Brown bear attacks: Deaths spark fear in Romania
A spate of deadly bear attacks in Romania has raised fears that the population of Europe's largest protected carnivore is increasing beyond control.
Three men have been killed in little over a month in this East European country that hosts the Continent's biggest number of brown bears.
"The bear population has increased and it needs to be reduced," warns gamekeeper Karoly Pal. The mood is such that some politicians have waged something akin to a war on bears.
Some 6,000 bears live in Romania and incidents involving the animals are becoming increasingly common:
- A 61-year-old fisherman was killed in Mures County in October
- A man aged 46 was fatally attacked in Bacau County, to the east, in late October
- A 63-year-old shepherd was killed by a bear this month on the edge of a forest in Mures County in central Transylvania
Accidents on the increase
Bears have laid waste to farmers' crops, damaged cars and killed livestock, and have been involved in a recent spate of collisions with cars.
On Saturday evening a large male bear was struck by a car in Harghita County, and it took authorities a reported 19 hours to put it down.
The bear had suffered three broken limbs and lay in agony on the road, guarded by police as people looked on.
Prime Minister Ludovic Orban echoed the anger of many when he complained that authorities had failed to do their duty. He said it had taken more than 15 hours for the environment ministry to receive the request to shoot the bear. It was not until Sunday afternoon that the bear finally died.
Since then another two bears have been hit by cars.
Brown bears can cover huge distances in their quest for food as they consume up to 20,000 calories per day in the warmer months to fatten up for winter. Avoiding human settlements, crops, livestock, and roads along the way is proving to be a challenge for the wild animals.
"One night last week I counted 22 bears [in this area]," says Karoly Pal, walking down a barren dirt road from Neaua to Ghinesti, one of five villages in this remote commune.
A return to hunting?
Many believe the steep increase in the bear population is down to a 2016 ban on trophy hunting which was widely applauded by environmentalists.
But Romania's official bear population figures could be well off the mark, say experts.
Population estimates have traditionally been carried out by wildlife managers, they point out, citing "out of date" methods and the possible influence of vested interests.
"Since the ban on trophy hunting there was a push by hunters and game managers to report as many damages [claims] as possible," says bear expert Csaba Domokos of the nature conservation NGO Milvus Group.