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  • Louisa Willcox

What Can We Learn From Romania's Grizzly Experience?

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In an astonishing move, the government of Romania recently banned trophy hunting of the country’s large carnivores. This was welcome reprieve for the country’s 5,000 or so brown bears (of the same species as grizzly bears), which constitute the largest population remaining in Europe outside of Russia. Several thousand wolves and hundreds of lynx and wildcat which find refuge in the verdant forests of Romania as well are also now protected from sport hunting.

Even those intimately familiar with wildlife management in the country did not see the ban on hunting coming. In fact, the government had been sending out opposite signals as it ratcheted up hunting in recent years, culminating in a 550 bear quota last year (link). And for this financially strapped country, bear hunting brings big bucks, with wealthy international trophy seekers paying $10,000 Euros or about $11,000 for the thrill of gunning down brown bears and hauling their heads and hides back home for decoration (link).

What makes last month’s announcement so amazing is that this ban happened despite a long tradition of trophy hunting bears. Indeed, former Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu was famous for slaughtering grizzly bears –as many as 400 during his despotic reign, including 24 in a single day (link). This from the safety and comfort of blinds perched above troughs where bears fed on corn.

So why did Romania ban trophy hunting of bears and other large carnivores? What is next for bear conservation there? How does Romania compare to the US in terms of management approaches and human attitudes? And, are there lessons that can be drawn from Romania that could help us with recovering grizzly bears in the US?

Interestingly, closer scrutiny raises more questions than provide answers for bear advocates in both countries.

The Carpathians and Its People: Big Enough for the Great Bear

It is no accident that brown bears flourish in Romania. The rugged Carpathian Mountains are rich in beech, oak and wild fruit trees that provide high grade bear foods. Arcing from the Ukraine and Poland south and west through Romania, the Carpathians are a big, imposing mountain range, on par with the size of the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem.

Farmers graze sheep and cows throughout this region, aided in many cases by livestock guardian dogs, including the Carpathian sheep dog that has long been bred for the purpose (link). Husbandry reflects a culture that has co-evolved with large carnivores, with the night penning of livestock among other routine, precautionary practices. Compared to ranchers in the US, Romanian farmers, who typically do not carry weapons, are far less lethal to bears.

Romania does not formally protect wilderness in the ways that we are blessed with in the western US. Indeed, people live in relatively high densities in all but the most inhospitable parts of the mountains. Even so, the country is still plenty wild judging from its wealth of large carnivores.

Despite their similar size, the Carpathians support perhaps 7 times more bears than does Greater Yellowstone. One big reason for this difference is the practice of supplemental feeding in Romania. Gamekeepers feed bears corn, rotten fruit, and a special “bear chow” at feeding stations. Despite this practice, the phenomenon of food-conditioned “nuisance” bears is comparatively uncommon, isolated to the outskirts of a few towns.

Romania’s Ancient Bear Cult

The brown bear is fully knit into the fabric of Romania’s culture. Even to this day an annual bear festival, featuring a bear dance, is held to chase away the last year’s evil spirits during the holiday season (link). Dancers don real bear skins and heads decorated with blood-red tassels. A bear “trainer” in full traditional garb leads the procession of thirty of so “bears” down village streets accompanied by traditional chants and drum beats (See this cool video). Teams of these dancers compete for festival prizes.

The festival is modern adaptation of times when local gypsies, also known as Roma, brought bears into towns on leashes during the end-of-year holidays (link). Townspeople would pay the gypsies in exchange for allowing their trained bear cubs to walk on people plagued with back pain, in what was thought to be a cure.

But the bear dance has roots that predate even the Roma. The dance features a move involving the “bears” rolling over on their backs, then getting back up on their feet, in a gesture intended to symbolize death and resurrection. The timing of a dance featuring such a move is not accidental; winter solstice has long been celebrated as a time when light returns with renewal of the yearly cycle.

Since time immemorial, bears have symbolized transformation through their ability to arise seemingly reborn from the death-like state of hibernation (link). Indeed, bears may have been at the center of the oldest known religious practices documented in the archaeological treasures of Europe’s ancient caves.

In fact, some of Europe’s oldest known inhabited caves featuring the remains of both humans and bears are located in Romania. The cave of Pestera cu Oase contains evidence that people seasonally shared this subterranean space with now-extinct cave bears as long as 37,000 years ago (link). Fossils at Oase may, in fact, be the oldest modern human remains in Europe – a reminder that humans have coexisted with bears, cheek by jowl, since first arriving from Africa.

Only within the last 700 years or so has bear hunting become a defining feature of the human-bear relationship. Then as now, bears were not typically killed to be eaten, but rather for sport to entertain the elites who could afford it. Beginning about 1300, bear hunting became the pastime of nobility. In the middle ages, hunting bear was seen as proof of manhood and valor—at least among the upper crust. By the 19th century, Romania had become a destination for hunting bear and other wildlife.

Former dictator Nicolae Ceausescu took trophy hunting to an extreme level. He built up the bear population with aggressive feeding programs, and then prohibited hunting by all but his own parties, who swept in by helicopter, blasted away at bears, took photos of the piled-up trophies, and left. Between 1955 and 1989 Ceausescu’s hunting parties were responsible for killing an estimated 4,000 bears (link). After he was deposed and killed, bear hunting again became a sport more widely enjoyed—by wealthy Europeans. Until last month.

The End of Trophy Hunting of Large Carnivores: Of Science, Law and Public Opinion

Given the comparative abundance of bear and wolf populations in Romania, it seems odd that Europe’s poorest nation would choose to forego lucrative hunting opportunities. According to Csaba Domokos, a scientist who works for the Romanian nonprofit organization Milvus, the ban came about from a convergence of science, law and public opinion.

When Romania joined the European Union (EU) in 2007, the nation adopted the EU’s Habitat Directive, which granted the brown bear its highest level of legal protection. Under this Directive, killing individual animals was allowed if it could be justified on the grounds of reducing human-wildlife conflicts, but trophy hunting was not condoned (link). Yet, in Romania, sport hunting continued for a number of years under the ruse that this practice would lessen conflicts.

Yet, within the last 15 years or so, a growing body of scientific literature has emerged from around the world showing that hunting large carnivores is more likely to exacerbate livestock-related conflicts than alleviate them. (Listen here to my podcast featuring Dr. Adrian Treves, or read his recent paper, Predator Control Should Not Be a Shot in the Dark).

In addition, the estimates of bear numbers that were relied on to sustain the Romanian hunt were authoritatively called into question. (Remind you of an ecosystem close to home?) Methodologies for counting bears simply did not stand up to the scrutiny of scientists involved in an EU carnivore working group or, most recently, members of the Romanian Academy of Sciences.

And then, consider public opinion. As in other countries, public opposition to trophy hunting in Romania has skyrocketed. In an unprecedented expression of public sentiment, over 40,000 Romanian citizens (out of a population of about 19 million) signed petitions against continued sport hunting of brown bears earlier this year (link). According to Csaba, my Romanian correspondent, the citizens’ petition helped push decision-makers over the edge.

Nonetheless, many were shocked when Environment Minister Cristiana Pasca Palmer issued a decision on Oct. 4 to ban trophy hunting, not just of bears, but also of wolves, lynx and wildcats (link). Bears and other carnivores can be killed in “emergency” conflict situations, and if nonlethal approaches have been proven to fail. A new agency has been created to tackle such situations.

Whither Bear Management in Romania?

The trajectory of this debate is uncertain, as the Romanian government changes administrations in the next few months. The issue of hunting brown bears is far from settled. In a move akin to what is happening in the US, radical international trophy-hunting groups are pushing Romania to reinstitute its killing regime.

And, while bears have a reprieve from hunting for the time being, they still get tangled up in conflicts with livestock. Romanian farmers, who typically live on the cusp of economic viability, only get reimbursed for a tiny portion of the value of the stock that is killed by carnivores. They also do not get paid for the cost of instituting new systems to prevent predation, such as electric fencing.

As Domokos told a journalist at The Guardian, “Damages caused by large carnivores are a very real concern in the countryside.” But he added that “The system up until now did not work; hunting does not reduce conflicts between carnivores and humans; in fact many studies show that with wolves and large cats, it can actually increase the problem.

But the rural population believe that hunting is the answer, and unless they can be convinced otherwise, people may well start to take the problem into their own hands. The ban is a great step, but we don’t want hunting to be replaced by poaching (link).”

Coming up with resources to provide increasingly strapped farmers with sufficient economic incentives will be a tough challenge.

Meanwhile, there are new farmers in the mix who lack the experience of living with large carnivores. Subsidies by the EU are now enabling a new generation of Romanians to get in the business of farming. To the uninitiated, starting a sheep operation can seem relatively cheap and easy. But a lack of knowledge about coexistence practices can be costly for the farmer and the bear alike.

Sustaining carnivores in less affluent countries like Romania will require more resources to foster education, prevent conflicts, and somehow deal with inevitable livestock losses. If local citizens do not have a stake in the conservation of species such as brown bears, they will not persist at anything like current numbers. One thing that Romania has going for it, though, is a tradition of coexistence that goes back many hundreds, even thousands of years.

Meeting Scientific Challenges

Although the current system used by Romanian bear managers has been rejected, the cost of implementing a better method will be steep. Here, again, it is unclear how the government will secure the needed money.

Yet ample funds don’t guarantee anything. Taxpayers in the US have spent many millions on counting grizzly bears in the Yellowstone ecosystem, only to wake up to the realization that current methods are biased and unsound (link). This highlights and reinforces the need for transparent and rigorous research, in addition to adequate funding.

Transparency in science, is, in fact, an explicit goal for the EU Carnivore Working Group.

Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) also serve an important purpose in Romania. Not only are they government watchdogs, but they provide needed scientific expertise. For example, Milvus’ Domokos is regularly involved in hands-on management of bears and also sits on Romania’s Carnivore Working Group.

Researchers in Romania are also in a position to benefit from this country’s unique constituency of gamekeepers. Romania’s game-farming and hunting tradition created a professional class of people who are, for all intents and purposes, wildlife managers (link). The Carpathians are divided up into hunting areas of about 35 square miles, roughly the size of an area that a fit man can walk in a day.

Gamekeepers are responsible for monitoring wildlife and, in the case of brown bears, feeding them. At their best, they are the eyes and ears of the forest, skilled naturalists who identify individual bears by their tracks, record the details of animal’s behaviors, and keep a lookout for poachers. These skills could come in handy as researchers seek better ways to understand bears and their habitat, and reduce conflicts.

Public Protests Mounts Over Killing Animals for Sport

Although hunting is a well-established tradition in many countries, today the ethics of killing primarily for sport are being questioned as never before. In the last few weeks, Romania has become ground zero for this debate, focused on trophy hunting of large carnivores.

The country’s ban comes on the heels of the uproar over the killing of a celebrity lion named Cecil last year by a Minnesota dentist outside Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe. A tsunami of public protest has also hit the government of British Columbia (BC) over trophy hunting of grizzly bears in the province.

In BC as well as the US, Indian Tribes are leading voices in current efforts to protect grizzly bears from being killed for sport. In the US, an unprecedented coalition of 50 Tribes has passed resolutions opposing trophy hunting of grizzly bears and removal of Endangered Species Act protections for bears in Greater Yellowstone (link). On top of this, over 100 tribes in the US and Canada have recently signed a treaty that supports grizzly bear conservation (link).

Across Europe and North America, a decline in hunter numbers and growing opposition to animal cruelty during recent decades speak to broader cultural shifts now underway. Bears are one of many species that will benefit from growing demand for more benevolent treatment of animals.

What Can We Learn from Romania’s Grizzly Experience?

Romania’s deliberations over the ban on trophy hunting also serves to remind us of how important it is to consult public opinion as well as a broad spectrum of scientists in making public decisions. Here in the iconic Yellowstone ecosystem, politics routinely trumps all other values when it comes to managing wildlife, including grizzly bears.

If Romania can embrace the rigors of science and respond to a new tide of national public opinion, why not us?

Today, as the spotlight shines ever more brightly on livestock-bear conflicts in North America, Romania has potentially much to teach us. Its traditions involving close monitoring of stock, night penning sheep, and using specialized guard dogs, could alleviate conflicts in the US, as they have in Romania for hundreds of years.

Romania’s gamekeeper tradition also serve to remind us that people who spend their lives outdoors watching what is happening in nature are important. Here in the US, professional wildlife managers are spending more and more of their time behind computers running models, and less time in the field. Despite our relative affluence, we may be increasingly ignorant about how bears and other species are actually adapting to changes in their environment. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

Overt inclusion of NGO’s in policy deliberations by government managers could help alleviate the current polarized climate surrounding grizzly bears in the US. Right now, the “us” and “them” mentality of most grizzly bear management contributes to unnecessary animosity. The fact is, here as in Romania, NGO’s have considerable expertise and can help the government solve problems.

In the end, Romanians as well as Americans may find much to learn from each other through swapping of stories about what’s been tried, and what’s succeeded or failed in helping people co-exist with bears. Since we cannot expect bears to change, it is up to us humans to find the change in ourselves, our institutions, and our democratic societies, drawing on the collective wisdom of the many, as opposed to the narrow perspectives of the privileged few.

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