British hunters in Romania 'wiping out' bears

Shooting tours threaten brown bear population with extinction, say environmentalists

By Luminita Holban

11 January 2004

Big game hunters from Britain and other Western countries are threatening the brown bear with extinction in Romania, home of the largest European population of the animal outside Russia, a local environmental organisation has warned.

Hard currency trophy-seekers, including several dozen each year from Britain, are paying up to £10,000 for the chance to shoot a brown bear in Romania's Carpathian Mountains. Romania is the only European country apart from the former Soviet Union where the "sport" is legal. Government leaders, including the Prime Minister, Adrian Nastase, are keen bear hunters, and according to a controversial report from Aves, a nature protection group, this relation of the North American grizzly could become extinct in Romania over the next decade.

Shooting bears was one of the favourite pastimes of the former Communist dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu, who would wait in a hut while they were shepherded in front of his rifle. Despite this, bear numbers had soared to almost 8,000 in 1990, just after his downfall, because no one else in Romania was allowed to hunt them.

The post-Communist government says there are now 6,276 brown bears in Romania, but a study by Aves claims the actual number is much lower, thanks in part to cruel and illegal hunting methods. The group's president, Szabo-Szeley Laszlo, said these included using dead horses and cows as bait, shooting mothers with cubs and trapping bears in their dens.

Mr Laszlo said he counted only 250 animals in Harghita county in central Romania, where most of the country's bears are found, down from 615 in 1997. He accused the authorities of counting the same bear two or three times, as they can travel over 12 miles in a night.

Gabriel Girban, a spokesman for the Romanian Ministry of Agriculture, which has given permission for 658 bears to be shot this season, contradicted the head of Aves. "Our figures are completely different," he said. "In fact, the number of bears is higher than the ideal population recommended by specialists for the existing habitat, which is 4,080." There was "almost no bear poaching" in Romania, he added, because "it's much easier and more profitable to pay the fee and do it legally".

Romsilva, the national forestry authority, also rejected the Aves report, casting doubt on Mr Laszlo's qualifications. "We haven't heard much of Aves before," said Sabin Bratu, head of the hunting division. "Apparently the head of the foundation is a photographer." The authority organised trips for "more than dozens" of British hunters last year, he told The Independent on Sunday.

Victor Watkins, wildlife director for the World Society for the Protection of Animals, said the Romanian government could not fix a realistic hunting quota without knowing exactly how many bears are left. "Otherwise, they may kill more bears than is biologically viable," he said. "Even if some bears need to be killed because they are aggressive or an area is overpopulated, it should be done humanely, not by giving them over to hunters. Hunting is often done by amateurs, and may result in bears suffering for days or being injured for life."

Colin Shaw, a British businessman who runs a travel agency promoting eco-tourism and wildlife observation in Romania, said the drop in bear numbers was not as dramatic as suggested by Aves. "We certainly cannot talk of a massacre. There are real problems, but I'm afraid Aves may be using them to promote itself abroad," he said.

Poverty-stricken Romania earns large amounts of foreign currency from hunting, but Mr Laszlo claimed much of the money never reached the state. "Last year, Romania made €30m (£21m) from hunting, compared to €100m in Hungary, although there is much more hunting here than in Hungary," he said.

Mr Shaw added: "The potential for corruption is enormous when the people who benefit from large hunting quotas are also the ones who calculate them."

Hunter Company, one of the travel agencies offering hunting holidays in Romania in the autumn season (October to mid-November) and spring (mid-March to mid-May), charges from £475 for two or three-day trips with beaters, plus around £3,000 for a trophy. Hunter, which claims the bears "are now causing problems to the people living in the small villages of the Carpathian Mountains", promises "exceptional hunting".