Romania makes ‘death threats’ against ecologists as Chirac attacks blood sport


By Gabriel Ronay


A Romanian environmental protection group trying to save the brown bear from being hunted to extinction in the Carpathian mountains, has accused the Romanian authorities of using communist-era secret police harassment and threatening activists’ lives.

The plight of the brown bear and its protectors has prompted French President Jacques Chirac, Brigitte Bardot, the erstwhile “sex kitten” and other ecology-conscious European celebrities to write to Adrian Nastase, Romania’s Socialist prime minister, to voice “serious concern about the fate of the brown bear endangered by the growth of hunting-tourism in Romania”.

After the Romanian government announced that it was licensing the shooting of 300 brown bears this year, Laszlo Szeley-Szabo, the chairman of the Carpathian animal protection group Aves Trust, submitted a report to Nastase challenging the official bear population figure of 6300, proving with well-supported evidence that the total was now down to a mere 2500.

The official response, Szeley-Szabo said in an interview, was swift and demonstrated the price of animal protection in Romania. “Our telephones are being tapped, our mail is steamed opened, our website has been broken into, anonymous callers regularly threaten our activists’ lives and I am being frequently summoned to the police ‘for questioning’.”

According to the Aves Trust, the discrepancy between their and the government’s figures arises, in part, from the fact that brown bears cover 10 to 13 miles a night in search of food and would, therefore, be spotted and counted up to three times by different foresters. Since the annual cull figures are based on the Romanian agriculture ministry’s unreliable total, the brown bear would soon be hunted to extinction in the Carpathians, the environmental protection group’s report predicts. And it goes on to provide strong evidence that, in the past four years alone, Bucharest’s hard currency-earning “bear culls” had reduced the bear population by an alarming 60%. “Romania’s kill figures for the trophy hunter market are way above a sustainable cull. They endanger the species,” Aves maintains.

Since Romania is the only European country, apart from the former Soviet states, where the “sport” of bear hunting is legal, a feasible conservation policy is essential to the survival of the species in its last wilderness refuge. But because Romania’s official cull quota is fuelled solely by pecuniary considerations, Aves has sent a written complaint detailing “the extermination of bears with Romanian government assistance” to the European Parliament in Strasbourg and to Gunther Verheugen, the EU Commissioner supervising EU membership applications.

“Aves’s bear protection moves have annoyed the Romanian government and it is especially furious because we have dared to turn to Verheugen and the EU parliament. Verheugen has assured our organisation that it would take up the issue with the Romanian authorities,” Szeley-Szabo said.

He is blaming in particular “the erroneous policies of the Romanian Forestry Commission and the National Association of Romanian Hunters for the rapid decline of bear numbers. “Here in Romania, bears are not just endangered, they are being exterminated,” he said. “Rich hunters can butcher them for a paltry 5000 lei per pelt (eight pence).”

In the bad old days of communism, when bear hunting used to be the prerogative of communist party leaders, bear numbers were kept high. Khrushchev hunted bears, Brezhnev delight in it, Tito took pleasure in a kill. Nicolae Ceausescu, Romania’s dictator had his own “safe version” of bear hunting – right from the door of his baronial hunting lodge. He had hand-reared bears drugged and driven by secret police “beaters” into his rifle’s range. Because bear hunting was his hobby , the bear population exceeded 8000 when he was executed by firing squad on Christmas 1989.

Bear hunting is fashionable again in Eastern Europe. The macho image of bear hunting has survived intact in post-communist Romania. Nastase is a keen aficionado. Now Western devotees of this blood sport, including many Britons, are set to pay good money to get a few bears in their cross hairs. Romsilva, Romania’s Forestry Authority, arranged bear hunting trips for scores of British big game hunters last year.

The official Romanian stance on the slaughter of bears has reached new heights of hypocrisy. Recently, the agriculture ministry’s spokesman in Bucharest actually thanked the bear hunting fraternity for killing bears because, as he put it, “foraging hungry bears are now causing serious damage to the livestock of people living in the small mountain villages of the Carpathians”.

So if you pay Romsilva well, kill a few bears, and maybe a wolf or two while you are at it, you will be the virtual hero of the Carpathians.

How easy it is to do good in the Balkans.