Bear stalking // Romania

If you go down to the woods today...

With more than half of Europe's wild bears within its borders, the Romanian forest is the ideal place for some bear-stalking. By Chris Stone

The Russian jeep was an ugly beast of a machine, but it did its job, forcing its way through the forest undergrowth along churned up tracks, slewing through the mud. We'd been driving for about 40 minutes now, first swerving across the entire width of pockmarked back roads to avoid potholes, then along a gravel road through a steep river valley lined with lodges. Finally we trundle up this muddy track deep into the forest in the Harghita Mountains, in the heart of Transylvania.

It had been raining all day. Earlier, I'd begun to doubt that our expedition was possible.

"It's okay," said our guide, as great banks of cloud swelled and loomed behind him, threatening more rain. "They love the rain. We'll definitely see them now."

After a while the track thinned, too narrow for the jeep. We parked and walked. The forest was hushed and dark, like a cathedral. We trudged on in single file - the guide, myself and two friends - stepping over the broken remains of fallen trees, skirting great pools of muddy water, along a path thick with leaf mould. Our boots became heavy with mud.

Eventually our guide put his finger to his lips and waved us to a halt. He brought his binoculars up and then, with an urgent jerk of his hand - binoculars still pressed to his eyes - indicated that we were to move off the track. We ducked behind trees. After that he handed me the binoculars.

"Up ahead," he whispered. "In the clearing." It was hard to make out at first. The clearing was about 100m further along the track. The sun had just come out making it hazy with sunlight. I could see the waving fronds of grasses and small clumps of bush, and then, in among it all, a dark shape moving about. Several shapes.

I brought the binoculars into focus and the shape became a recognisable form. Great hunched, muscular shoulders, thick with fur. A slow, stately amble, nuzzling, head down, among the grasses. Small, pointed ears and a long, wet snout.

It was a bear, strolling about amid a family of wild boar, serenely self-confident, king of his forest realm.

He was a young male, four to five years old, our guide told us. An Ursus arctos, the Carpathian brown bear, a type of European bear which once ranged throughout the continent, from Scotland to Romania.

Mostly gone now from Europe's forests, they are in abundance here in Harghita, one of the last European wildernesses outside of Russia.

It's said almost half of Europe's bear population - around 12,000 - is in Romania, along with an estimated 3,500 wolves, 1,500 lynx, and even larger numbers of deer, stag, boar, wildcats, stoats, badgers and foxes. This is wild country. The wild, wild East.

THANK YOU, CEAUSESCU

There are very few things the people of Romania can thank Nicolae Ceausescu for, but this vast forest is one of them. You see, these Transylvanian woods aren't ancient. Most had been cut down by World War II, but were replanted again under orders from the post-war communist dictator.

Not that Ceausescu did this out of generosity or for ecological reasons. It was more to do with personal vanity, because he liked to hunt. And whatever Ceausescu liked to do he did, often in a big way.

The one-time partisan had a particular way of hunting. Bears were lured by bait or driven by beaters to a waterhole, overlooked by one of his many lodges, so that he could shoot them in comfort and security, and in large numbers. On one day in the autumn of 1983 he shot 24 bears.

Fortunately for the bear population he also banned all other Romanians from hunting them. There are now between 2,500 and 6,000 bears in the country. The lower figure is that of the Aves Foundation, a conservation group based in Odorheiu Secuiesc in Harghita. The higher figure is the Ministry of Agriculture, which is also responsible for selling hunting licenses. After Ceausescu's fall in 1989, bear hunting became big business, with Western tourists sometimes paying more than €10,000 to shoot a large bear.

The amount depends on the animal's trophy points, determined by the size of its skull and the quality of its fur. Mature males, which can grow up to three metres tall, are the most prized and also the rarest. They have been all but wiped out in the wild.

Export of hunting trophies is now illegal, and the bear is a protected species under European law, but Romania is one of the few countries in Europe, such as Slovenia and Russia, where bear hunting still continues.

There is now an alternative way to shoot bears. With bear stalking, the camera takes the place of the rifle, and the photograph the place of the trophy. And a picture of one of these magnificent creatures is a wonderful prize.

We're still edging forward along the track, ducking in and out behind trees, towards the clearing, when I tread on a twig. It cracks. The bear stands on its hind legs. It peers towards us and sniffs the wind, its front paws raised, its head craned in our direction. We're out in the open, no more than 50m from the bear. It's at least two and a half metres tall. You can see by the muscle on its shoulder and the size of its paw that it could kill a man with a single blow.

Finally it drops onto all fours and goes back to nuzzling about in the undergrowth, and our little band clambers quickly up to safety. Through binoculars we watch it ambling about, eating corn off the forest floor like a pig. Each time this brown hairy omnivore approaches the wild boar, they scatter. Then, more than half an hour after we spotted it and just before it wanders back into the forest, the bear takes one last look in our direction and shakes itself, sending showers of raindrops into the air. AVESTOURS (+40 266 215555, www.. avestours.ro) has seven-day bear stalking trips from 15 March - 15 May and 15 September - 15 December; from €630 per person.

Ursus arctos, niedżwiedż brunatny, przywędrował do Rumunii ze Szkocji. Prawie już zniknął z europejskch lasów, ale w górach Transylwanii można go jeszcze spotkać.

Jedną z niewielu rzeczy, za które Rumunia może być wdzięczna Causescu, jest ogromny transylwański las, zasadzony z rozkazu dyktatora. Bynajmniej, nie kierowała nim wielkoduszność wobec narodu ani względy ekologiczne. Bardziej chodziło o jego zamiłowanie do myślistwa. Najpierw niedżwiedzie były wabione do wypełnionego wodą wądołu i tam pilnowane. Tak więc polowanie było wygodne, bezpieczne i zawsze udane. Jednego dnia Causescu potrafił zabić 24 sztuki.

Szczęśliwie dla niedżwiedzi, Rumunom nie wolno było na nie polować. Dzięki temu żyje tu jeszcze kilka tysięcy osobników, prawie połowa europejskiej populacji. Od upadku Ceausescu polowanie na niedżwiedzie stało się dochodowym biznesem, turyści z Zachodu płacą niekiedy ponad €10,000 za pozwolenie na zabicie dorosłego samca.

W czerwcu 2007 r. w górach Bucegi niedż-wiedż zabił amerykańską turystkę, a dwoje jej towarzyszy poważnie poturbował. Rzucali w niego kamieniami, żeby go odstraszyć. Niedżwiedż może być grożny, kiedy się go zaskoczy albo kiedy czuje zagrożenie. Generalnie jednak jest nieśmiały w stosunku do ludzi, kiedy tylko cię usłyszy albo wywęszy, będzie cię unikał.

Uwaga: jeżeli niedżwiedż staje na tylnych łapach, nie jest to oznaką agresji, tylko zaciekawienia.

THE BEAR NECESSITIES

On 23 June 2007 an American woman and her companions surprised a bear on a track in the Bucegi mountains, Romania. The bear killed her and seriously injured two others. But death by bear is a very rare occurrence.

The woman and her companions had thrown stones at the bear to drive it away - exactly the wrong thing to do because, although the brown bear is generally shy of humans, it can be dangerous if it is surprised or feels threatened. It has good hearing and a good sense of smell but poor eyesight. If it hears you or smells you it will avoid you.

Here are the do's and don'ts of what you should do next you come across a bear in the woods.

DON'T

  • approach a bear as it will see this as a threat
  • enter a bear's cave
  • approach a pregnant female or one with cubs
  • run away throw stones

DO

  • make sure the bear can see you and hear you
  • move away slowly, keeping off any track that it might need for escape

And note, if a bear stands up on its hind legs this is not a sign of aggression, only curiosity.

PHOTO: DIGITAL RAILROAD