Sun 17 Oct 2004

Scotland on Sunday

Outrage at bear-faced cheek of killer king

IN THE rest of Europe it is not considered the sport of kings. Now Spain’s King Juan Carlos has come under fire from conservationist groups after shooting bears in Romania just as the WWF was staging an international forum to showcase their work in integrating bear and human populations.

The WWF trip was organised to show the world’s media how bears and humans had learned to live in peaceful co-existence. But WWF sources claim the good work was undone by the hunting trip, which drew local newspaper headlines with reports of the King’s weekend hunt and his group’s "success" at shooting nine animals including a pregnant female.

The respected Carpathian animal protection group, the Aves Foundation, said King Juan Carlos and his entourage killed nine bears while hunting. The foundation claimed he then left two others wounded, which his attendants were unable to kill, and lost track of after pelting them with bullets.

The Aves Foundation claims he also killed a number of wolves and wild boar during his two-day trip, staying at one of former dictator Nicolae Ceausescu’s hunting lodges in Covasna, central Romania.

Laszlo Szabo-Szeley, president of the group, said: "Only Ceausescu did things like this. No moral hunter in this world kills more than one bear because it is completely unethical.

"The Spanish king left behind two wounded bears that he and his hunting party couldn’t find after they shot them. The biggest crime they committed is killing a pregnant female bear. This was definitely not a hunt, it was a massacre."

He added that he believes the King only came to Romania because in Spain only 27 bears can be legally hunted every year.

A spokesman for the King described the visit as private and refused to comment on what he was doing in the country.

But Sarkany Arpad, head of Romanian company Abies Hunting, which organised the hunting trip, said the King himself had only bagged a single bear among his kills.

He said: "Fourteen animals were shot by the King and his entourage, but only five of these were bears. The King shot only one bear, two wolves, and two wild boars."

He added that the King had paid roughly £40,000 for the entire trip, which included a standard licence fee to go on the hunt as well as extra fees for each animal he shot.

The WWF refused to comment directly on the King’s trip, but when asked about hunting bears a spokesman for the organisation in Romania said: "We are currently undertaking a study on bears and until that is finished we cannot comment on the impact of hunting on bear communities."

King Juan Carlos is known to be a keen hunter and has hunted in the past in many countries, at times with other foreign leaders and even with former US president George Bush Snr.

But this is not the first time the Spanish King has drawn the wrath of conservation groups over his passion for blood sports.

Last year he came in for fierce criticism for killing a rare wild European bison during a hunt in Poland’s Borecka forest, one of Europe’s last surviving areas of ancient woodland.

Poland’s foreign minister, Wlodzimierz Cimoszewicz, accompanied him on the hunt.

The bison is among the world’s rarest animals with only about 1,600 remaining, and the Polish Society for the Protection of Animals condemned the hunt and the government’s decision to let the animal be shot as a "total scandal".

The King reportedly paid £4,700 to be allowed to shoot the 100-stone bison.

The latest incident in Romania will only add to growing fears that the brown bear will soon become extinct in the region. Romania is one of the few countries in Europe that permits limited bear hunting.

Hunting-tourism has become big business in Romania’s Carpathian Mountains, the last place in Europe apart from Russia, where many large carnivores, bears, wolves and lynxes, can be found.

Organised hunts in the country have grown popular with Europe’s rich and elite who often pay tens of thousands of pounds for hunting trips organised by specialised companies.

Recently a number of celebrities and politicians, including French President Jacques Chirac and actress Brigitte Bardot, wrote a letter to Romania’s Prime Minister Adrian Nastase to voice their concerns about the fate of the bear.

Their letter was partly in response to the government’s decision to allow the shooting of 300 bears each year.

Aves’ Laszlo Szabo-Szeley has also sent a report to Nastase which details evidence that the bear population is down from the official figure of 6,300 to 2,500.

The Aves Foundation report argued: "Romania’s kill figures for the trophy-hunter market are way above a sustainable cull. They endanger the species."

But Nastase, who is also chairman of the Romanian Association of Hunters, has rejected claims that the bear population has dropped so dramatically.

The European Union responded to the Aves Foundation’s concerns by pointing out that member states "have to ensure a favourable conservation status of natural habitats and species of wild fauna and flora of Community interest".

Gunther Verheugen, the EU commissioner in charge of supervising membership applications, has said that if Romania entered the trading bloc as it hoped to, European law would prohibit the bear hunting.