April 13, 2024

Europe saved its bears from extinction. Now some countries want more rights to kill them


A team of 14 police officers armed with camera traps, a thermal imaging drone and a shoot-to-kill order raced through the woods earlier this month in search of a fugitive.

But the target wasn’t a serial killer – it was a brown bear that injured five people during a violent attack in a Slovak town 10 days earlier. Dramatic social networks video footage showed the animal running through the streets of Liptovský Mikuláš as people fled for safety, prompting authorities to declare a state of emergency.

City authorities said in a Facebook post Wednesday that the bear that carried out the attack was hunted and killed. But some critics in Slovakia question whether they picked the right bear.

Wild populations of brown bears across Europe have recovered from the brink of extinction and animal conservationists are thrilled. But a series of attacks on humans has led to growing calls to abandon the protections enjoyed by the species. Some countries argue that the law favors bears too much, at the cost of human lives.

The incident in Liptovský Mikuláš came just days after another encounter with a bear ended in the death of a 31-year-old Belarusian tourist, who fell while trying to escape the animal in Slovakia’s Low Tatras Mountains, according to local media.

Several European Union (EU) countries that are in favor of reducing bear protections are now taking their fight to the bloc’s headquarters in Brussels.

On Monday, delegations from Romania, Slovakia and Finland presented a proposal to the EU Environment Council, requesting the reduction of the protection status of some brown bear populations.

Current EU legislation prohibits the killing of wild bears, except in very limited circumstances, such as when the animal has killed or mutilated a human being. Violation of this legislation can lead to heavy fines being imposed on non-compliant countries.

How to deal with bear attacks has been on the political agenda of some of the EU’s 27 member countries for years. But the veto power of countries with more prominent conservation agendas — or those without bear populations — means it could be some time before bears are once again fair game for hunters.

Beehive marauding bears

Romania, Slovakia and Finland are pushing for certain bear populations — those with “favorable conservation status” — to be downgraded from “strictly protected” to “protected,” according to an information note sent to all delegations. of the EU Environment Council following the recent attacks in Slovakia.

In both protection categories there is the same obligation for countries to maintain a “favorable” status, according to John Linnell, a senior researcher at the Norwegian Institute for Nature Research who specializes in the conservation of large carnivores.

“What differs is the context in which it is permissible to kill things,” he told CNN. “In ‘strictly protected,’ you have to have very specific reasons for killing an individual (animal)… If you are just ‘protected,’ then you don’t have the same obligation to justify why.”

What “favorable” means is also debatable.

Dominika Zarzycka/Sopa Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Low Tatras Mountains in Slovakia, where a 31-year-old Belarusian tourist died earlier this month after trying to run away from a bear.

“It’s not a scientific concept,” Linnell said. “It’s not just about numbers – it’s about numbers, habitats, population trends and distribution.”

Delegations supporting the new proposal say that greater flexibility in rules is needed, in part due to the increase in the population of brown bears in the EU since the bloc enacted the Habitats Directive in 1992. From a point of near extinction in many areas, The bears have numbers in the region now estimated to be between 15,000 and 16,000.

Delegations supporting the downgrade of the brown bear’s status claim that this will not undermine the “overall objective” of EU conservation legislation and point to the effects the animals are having.

“The strengthening and expansion of brown bear populations has led to an increasing impact on rural communities and livestock farming,” says the information note, adding that in Romania alone, 240 bear attacks were reported between 2004 and 2021. It also states that interactions between farmers and bears resulted in financial losses of millions of euros.

But some people argue that there are more humane ways to prevent bear attacks. Robin Rigg, president of the Slovak Wildlife Society, told CNN that preventative methods such as electric fences can help deter bears from attractants such as beehives, fruit trees and livestock.

He said that if a particular bear is causing repeated problems, often known as a “problem individual,” current legislation already allows it to be removed from the population, without the need to change the species’ level of protection.

Recent research has found that some animals are more problematic than others, exhibiting what experts call “repetitive conflict behavior.”

Perhaps the most famous example of this phenomenon occurred in the mid-2000s, when a bear named Bruno, also known as JJ1 Bear, was found ransacking beehives and attacking sheep in Germany, following its reintroduction as part of a conservation initiative. .

Bear cub invades bakery

Several countries present at Monday’s EU Environmental Council meeting were sympathetic to the proposal. Italy said it would support the idea, while Hungary said it was ready to do so, but stressed the need for a “careful examination” of the issue first.

Spain said human safety should be prioritized and spoke about the need for preventative measures, while Germany noted that existing rules go far enough.

Slovakia, however, appealed to delegates’ emotions. “Every day we have bears running through our cities. In the morning, parents are afraid to let their children go to school,” said the police chief.

Even with support, progressing the proposal through the EU bureaucracy will not be a quick or easy task.

In the end, “countries like Ireland, Malta and Cyprus, which will never have a bear, will effectively have the veto,” Linnell said, adding that there is also no guarantee that the general public will agree with politicians on this issue, even in countries with bears.

This happened in real time last year, when a bear in Italy initially expected to be killed for fatally attacking a 26-year-old woman was given a reprieve after intervention from several wildlife agencies.

In another example, also in Italy, police opened an investigation after a man shot a bear that had entered his property. Her puppy became an internet sensation for roaming the streets, even breaking into a bakery. He claimed he shot the bear out of fear but didn’t want to kill it.

Outside of Europe, not all countries are so lenient: In Japan, authorities offered bear hunters the equivalent of $33 in exchange for each animal captured after a record number of attacks last year.

Some countries are genuinely struggling to manage their conservation success, Linnell said, adding that saving a species from extinction is just the beginning.

“Living with the success of this conservation is a much more difficult issue,” he said. “Some species will improve, others will decline, and we need to react to that and be adaptive. That is my true hope.”

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