Bearing up well in Eastern Europe

IUCN - The World Conservation Union, Gland, Switzerland, 1 April 2005. There is some excellent news for European brown bear conservation in Eastern Europe, including European Russia, in the most recent edition of International Bear News the quarterly newsletter of the SSC Bear Specialist Group and the International Association for Bear Research.

After nearly being exterminated in the western Carpathian Mountains in the 1930s and 40s, bears have been making a welcome comeback in Slovakia and Poland, where numbers have reached their highest level for over 100 years. A similar, heartening recovery has been recorded further south in Croatia; and in European Russia, a centuries long range contraction northwards is being reversed as bears begin to move south again. This is very good news following the recent setbacks for bear conservation in Western Europe, where illegal killings have had a serious impact on already depleted populations in the French Pyrenees and central Italy .

In the western Carpathian Mountains, thanks to successful conservation measures, brown bears have increased in Slovakia and Poland to reach their highest numbers for over a century. Reduced to an estimated 20 individuals in 1932 in Slovakia, it became a protected species in 1933, and from near local extinction has recovered to 600-800 animals today. A similar but more modest recovery has taken place in Poland, where it has increased from an all time low of 10-14 animals after World War II to a present day population of around 100 individuals. Recent reports have confirmed that these populations are no longer isolated from their counterparts in the eastern Carpathians, which is excellent news for their long-term genetic viability. Increases have been observed elsewhere in Eastern Europe, including Croatia, where sensitive hunting management practices have resulted in a recovery from less than 100 bears in the late 1940s to over 600 in 2000.

A report from European Russia also contains some encouraging news. Here, the southern edge of the brown bear’s range had steadily been retreating northwards since the 17th century, as a direct result of the fragmentation and clearance of its forest home. However, since the 1960s, a gradual re-colonisation of its former haunts has been observed as they have adapted to the fragmented forest conditions. This progressive expansion southwards is most evident south-west of Moscow, and is continuing as animals settle in regions with less than 40% forest cover. They tend to favour large “forest islands” but will also use small “forest islands”, although only on a temporary basis.

European brown bear cub, Djuro Huber, SSC Bear Specialist GroupAs bears begin to return to parts of their historic range and contact with people inevitably increases, it becomes increasingly important to raise public awareness about the state of wild bear populations, their habitat and how to promote human-bear co-existence. At the moment, bears are generally regarded in a positive light, but the long term prospects for their re-establishment could be threatened if there is an increase in human-bear conflicts. Bear conservationists are very much aware of these problems, and are addressing these issues in the countries concerned. In Croatia, for example, a Bear Management Plan has been completed, following the input from all interested groups and funding for its implementation has been secured for the next four years. In Slovakia, bears foraging in refuse containers is an increasing source of conflict, and non-lethal prevention measures, such as bear-proof containers or electric-fencing are being promoted by conservationists to stop this. Also in Slovakia, opinion surveys have been carried out to help tailor education materials to relevant target groups, as educating and informing the public about bears and bear conservation issues is now a priority to help maintain public support for bear conservation.

International Bear News, Vol 13 No 4

For further information contact:

Anna Knee or Andrew McMullin, IUCN Species Programme Communications Officers
Tel: +41 (0)22 999 0153

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