Saving Romania's Brown Bears, Sharing Lessons About Coxistence, Conservation
by Louisa Willcox
David and I recently spent a couple weeks in the company of a group of Romanians who had come to the U.S. to learn what we had to offer about coexisting with grizzly bears, which are of the same species, Ursus arctos, as their local “brown bears.” They had come to Seeley Lake, Montana, for a week-long workshop sponsored by Humane Society International (HSI), because, in the words of Gabriel “Gabi” Paun of Agent Green, a Romanian environmental group: “we are losing our bears, not learning.” Afterwards, Gabi, Laszlo Gal, Levante ("Levi") Peter and Lajos Berde (see their photos below) spent another week based at our place where they covered an astonishing amount of Yellowstone by car and foot, and where we continued our fascinating conversations about people and bears.
We Americans alternate between bragging and complaining about the roughly 700 grizzlies that live, isolated, in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. But Romania’s Carpathian Mountains support 10-times more bears, an astonishing 7,000 or so, in an area of roughly the same size – more than in all other European countries combined, and, of them all, the most genetically robust. I came into the workshop believing that we have as much or more to learn from Romanians as they do from us, and I believe that even more strongly now. (For more, listen to this delightful interview with Manon Dene, Paris-based advocate for HSI, Episode 31– and here is my can't-miss interview with Gabi, Episodes 32 and 33).
Bears everywhere require ample habitat and human tolerance if they are to survive. But tolerance is often hard to come by, no matter where people live. Despite major historical, cultural, and political differences, Americans and Romanians have much in common: a tendency to be careless with garbage, to whine about government regulations, to resist basic precautionary measures, and to take frustrations out on bears (and wolves) for what is not working in our lives. With more and more of us, the world of bears everywhere is shrinking, with climate change compounding the problems we create. We humans need to surmount limitations of all sorts—fear, ignorance, greed, lack of resources, even peevishness—if bears are to have any chance of surviving.
That is why our guests came to see what we consider to be models of successful coexistence, in the Blackfoot River drainage and Swan Valley of western Montana. Ranchers and other collaborators involved in the Blackfoot Challenge have succeeded in reducing conflicts with bears by over 90% since the early 2000s—stringing electric fence around calving areas, promptly removing (and composting) dead livestock, employing phone trees to notify neighbors when a grizzly is nearby. In the more densely forested Swan Valley, another nonprofit organization, Swan Valley Connections, fosters coexistence by providing residents with bear-resistant garbage storage systems and installing electric fence around chicken pens.
These efforts enjoy one thing that is scarce in Romania: money and a full-time staff. In the US, numerous donors and nonprofit organizations have dedicated themselves to tackling on-the-ground coexistence challenges—an altogether rare phenomenon in less affluent eastern European countries such as Romania.
But if Romania is poor, why does it boast so many bears?
Of Lush Habitat and A Legacy of Communism
Answer: abundant nuts from beech and oak trees plus berries and domestic fruit makes the Carpathians dream bear habitat. (See some photos below). Its forests, which comprise some of the largest tracts of hardwoods left in temperate zones of the earth, have remained (more or less) intact during the 20th Century largely because of prohibitions against logging and development by authoritarian rulers.
Until his assassination in 1989, Romania’s brutal dictator, Nicolae Ceausecu, protected the forests with an iron fist. A passionate brown bear hunter, he preserved bears so that he and his cronies, and none others, could have the pleasure of periodically gunning them down. He demanded that bears be fed corn to ensure they would grow large and be easy targets when his helicopter landed nearby. He was known to have slaughtered dozens of bears in a single day. One of his trophies weighed 1400 pounds.
But there are other factors that have contributed to sustaining Romania’s wealth of bears. There are stringent restrictions on gun ownership, which means that sheep herders in the high country must rely instead on their wits, guardian dogs, and careful penning of herds at night. In fact, people and bears have lived cheek by jowl in a sort of negotiated truce for thousands of years—in contrast to the western US where newly arrived European settlers immediately dedicated themselves to slaughtering grizzlies. It probably also hasn’t hurt that Romania has been an economic backwater, which has curbed avaricious multi-national companies bent on ruthlessly exploiting its natural resources—at least until recently. And, Romanians are, by and large, very proud of their bears. But the real story, of course, is more complicated.
Romania’s Surprising Ban on Trophy Hunting
In an amazing move, the Romanian government banned trophy hunting in 2016, not just for bears but also wolves and wildcats. (See Grizzly Times piece on the ban here.) For the previous 15 years, following the fall of Communism, rich hunters from especially Germany, Italy and Spain descended on Romania’s forests to gun down big brown bears over stations where the bears had been lured to feed on corn, candy, and other human offal. Needless-to-say, trophy hunting 600 or so brown bears a year became big business, with hunters shelling out the equivalent of $15,000 to bag a bear.
The kicker was that Romania joined the European Union in 2007. The EU’s Habitat Directive ostensibly banned member states from trophy hunting bears and other carnivores. But, after banning lynx hunting 2010, Romania’s politicians held out in the case of bears and wolves, taking advantage of a loophole that allowed hunting as a way to resolve documented livestock conflicts.
Then in the fall of 2016, Romania’s Environment Minister, Christiana Pasca Palmer, stopped the charade, noting that “hunting for money was already illegal, but it was given a green light anyway.” Her decision cited science, much of it conducted in the US and Canada, that shows that hunting exacerbates rather than alleviates conflicts with livestock. Simply put, removing a dominant male allows young, out-of-control males to move into his home range and run amok. (For more on this, listen to Grizzly Times' interview, Episode 29 with Dr. Rob Wielgus, one of the leading researchers on how hunting impacts large carnivores).
Even though hunting permits are still granted to kill individual problem bears, Romania has since witnessed a backlash, along the lines of what we are now seeing in Greater Yellowstone, where mortality has spiked in a spate of apparent revenge-killing in the wake of the court-ordered restoration of Endangered Species Act protections last month.
There as here, trophy hunters have not gone gentle into that good night. They continue to agitate nationally and at the EU level to resume a hunt. But their campaign seems unlikely to succeed at this juncture, in part because of the widespread view in Romania that trophy hunting is just another example of cronyism, corruption and elitism.
At the workshop, we saw first-hand one of the lead agitators, Harghita County President Csaba Borboly. Mr. Borboly could have passed for a mafia Don or a Safari Club director. Take your pick. Unsmiling and with dead eyes, he held forth for the first two days, making many of the Romanians in the room visibly nervous. Some of his choice quotes included:
“With so many bears, we have something of a war on people… We have many bears right now in our cities that are attacking people, who are afraid and cannot protect themselves. (Truth: conflicts in Romania, as here, are rare).
“People are not allowed to go out on the street after 6 pm because of the bears.” (Truth: a complete fabrication).
“The NGO’s don’t care about people or the safety of our communities. They just come and live on our backs, destroying the solutions we come up with [hunting] and generating mass media.” (Truth: Yes, most NGOs generate media to oppose trophy hunting, which does not equate to lack of concern for people).
“The biggest problem is that solutions come from Brussels, Bucharest, and ignore people.” (Just replace “Brussels” with “DC,” and this line could be heard in any coffee shop in Cody, Wyoming).
Listening to Borboly, I wondered if proponents of trophy hunting all work from the same secret playbook. But more importantly, what is it about some people that causes them to demonize predators and lust for trophies? Why do some humans fabricate demons of any sort to exploit in their pursuit of power and money? Romanians hardly have a corner on this market, but incidents of violence against the country’s bears (and wolves) are deeply disturbing. Here is a particularly tragic tale of a terrified cub that was gunned down by police off a rooftop after being dumped in town by some Romanian malefactor.
Even in a country with considerable restrictions on gun ownership, there are a hundred ways to kill a bear. Poison seems to be particularly popular, in a slow acting concoction to make sure the animal dies miles away from where he ingested it. In a 2017 story by The Guardian, Borboly recommended: “carbide in wax to burn the bear’s stomach, bread soaked in antifreeze, rat poison dipped in honey.”
Csaba Domokos, a bear specialist with Milvus Group, an NGO in the Harghita region, made this observation: “When [Borboly] says something, even if it is completely insane, you have to listen because you know that everyone else around here is…“[Borboly] has convinced everyone in these rural regions that the only thing standing between them and total mayhem is hunters. Without hunting, he has helped encourage the belief that vigilante killing of bears is the only way for people to keep themselves and their children safe. And we don’t know where that ends.”
Borboly reminded me of the reprobates around Cody who are actively encouraging acts of violence against grizzlies. Such “Terror Entrepreneurs” deliberately incite fear in others, adding fuel to the fire of existing frustrations. But this dynamic is fundamentally built on victimizing something or somebody, human or animal—the more marginalized and voiceless, the better. Needless-to-say, Terror Entrepreneurs such as Mr. Borboly are hugely destructive to any civil society.
The Sheep Problem
Raising sheep is part of a proud tradition in Romania going back thousands of years. But the country has also recently emerged as the leading exporter of mutton in Europe, with about 1.5 million sheep sold annually primarily to Middle Eastern and North Africa markets. The country's expanding sheep numbers pose mounting threats to streams, the land, and bears.
In summer months, herders trail sheep bands from lower-elevation farm lands to the high mountains. From a bear’s perspective, sheep are an easy meal. In contrast to the US, most herders in Romania rely on guardian dogs and night pens to deter bears and wolves. In fact, through thousands of years of selection, herders have developed a breed of dog that is especially well-suited to the rugged Carpathians.
But dogs there have a downside, as some go feral, especially if underfed, and pack up to kill wildlife. They also carry diseases such as rabies and parvo, which can be transmitted to wolves and other wildlife. They attack people too – far more often than bears do. And wolves know full well how to lure dogs into the woods to kill them. In fact, one study showed that 25% of the diet of Romanian wolves was comprised of dog.
Given centuries-old traditions, changes in agricultural practice come slowly. Today, tools such as electric fence to protect stock are viewed with skepticism by many farmers. Plus, proper construction of an electric fence necessitates 5 strands rather than the 1-strand commonly used by Romanian farmers – but prospectively at a cost that is beyond the financial reach of many.
Laszlo Gal suggested that sheep be removed from forested habitat in Romania and maintained within the carrying capacity of the land. And, dogs that stray far from the herds they are guarding and forage on their own in the wilderness, he suggested, should be eliminated.
Gabi pointed to the unsustainable, high numbers of sheep, 12 million total in the country. Current levels of sheep grazing are far above levels that might be supported on the basis of maintaining tradition, he says.
And for Romania’s bears, sheep are only part of the problem.
The days of Communist dictators executing anyone who illegally logged or hunted are now long over. And Romania’s vast primeval forests are valuable. In recent years, the country’s National Parks, small postage stamps of untouched forests, have come under attack by large multinational corporations, which bribe local officials for the privilege of hauling off priceless trees to sell throughout Europe. Just last year, Greenpeace reported that Romanian authorities identified 12,487 cases of illegal logging, up by 32 percent year-on-year.
In 2009, Gabi Paun founded a Romanian grassroots group called Agent Green to expose the mounting problem of illegal logging. After working with Greenpeace for decades, Gabi perfected the art of Guerilla Theater, captured here. Deploying such tactics, he and other advocates enjoyed some significant successes simply by embarrassing corrupt officials and venal corporate executives in the media. Perhaps not surprisingly, he has nearly paid for his commitment to Romania’s forests with his life, narrowly surviving several assassination attempts sponsored by government Mafioso. (Gabi talks more about these harrowing adventures in this Grizzly Times interview.)
But loss of mast-producing trees is not the only threat to key bear foods. In a trend similar to the US, more and more people are heading into Romania’s hills to pick berries and mushrooms for personal consumption and, increasingly, for profit. Some hope to get a selfie with a bear posed artfully in the background. And, like here, more and more people are riding motorcycles and mountain bikes in previously secure bear habitat. Adding to this destructive mix, illegal garbage dumping is also widespread, especially in places that create collateral conflicts between bears and people. Even more problematic, feeding stations designed to provision wild boars continue to attract bears, often in areas near villages. Even Borboly supported more restrictions on motorcycles, and stronger legislation to stop illegal dumping of garbage in the forests, although, of course, he says nothing about feeding wildlife to benefit hunters.
As in the US, Romania’s bears are threatened by habitat degradation and a host of largely avoidable conflicts and killing. But, there are solutions.
The Promise of Ecotourism
With a large pool of conservation-minded people across Europe, viewing bears could provide a vital alternative source of income in Romania – if bear watchers could be assured a good picture. As an example of what can be done, Levante (“Levi”) Peter, a skilled nature photographer, has started up a small ecotourism business, using feeding stations strategically located far from villages. He hopes that if done right, such enterprises could become a successful business model that is perhaps widely adopted, with the promise of fostering greater acceptance of bears by local residents.
Levi says: “Bears are my second family. I want to show that they are good, and that people need to learn to behave, not the bears.”
Borboly too conceded that ecotourism holds promise, and even some hunting associations are now providing bear watching opportunities. But, as with trophy hunting, if unregulated or otherwise done poorly, bear-viewing could create as many problems as it solves, including becoming entangled in the tentacles of the government-corporate Mafioso—no doubt the tacit hope behind Borboly’s advocacy.
Upgrading the Practice of Coexistence
One thing that Romania’s bears have going for them are impressive government managers like Lajos Berde of Covasna County’s Environmental Protection Agency. His knowledge of bear science matched or exceeded that of his American counterparts in the workshop. An estimated 700-850 bears live in Covasna County, which is similar in size to the Blackfoot Challenge area with its 60 or so grizzlies. And about 214,000 people live in the County, compared to just 9,000 in the Blackfoot drainage. So…16-times more bears and 23-times more people, all crowded into an area of similar size and somehow making a go of it.
The point is that something has been working for bears and people in Covasna County and elsewhere in Romania for a long, long time. You don’t build up a brown bear population of that size with so many people if local residents believe that bears are Monsters of God. Lajos is quick to emphasize that that younger people are even more enthusiastic then their elders about bears – which holds promise for the future.
His biggest problems are centered around a lack of resources and effective coordination among agencies. And, Borboly’s public rants don’t help. To Lajos, one problem is the country’s culture of complaining: people may see a source of conflict but prefer to whine rather than fix it. Sound familiar? Gabi agrees and adds that Communism, which enforced collective work, has left communities suspicious about government-driven processes. And, attitudes towards government and outsiders are probably not helped by centuries of being overrun by conquering armies, starting with Genghis Khan’s horde.
In such a climate, Gabi and Lajos concur that NGOs could play a bigger role in pulling people together and creating new programs to resolve bear conflicts, as they have in the Blackfoot drainage and Swan Valley.
Raising awareness of and appreciation for Romanian bears is also important. All the workshop participants took note of the immense marketing hype around grizzlies in the Missoula environs. Grizzlies are portrayed on billboards, on storefronts, in gift shops, and even in restrooms at the airport. Despite vigorous disagreements about strategies, the Romanians enthusiastically agreed that more could be done along these lines to make Europeans more aware of the country’s abundant bears and unparalleled wilderness.
A Way Forward
In the end, the future of bears in Romania will be determined not only by broad public support in Romania and elsewhere in Europe, but by the quiet commitment of people like Lajos working inside the government, by people such as Gabi working passionately outside it, and by people such as Levi showing through example a different ecologically benign way to make a living in the company of bears. In my experience with grizzly bears here, coordinated multi-pronged, multi-scale strategies involving habitat protection, effective coexistence, and the cultivation of public and political support both locally and nationally are all essential – and the talent is clearly in place to pursue such strategies in Romania. (Click on one of these photos -- thank you Lazslo! -- to take a tour of Romania and our Romanian guests).
In both countries, hopefully we can hang onto our current bans on trophy hunting. Addressing the broader problem of corruption and criminal violence presents a bigger problem. Terror Entrepreneurs seem to have growing influence in both countries, where the voiceless and the innocent are increasingly vulnerable. If we don’t challenge their behavior and rhetoric, not only bears will be endangered, but also civil society.
With so much at stake we need to take advantage of opportunities to learn from each other about what works and what doesn’t to foster coexistence and ensure healthy bear populations. To us, Romania provides an example of how lots of bears can mix it up with lots of people for a long, long time. Romanians may not have much money, but they certainly have deep cultural connections with bears. In turn, we have the advantage of strong environmental laws, affluence, and symbolic icons like Yellowstone Park. Together we may both deepen our knowledge and commitment to do justice by the bears we are blessed to have among us.
For more cool photos and Laszlo's blog, see: