears now only live in mountain regions that are difficult to access. Help protect bears and their habitats.

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