By Paul White
On a cool June evening whilst walking through meadows close to a forest in Romania I had a brief but wonderful encounter with a bear family. The mother was foraging for food with her two cubs, slowly but purposely moving through the grass, eventually disappearing into the forest at the base of a mountain. These encounters are rare in Europe, although your best chances of seeing a bear are in Romania which boasts the largest population within the European Union.
So how many bears are there in Romania? Well this is a topical debate at the moment and is presently under review in the Romanian parliament. The figures are disputed and vary depending on who you talk to. The official estimates are over 6,000 individuals but conservationists believe that the method for counting bears is flawed and numbers are being exaggerated to support a return of hunting quotas.
In 2016 Romania unexpectedly called for a complete hunting ban on all large predators including bears, wolves and lynx. Although this ban was largely welcomed, the powerful and influential hunting lobby were not pleased, as hunters from all over the world were paying thousands of Euros to hunt bears in Romania.
Conservationists believe that the perceived rise in bear conflicts with humans are being used as an excuse to overturn the ban, but have pointed out that these conflicts also occurred when hunting was widespread. Hunters want to shoot large bears as they make the best trophies, but these large dominant males are the ones that naturally control the bear population. Rather than relying on hunting as the main measure to reduce conflict, WWF Romania insists that other methods should be deployed such as the use of electric fences, reduction of attractants, use of bear proof bins and specialised dogs.
Whatever the outcome it is important for the authorities to understand that these bears are unique in Europe and could attract far more sustainable forms of income in the long term. A bear can only be shot once by a hunter, but can be shot hundreds of times by a camera held by fee paying tourists. For me it is sad that these beautiful animals are viewed as commodities and decisions are being debated as to how many will be allowed to live. I just hope that the bear cubs I saw playing in the meadow will survive long enough to have cubs of their own and do not live in fear of the gun.