Whilst the Romanian government considers lifting a year-long ban on hunting brown bears, I discover the heart breaking stories behind Europe’s largest bear sanctuary: Libearty.
Behind a black drape covering the fence, the shadow of a bear is visible on the grass. She hovers in the corner where the two fences of her enclosure meet. Her shadow jumps and turns around, and then hovers in the corner again. Minutes later she performs exactly the same jumping action. In fact, she performs this action over and over again all day, every day.
Until four years ago, Betty had spent her whole life in a triangular cage at a zoo. The cage was so small that the only way she could turn around was to jump. As with many of the bears at the Libearty sanctuary in Zarnesti today, she still has the mental scars of her previous life in captivity and may take years to adapt to her new surroundings. The sight of humans still stresses Betty, and this part of the fence is covered so only her shadow can be seen by visitors. Along with 95 other bears, Betty has been rescued by Romanian NGO, Asociatia Milioane de Prieteni (Millions of Friends) and now lives a peaceful, protected life inside a 20-square acre forested enclosure which mimics her natural habitat.
Approaching the sanctuary on a rainy day in June, I am struck straight away by the lack of development. Actually making it there for a start is not particularly easy. Located 30 kilometres from Brasov and scarcely signposted, the public bus drops you at the end of a three-kilometre track to the entrance and a taxi is the only alternative to walking. The car park is a field and the infrastructure is refreshingly minimal: a tiny rangers’ hut, a ticket office, and a room where visitors can view a short film about the story behind the sanctuary. Instantly it is apparent that this sanctuary exists only to provide the rescued bears with a good quality of life tourists have become merely a gratefully received sideline.
The densely-forested Carpathian mountains, coupled with 45 years of communist rule where only the elite could hunt, has left Romania with more brown bears than any other country in Europe. Since Romania joined the EU, the plight of the bears has improved with a ban on keeping bears in captivity, and then a more recent a ban on trophy hunting. However, as incidents of bears coming into populated areas have risen, the pressure to re establish hunting quotas has mounted. In September 2017, the Romanian government announced that the year-long ban on hunting may be over.
Until 10 years ago it was legal to keep bears in captivity here, and there was something of a tradition in doing so. Bears could be seen in tiny cages outside restaurants, hotels and gas stations, held captive in the cruellest of conditions entirely for the titillation of tourists. Mother bears were killed and cubs were kept as pets to show off, some were forced to perform inane tricks at circuses and others kept in tiny enclosures at zoos.
The Libearty Sanctuary is born
Asociatia Milioane de Prieteni, at the time a small NGO and dog shelter, began building Libearty sanctuary – which would become Europe’s largest – in 2002. Cristina Lapis, the President of the association, had witnessed the cruel captivity of three bears at tourist sites near Brasov and had begun providing them with medical attention and food. When one of the bears died from self-mutilation Mrs Lapis decided to take greater action. After years of dedication, hundreds of meters of ditches and fences, and 15 kilometres of electric wires, the Libearty bear sanctuary welcomed its first bears in 2005.
Visiting the sanctuary
After watching a film describing how the sanctuary was created, we follow the guide along the pathways to catch our first glimpse of a huge bear finishing off his lunch. By now the rain is pouring but this does not deter either the bear or the enthusiastic guide from explaining the heart-breaking story which has led each inhabitant to his new-found freedom.
On arrival each bear spends time in a quarantine area, getting used to the forest – for most this is the first time they have lived in anything like their natural environment. Once they are released into the sanctuary a plaque is created showing their name and the date they arrived.
Some of the bears, such as Betty, take years to adapt to their new surroundings and their stories are enough to break hearts. A bear named Max, for example, was rescued from a cage near one of Romania’s scenic castles in 2006. There he had been kept purely for tourist’s pleasure – and he had also been blinded to stop him reacting to their cameras, had his canines and claws pulled out and had been drugged every day. After two years of medical care, Max now wanders happily in his own enclosure.
The sanctuary does not breed bears and all bears are castrated at reaching maturity. A few years ago, however, a ‘happy accident’ involving a bear who it was thought had not reached maturity resulted in 3 three bear cubs, who now live with their mother in an enclosure not visible to the visitors.
The sanctuary offered its first guided tours back in 2008 and was recently rated by National Geographic Traveller as one of the world’s most ethical wildlife attractions. Now they receive around 25,000 visitors a year – which puts them at something of a juxtaposition. A tour of the sanctuary educates the visitor and provides desperately-needed funds to feed and look after the bears. However, if numbers continue to rise as they have been, the rise in tourist traffic could compromise the wellbeing of the bears.
“We may have to look at capping visitor numbers in the future,” says PR manager Laurentiu, “since the bears’ health and wellbeing have to be our main priority”.
Back in the Millions of Friends office in Brasov, I notice that every member of staff has a giant jar of honey on their desk. Most of the food is donated from local supermarkets, and for some reason, I am surprised to discover that bears actually do love honey, and this is not just in cartoons! The staff are busy attempting to rescue the remaining captive bears in Romania, lobbying the government on wildlife conservation issues and raising money to look after the 95 or so bears at the sanctuary.
Whilst I am at Bear HQ, they receive a call from the authorities regarding a bear who has wandered into the urban area of the city of Brasov. As their habitat becomes more threatened and their food sources become more scarce year by year, bears in urban areas are becoming more common. By law, a bear can be shot by the authorities if deemed a threat to the population, and so the NGO was busy trying to convince the powers that to let them take the rogue bear to the sanctuary. The bear, named Epizon, eventually arrived at Libearty in July this year and now lives in her own forested enclosure with her two cubs.
The organization’s work has now extended beyond the rescuing of bears. Their outreach has had a real impact on local attitudes towards wildlife protection and local legislation, as well as educating the next generation. Yet, the increase of bears entering urban areas remains a difficult issue.
Conservation and trophy hunting
Lifting the ban on trophy hunting comes less than a year since wildlife protection groups commended Romania for its new law, and proposes to allow the killing of 140 bears and 97 wolves by the end of the 2017. Until 2016, hunting quotas had reached a high of 550 bears, 600 wolves, and 550 big cats over 12 months. Shooting these animals was only legal using the loophole in the law which stated that animals deemed a threat to humans could be culled.
Hunting associations were said to be wildly overestimating numbers and in turn making guesses about how many animals could threaten the human population in the future. These in turn were converted to hunting quotas. Many experts now agree that hunting does not reduce the conflict between large carnivores and humans, and as Romanian Conservation organization Agent Green commented, merely makes a “shameless business” out of hunting these animals to death.
International Conservation organisations are now urgently lobbying the Romanian government to reconsider their position and revert back to a case-by-case basis for problem bears, pointing out that educational programmes and “nonlethal mitigation” strategies such as electric fencing are more effective in the long term.
Watching the bears at Libearty sanctuary bathing in their pools, playing, fighting, and chomping away on fresh fruit, it is easy to forget how far both Romania and this small NGO have come on their journey towards conserving Romania’s rich wildlife.
Behind the fences, the other 75 bears hidden from view are living their lives in their 20-hectare forest much as they would in the wild of the Carpathians. They are a symbol of optimism in the fight to preserve Romania’s rich wildlife and great credit to an organization which had the courage and determination to rectify a horrifying history of animal cruelty. However, the future of Europe’s largest carnivore may now in the hands of the Romanian government, who must find a means to protect both its rural population and its wildlife heritage.
The Libeaty Sanctuay is located near Zarnesti, around 30 minutes from the medieval city of Brasov where you will find many hotels and hostels. Brasov is connected by train to major cities in Romania. The Sanctuary is located in the forest around 3km from the nearest road and bus stop. You can take a bus from Brasov to Rasnov (25 minutes/4 Lei) and get off at the signpost for the sanctuary then walk the final 3km. The easiest way to get to there from Brasov is by taxi which should cost around 25 Euro including waiting time (ask in your hotel/hostel for a taxi or use Uber, be wary of taxis at the train station stand who will grossly overcharge you!).
Find out more about visiting the Libearty sanctuary and adopting one of their bears at http://www.ampbears.ro/en/visit
Find out more about Brasov at http://romaniatourism.com/brasov.html