Europe is struggling to co-exist with wild bears

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It was about 5 pm on March 15, and the light was rapidly fading, when Konstantin and Tatiana were attacked by the bear. The young couple, aged 29 and 31 and identified only by their first names in local media reports, were Belarusians living in Poland. But Constantin was working for the winter as a ski instructor in Jasna, a popular resort in neighboring Slovakia. The winter season was coming to an end, and on his day off he had decided to go hiking with his girlfriend beneath the 4,718-foot peak of Na Zem, in the Slovak National Park surrounding the resort.

What happened next isn't exactly clear, but newspaper reports suggest that when the pair encountered the bear — a young male that weighed about 265 pounds — they ran in different directions. Finding himself alone, Konstantin tried to call Tatiana. When he got no response he called Mountain Rescue. It was dark when they finally found Tatiana's body with the help of a sniffer dog. She had apparently fallen into a ravine, suffering fatal head injuries.

Like previous bear-related deaths in Slovakia and across Europe, this incident has led to accusations that conservationists are protecting bears at the expense of people's safety. In 2021, a 57-year-old man was killed by a bear in the same national park, leading to community tension over their presence and calls for them to be killed. However, the situation is such that hunting the animals is prohibited under both Slovakian and European laws, and experts argue strongly that a lack of education rather than a focus on conservation is the primary cause of the problem.

“I think it was really started here by some inappropriate statements by the press and politicians,” says Robin Rigg, a British-born zoologist. Rigg, an expert on large carnivores, is president of the Slovak Wildlife Society, which he founded. Established in 1998, two years after arriving in the country. Rigg explains that initial reports suggest Tatiana may have been killed by a bear rather than a fall. “And it has been said publicly – actually by someone from the Environment Ministry – that it was a predator attack. But I don't see any evidence of that.”

Although the animal was near Tatiana's body when rescuers found her, “that doesn't mean the bear wanted to kill and eat her,” Rigg says. He stressed that he had not seen all the evidence, so any conclusions were provisional. But he has seen some gruesome photos that were leaked to the media, “and none of them showed signs of consumption.” Puncture marks found in the young woman's leg, he says, “look like claw marks – they're not signs of feeding.”

“Predator attacks are extremely rare to occur in Europe and are not common anywhere else in the world,” Riggs says. The incident occurred in an area where bears are known to hibernate, at a time of year when they are awake. “And sometimes what can happen is that the bear reacts aggressively in self-defense, which I think is most likely to happen in this case – that it was startled by being confronted by these two people,” Rigg says. Are.

Unfortunately, this kind of nuance is not often visible in coverage of bear attacks. “Statistically, you're actually more likely to be struck by lightning or have an allergic reaction to a bee sting,” Rigg says, “but people don't worry about it as much as they do about larger animals with sharp teeth.” Let's do about. And claws. “It goes back to the innate fear that has been with us since prehistoric times.”

The argument that Slovakia has nothing to fear from bears was further weakened when footage emerged of an animal galloping down a main road in Liptovský Mikuláš just two days after Tatiana's death. The animal was filmed aggressively attacking pedestrians, who jumped over a fence to escape. No one was seriously injured, but the video went viral. “And now,” says Rigg, “we have these two events occurring within 48 hours of each other, within a few kilometers of each other. So the tendency is to look at them together and ask, 'We have to bear What should be done about?'”

This is a question that has become increasingly relevant in recent years not only in Slovakia but throughout Europe. After being hunted to the point of extinction in many countries, the brown bear received “strictly protected” status in EU law in 1992. Bear populations are increasing in most areas where they exist, and there are now an estimated 17,000 brown bears living in rural areas across the continent. The recovery of this keystone species has been celebrated as a major triumph by biologists and biodiversity experts – but it is not without its problems.

In the Pyrenees, the mountains that straddle the border between France and Spain, French and Spanish farmers' unions have called for a reduction in bear numbers, prepared to deal with the damage they cause to crops, beehives and livestock. In the northern Italian province of Trentino, where bears were reintroduced as part of an EU-funded rewilding project, the tragic death of trail runner Andrea Papi in April 2023 brought simmering resentment to the surface. To scare local scientists, Trentino's right-wing populist President Maurizio Fugati proposed killing half of the carefully nurtured population of about 120 bears overnight.

Still, experts say killing bears is not the best way to prevent future tragedies. Following Andrea Papi's death, the local natural history museum invited bear management expert Tom Smith of Brigham Young University in Utah to speak on how such issues are dealt with in North America. In a sign of how high community tensions were rising, the museum took the unusual step of posting an armed guard at the entrance.

In his speech, Smith suggested that the solutions were relatively simple: “What you have here is not necessarily a bear problem, it's a people problem,” he said. Unlike North America, where people in bear areas have grown up with the animals, Europeans living near recently recovered populations don't necessarily know how to behave. But with some basic bear-awareness training—such as that taught “in kindergarten” in some Canadian provinces—the number of dangerous or fatal encounters can be substantially reduced.

Smith runs the North American Human-Bear Conflict Database, which contains detailed information on 2,175 historical attacks with “a quarter million data points”. He told the crowd, “What I've learned by studying these incidents is that 60 percent of them were completely unnecessary – and could have been avoided if people had behaved differently.” In an interview a few days later, Smith spoke specifically about Pappy's death, telling WIRED, “I could go through the details and say, 'You should never do this, or that,' Or that,' and that's not to blame the victim, it's to try to say, look, this could have been completely prevented.”

The sad thing is that this is the situation in Slovakia also. “Unfortunately, the path they chose was very risky,” says Rigg. “It is not a recognized hiking trail, and it is a part of the park that is strictly protected, so they should not have gone there. Plus, it's a limestone area, and it's an area I would expect there to be bears.” The encounter occurred around dusk, when crepuscular creatures like brown bears are more active.