Victoria Hillman is a National Geographic Explorer and Research Director for the Transylvanian Wildlife Project overseeing research on carnivores and biodiversity of Europe’s last great wilderness. Follow the expedition here on Explorers Journal through updates from the team.
The European Brown Bear (Ursus arcto) is one of, if not the the iconic species of Romania and a symbol of the wilderness and forest. Romania is home to a huge population of bears, mainly found in the Carpathian Mountains and there is no doubt that they are a real tourist attractant.
Although the Transylvanian Wildlife Project is mainly concerned with the wild population numbers and their habitat, we took time out to visit the Libearty Bear Sanctuary in Zarnesti to learn about the work they are doing to rescue bears from appalling conditions and give them a new lease of life within large naturalistic enclosures along with education that will hopefully help protect the wild bears for the future.
The European brown bear is now a protected species under the Bern Convention (The Convention on the Conservation of European Wildlife and Natural habitats) and CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) under Appendix II but it wasn’t until 2005 that the ownership of bears taken from the wild became illegal. In 2007 Romania joined the European Union and as such had to abide by new laws pertaining to the standard of animal management within captivity in the for of the EU Zoo Directive, this meant that for many bears in zoos that could not meet the standards euthanasia was their fate.
The Libearty Bear Sanctuary in Zarnesti (just outside Brasov) was founded in 2005 in a collaboration between Christina Lapis (co-founder of AMP (Asociatia Milioane De Prieteni) and the WSPA (World Society for the Protection of Animals) following investigations of reports from tourists about bears being kept in tiny cages outside restaurants and petrol stations across Romania. The sanctuary is dedicated to the memory of one particular bear, Maya, and the realisation of a dream and a promise Christina made to that bear that no other bears would have to endure the pain and suffering that she went through. Today the sanctuary is home to over 70 bears each with their own unique story to tell that have been rescued, nursed back to health and now live a life of peace in the forests, meadows and pools of their large enclosures.
To see these bears evokes mixed feelings, especially as just a few days prior to our visit we saw a completely wild bear at the research site (not one that has been fed or semi habituated). On the one hand it is encouraging to see the dedicated people who want to save these bears from a life of misery that no animal should have to endure just for entertainment, but on the other hand you can’t help but think that they belong in the wilderness.
Many of these bears were not born in captivity but taken from the wild and subjected to varying levels of cruelty to make them perform,something many of them will never forget and something that can still be seen in their stereotypic behaviours. These are patterns of repetitive, invariant behaviours with no obvious goal or function and are not seen in animals in the wild, they are caused by one or more of the following: separation from natural habitat, caging, loss of normal life, control by humans and the use of drugs, poor diet and any other factors that would induce mental or physical stress.
On a personal note it was very interesting to hear about their treatment which has caused the sterotypic behaviours as it is something I studied for my MSc thesis albeit in ring tailed lemurs. Animals suffer stress just as we humans can suffer, but they cannot speak to us instead they start to exhibit abnormal and often repetitive behaviours, unfortunately there are occasions when a stress behaviour becomes so engrained that it is never forgotten and still performed at the presence of humans despite the removal of the stimulus that originally caused it.
Walking around the enclosures (of which there are three) watching the bears and hearing their individual stories is an eye-opening experience of just how deep the levels of cruelty can go, but to now see these bears doing what bears do is amazing but you can still see the pain when you look into their eyes. To have the opportunity to visit the sanctuary was wonderful, it is not a zoo but a place of hope for the future.
These bears can never be released back into the wild, but through their stories they are helping to educate children from across Romania about not only bears but about wildlife protection and conservation in general and to change attitudes about this charismatic mammal. For the majority of these children this is the only experience they will ever have of brown bears, and by being able to watch them doing what bears do along with hearing of their stories hopefully a new generation of biologists, conservations and all round animal lovers will be inspired to get out and respect, enjoy and converse what they have now for the future.
A huge thank you goes out to the staff of the sanctuary for taking the time to take us around, telling us all about the sanctuary and the bears that now call it home, there are still an unknown number of bears out there that need rescuing so please keep going. In the meantime we will continue our research into the wild populations and how we can work to protect not only them but also their habitat and all the other animals they share it with.
Next up I will be talking about the importance of invertebrates and the fun of trying to record them, including a video!