A bear in the backyard – a photo essay

In the sparsely populated settlements that lie in the shadow of the Carpathians, the presence of bears is strongly felt. Habitat and therefore food is becoming rarer for bears due to illegal logging. In search of food, bears have to descend from the old forests to villages more often, which eventually results in conflicts between man and bear.

  • Bears appear in the quiet streets of a town in Transylvania. When night falls and the streets become quiet, the bears come out looking for food

The booming population is a result of the communist era, when Nicolae Ceaușescu ruled the Romanian lands and obsessively encroached on nature. He created bear feeding stations by ordering cattle carcasses to be dumped in the forests to increase the population.

Ceaușescu also banned bear hunting, which was an act of self-interest. Only he and his party members were allowed to hunt bears, and horrific stories from this period still resonate. His actions resulted in Romania now being home to more than half of the total population of brown bears in Europe. While other countries had to come up with reinstatement programs, Romanians are suffering the consequences from Ceaușescu of his “help”.

With this picture story, we want to show a beautiful, but often overlooked part of Europe. One of the last places on this overcrowded continent that still harbors true wilderness. Where people have lived with large predators since the beginning of time. From the remains of humans who lived among the now extinct cave bear 35,000 years ago, to a dictator who forcibly intervened in the bear population, to a modern society where almost everyone has a bear story.

Romanians have a rich history with bears, but have always struggled to coexist with these large predators. Today, villages are raided, tourist groups attacked and shepherds bring their sheep to the highest peaks of mountain ridges to protect their flocks, but Romanians also praise the bear as part of their winter traditions.

Life flourished after the fall of the regime in 1989, but in a short time this joy of having freedom showed its dark sides. It takes time to recover from a fixed set of rules implemented by a regime. Consequently, this unfamiliar lifestyle resulted in unemployment and disorder. This absence of Romanians’ sense of responsibility can often be seen in the way they spend their free time, which is mostly outdoors. From camping, to fishing, to chasing bears away in the backyard on drunken nights.

However, the natural carrying capacity of the bears is too low, so many villages and even larger cities in Transylvania such as Brasov are raided by bears. It is believed that there are around 6,000 bears roaming the Romanian forests. The fight to live with bears eventually gained a priority on the government’s agenda, but the discussion about bear management is complex because of all the stakeholders involved.

  • Above, a large female bear explores her natural habitat. Romania has one of Europe’s last remaining ancient forests. It is estimated that around 6,000 bears live in these forests

  • Around 300 bears live at the Libearty Bear Sanctuary in Zarnesti, where the enclosures are designed to recreate their natural forest habitat. Bears are usually solitary animals, but as long as the bears have enough food, they can live next to each other

The hunting associations provide figures for the total number of bears in their area each year. Based on this, the government calculates an annual quota of bears to be shot, but the hunters profit by claiming artificially high numbers, which leads to skewed results. In September 2019, Romania’s Senate passed a bill to remove the brown bear from the list of protected species and allow seasonal hunting. Environmental organizations responded by arguing that there was neither reliable evidence of the population size nor the effects of the new legislation. Recently, the Romanian Ministry of the Environment has announced that thorough research will be carried out to determine the actual situation.

  • Several towns in Transylvania, Romania, worship bears with a traditional dance to fertilize and purify the soil, ward off evil spirits and to welcome the new year. The relationship between Romanians and these large predators has a rich history and this tradition is unique to the country

Meanwhile, in several towns in Transylvania bears are worshiped every winter by the traditional dance Ursul. A dance to fertilize and purify the earth, drive away evil spirits and to welcome in the new year. In addition to worshiping, people have also created ways to make money from bears with expeditions and ecotourism.

Although all this seems encouraging, both for the bear population and the local population, the bears still raid pens, break through fences and destroy crops. These “trouble bears” are often relocated to sanctuaries, but the capacity of these facilities is increasingly strained due to the species’ continued loss of habitat.

While this is happening in the villages, higher up in the mountains, shepherds go to sleep each night covered in a thick blanket of fog, guarded by a pack of specially bred livestock guard dogs, not knowing what the night may bring.

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