How much can Romania bear?

Brasov, Romania: Nearly 100 Eurasian brown bears call Romania's Libearty??? Bear Sanctuary home.

Located seven kilometres east of Zarnesti in Transylvania's Carpathian Mountains, the 69-hectare property opens its gates to tourists each morning, a little after feeding time, when the animals are at their most lively and photogenic.

There's Max, a giant brown bear, almost black, who's gone blind from all the salt water his owner used to inject into his eyes to disorient and confuse him, allowing tourists to get their pictures taken without having to worry about being mauled or bitten.

There's Monica, who spent 15 years in a Bucharest zoo, and Martinica, who spent the first 10 years of his life caged outside a monastery. There's Mario and Marko from Albania, Misha from Georgia, even Betsy from Texas, who worked in a circus, lived nine years in a chicken coop and developed serious stomach issues after being fed nothing but fast food.

The majority of the sanctuary's bears are rescue animals. But other more recent arrivals - such as Epison and her two cubs, who have only been here three months - are wild animals with no history of abuse. They're only here because they found a restaurant and started to hang out around the garbage bins.

"Epison was coming down to the village to find food for her babies," says Cristina Lapis, who founded Libearty in 2005. "I don't like to take wild bears, but they would have been killed if I hadn't. The Environment Minister called me and asked me to take them."

Romania is home to 60 per cent of Europe's brown bear population, a legacy of Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, who kept the country stocked with animals for him to hunt even as he more or less banned the practice for everyone else.

The number of bears has long been believed to hover somewhere around 6000.

"But I would say we have at least a thousand more this year," says game management expert Alexandru Gridan from Romania's National Institute for Research and Development in Forestry.

"This is nearly twice the country's carrying capacity [the number of animals a habitat can support sustainably]."

Most of the country's bears are in Transylvania, which means a region of the country less than half the size of Victoria contains roughly 15 times the number of bears that currently live in California's Yosemite National Park.

The numbers are disputed, but one thing is certain: after the Romanian government banned the hunting of brown bears, wolves, lynx and wild cats in a surprise decision late last year, the number of incidents involving bears increased dramatically.

The decision was widely seen as a response to popular opposition to the trophy hunting trade, which exploded with Romania's accession to the European Union in 2007.

In June, authorities temporarily closed Poenari Castle after tourists came face to face with a mother bear and her cubs. A month later, two Transylvanian shepherds were injured in a bear attack.

In August, the BBC posted a video online showing amateur footage of bears rummaging around in urban bins, charging locals who got too close and getting into scraps with dogs. A young man told a local reporter why the people from his village were out in the street. "A bear entered an old woman's house," he said, "and ate the pancakes from her table."

"There have been at least 10 times the number of incidents that there were last year," Gridan says. "Attacks, damage to livestock and crops. These are just the ones we know about."

Every summer, Australia debates the morality of culling sharks in the interest of human safety. In the United States, where reintroduction programs have brought the grey wolf back from the brink of extinction and thus back into people's lives, the question of hunting is also regularly debated.

A female grey wolf and pups in Lassen County, California.

A female grey wolf and pups in Lassen County, California. Photo: US Forest Service via AP

Wolves, incidentally, were this year removed from the endangered species list in Wyoming, where the hunting season opened last weekend. A dozen wolves - more than a quarter of the total number that can be legally killed in the state over the next three months - were killed in the first 40 hours. Experts suggested that maybe the animals had become "naive" after being protected for so long.

In West Bengal, conservation efforts have seen the tiger population climb as well, and the number of fatal tiger attacks along with them, while lion attacks continue to raise questions about the relationship between game management, trophy hunting and conservation in countries such as Zimbabwe.

Walter Palmer, left,  poses with the corpse of Cecil the lion. Cecil's death reignited the debate over trophy hunting and conservation in Zimbabwe.

Walter Palmer, left, poses with the corpse of Cecil the lion. Cecil's death in 2015 reignited the debate over trophy hunting and conservation in Zimbabwe. Photo: Supplied

Romania has responded to its own particular crisis, reversing last year's decision to protect the bears, albeit only slightly. In August, Environment Minister Gratiela Gavrilescu announced that the government would allow 140 bears and 79 wolves to be killed or relocated before the end of this year, with so-called "nuisance animals" taking precedence.

Everything would take place "under supervision", Gavrilescu said, in order to "prevent trophy hunting".

The decision immediately found itself in the crosshairs. A spokesperson for the Humane Society International described it as a "U-turn" that "threatens the very survival of bears and wolves in Romania". Animal rights groups accused the government of giving in to hunting interests, much as hunting interests had accused the government a year earlier of throwing rural populations under the bus.

But Gridan rejected the decision from the other side of the cultural divide. "This is a drop in the bucket," he says. "The problem is not 'problem bears'. The problem is the number of bears." He says it desperately needs to be reduced.

Verifying the size of the bear population is an important aspect of this debate. Bear expert Csaba Domokos from the Transylvania-based Milvus Group says that doing so is almost impossible.

"The 'census' method that has been used so far is totally inadequate from a scientific point of view," Domokos told Fairfax Media. "We don't know the size of Romania's bear population, not even to the level of an educated guess."

He says the cull does not need to go ahead, and that relocating bears is a much better option. "Negative conditioning" - the use of non-lethal deterrents like pepper spray in the moments before anaesthesia is induced - has resulted in effective relocation attempts, he says.

Gridan disagrees: "You can take these animals 200 kilometres away and they're home in three days. They're not stupid."

Gridan insists that he's not merely waiting to go out and shoot himself a couple of throw rugs. Indeed, he says his concerns are actually not entirely removed from those of the activists he so disagrees with.

"The ban on hunting has resulted in people taking things into their own hands," he says. "There's a ???40,000 ($60,000) fine for killing a bear in Romania, even if it's attacking your crops or livestock. But it's not stopping anyone."

"We've gotten reports of people laying snares, lacing dog food with arsenic, even putting meat out on the railway tracks. It can take up to three weeks for a snare to kill a bear. How is this a good thing?"

What's more, he says, allowing the bear population to grow unchecked is a bad thing for other species, too. There's a reason other European countries get cold feet whenever the issue of bear reintroduction comes up.

"It's not just that people don't like the idea of bears in their backyards," Gridan says. "The European hunting industry makes a lot of money off its animal populations and bears tend to reduce those populations significantly. Large carnivores aren't just dangerous. They're expensive."

Domokos agrees that Romania's hunting ban - whatever form it should ultimately take - will eventually threaten other species. But he says the threat will come from hunters themselves rather than from an overabundance of bears.

"Wildlife managers will slowly but surely increase pressure on other species such as red deer," he says, "which is the second most expensive game species to hunt after bear."

Domokos feels for the old woman and her pancakes, of course, and says that the country's compensation system leaves something to be desired. Like Libearty's Cristina Lapis, he believes better data is required in order for game managers and conservationists to make better decisions.

Domokos even believes that game managers need and deserve to be financially compensated for playing a role in conservation, "though preferably without resuming hunting", he adds, which is where he and Gridan part ways.

But he also says social change is needed. "The Romanian people have to share their habitat with bears," he says. "There simply isn't enough room for us to segregate wildlife and humans.

"Without the acceptance of rural populations - the populations who are affected by this - there's no way this species will be able to survive in the long term, regardless of conservation or management initiatives.

"Without it," he says, "the bears are doomed."

The story How much can Romania bear? first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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