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The BEARS Project: Bear Education, Awareness and Research in Slovakia

Brown bears were almost eradicated from Slovakia in the 1930s, due to excessive hunting and persecution. Today there are thought to be around 600-800 bears, and they are protected by both national and international legislation. The population appears to be stable, but there is concern that this could change, as habitat is lost or fragmented by development and the construction of new motorways. There may also be an increase in bear-human conflicts as people occupy more of the bears’ range. No one has been killed by a bear in Slovakia for decades, but each year during encounters with bears several people are injured, some of them badly, and damage to beehives, livestock and crops is common.

Brown bear - Photo Bruno D'Amicis/www.brunodamicis.com

Although the number of bears is not growing significantly, they are increasing their range in Slovakia, and bears are appearing in areas where people do not expect them to be. There is mounting pressure from hunters and the Agriculture Ministry to relax restrictions on hunting in order to reduce the number of bears. In effect, they are advocating a cull. To justify this, they quote attacks on people, instances of bears feeding from human-derived food sources and causing damage to agriculture. It is claimed that this is the result of there being too many bears.

In response to this pressure, our partners the Slovak Wildlife Society developed The BEARS Project, an initiative to reduce bear-human conflicts and ensure the long-term survival of bears in the Western Carpathian Mountains. The main aim is to foster understanding and acceptance of bears, with an emphasis on providing information as well as practical help to prevent problems.

In a public opinion carried out in Slovakia as part of the project, more than 90% of respondents said they wanted to learn more about large carnivores. A website in both Slovak and English has been set up at www.medvede.sk (medvede is the Slovak word for bears) to raise awareness and increase knowledge of bears, reduce negative feelings and so promote better co-existence. In addition to basic information on the biology of the brown bear as well as of the other seven species of bears worldwide, the site offers the best available information based on scientific research in Slovakia and elsewhere, comparison with situations in other countries, proven methods to reduce or prevent problems with bears and much more. The project also maintains regular contact with the media to counter sensationalist reports, which present a distorted view of bears and influence public opinion and levels of acceptance.

The project’s main target groups are children, students and young adults, teachers and journalists as well as others living, working or visiting areas with bears. A teaching manual, ‘In the tracks of bears’ has been produced, and seminars and lectures are regularly given for pupils, teachers and the public. A travelling photographic exhibition called ‘Meeting the bear’ has been set up, and the Slovak Wildlife Society recently completed production of a Slovak version of the acclaimed film ‘Staying safe in bear country’.

On a practical level, the project has developed specially designed bear-proof refuse containers in areas visited by bears. These are commonly used in parts of North America with bears, where they have proven highly effective, but are less often seen in European brown bear range. Refuse is a strong attractant for bears; its proper storage and disposal can therefore help keep bears away from areas of human use and so prevent bear-human conflicts, ultimately benefiting both people and bears. Electric fencing is also provided to beekepers and property owners to keep bears from raiding hives and entering gardens in search of fruit trees and other food sources, funded by the joint White Dog Fund initiative.

How you can help
•   Make a donation to the BEARS Project - click here
•   Visit Slovakia for a wolf and bear watching holiday, click here for more information
•   Make a donation to the White Dog Fund - click here
•    Visit the BEARS Project website to find out more and express your support in the visitors’ book

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