Close-Up Meeting the Bears

Bears are lazy, I hear it all the time. Why should they search for food in the forest if it’s lying about in rubbish bins in the city? It’s the delight of YouTube filmmakers, the annoyance of the authorities and discomfort of the residents of those neighbourhoods in Brașov where the bears rove the streets at night. From the safety of indoors it may be quite sweet to watch a mother bear and her two babies, but who wants to really meet her face to face? 

I do. Well, maybe. For a week I’ve been working for the Karpaten Rundschau in Brașov through a journalists’ exchange programme of the Goethe-Institut. I come from Munich where I work as a radio journalist at Bayerischer Rundfunk. My research topic in Brașov: The bears who enter the city in search of food. It’s a topic that also interests people in Germany. After all, Romania has Europe’s largest bear population and like all countries where big predators live or have resettled, the country faces the question: How much nature can humans tolerate? And how much humankind can nature stand? In Germany, one single bear became a “problem bear.” He even has a name: Bruno. Bruno was a topic for weeks in the media and in the pubs until he was finally shot. Braşov and surroundings have not only one problem bear, but many. So how is the city handling the situation?

With astonishing laissez-faire, I learn. Most of the people I meet have actually heard of Germany’s Bruno and laugh when I tell them how upset people were over him. So much discussion about one bear? My research in Braşov takes me first to the forestry office. According to Dan Olteanu, head of the forestry office, the fact that it became illegal to shoot bears last year is a big problem. In the meantime, there are too many bears in too little space. So, it’s no wonder they are coming to the cities in search of food. His solution to the problem is quite clear – it should be legal to shoot bears that enter the cities.

 © Christine Auerbach The lodgekeeper at the Cabana Postăvaru agrees as he points to a window and the front door of the lodge nailed shut with a sheet of chipboard – a bear smashed the windowpane and entered the lodge. No one was injured, he only stole some sugar. Although it sounds endearing – a bear who went on a quick “shopping spree” for the party in the forest, for the lodgekeeper it is a real problem. He cares about the safety of his guests and about his income.

Many in Braşov and the surrounding area can tell stories of bear encounters. Despite an intense search, we find no trace of them on our hike to the lodge, not even a tiny paw print. Unfortunately. Or fortunately? I have no idea what to do if a bear suddenly appears in front of you. Do you run away? Do you lay down? Sing?

By all means do not climb a tree ... that’s made clear to me at the bear reserve in Zărneşti. This is where we see our first real bears. They like to climb to the top branches of the now bare trees and let the sun warm their fur. Cristina Lapis from the NGO that looks after the reserve guides us around. I am mostly impressed by a figure she cites: The reserve needs around 40,000 euros every month for food, electricity and other expenses. That’s a lot of money that has to come in through donations and NGO funds. For Cristina Lapis it’s clear that the bears are not the ones to blame that they are meeting up ever more frequently with humans in recent years, but the humans who like to feed them with biscuits and don’t bear-proof their garbage bins. A YouTube video showing you and the bears gets so many likes and hits...

After visiting the reserve, we stomp up to Măgura, to Villa Hermani. The village lies in the sunshine like a painting, no wonder it is one of the most popular destinations in the region. The owners of Villa Hermani, Hermann and Katharina Kurmes, also think that the pressure on the forests is increasing and that is why the animals are coming to the cities. Forests are being cut down, new residential areas are being built and there are more and more sheep that need more grazing land.

As we head back to Braşov on the bus at the end of the day and our feet slowly thaw, I realise that there is no simple solution for the bears. Depending on who I talked with, it was shoot them or relocate them or set up different rubbish bins. Or, or, or… A lot needs to be finetuned so that in the end both sides, nature and humankind, can live happily together.

Of course, that applies to many things – not least, for example, the different countries in the European Union growing together. That, too, will not happen overnight. It, too, will be successful if all sides listen to one another and then start doing some finetuning. An exchange for which my Romanian colleague Elise Wilk is in Germany and I can work here in Romania for four weeks is part of that finetuning, for only those who know how their neighbours live can ensure that living together succeeds.