Unscrupulous Romanian hunters are accused of killing hundreds of protected bears each year through legal loopholes and bogus documentation.
A bear in front of an observatory (Photo: Magda Munteanu)
The hunter waited until dark. Concealed in an observatory with small windows, used to monitor animal behaviour, he checked his watch - 9.40 pm.
It was cold and the snow was thick, following several days of heavy falls. The bear appeared.
It was a big male, at least 12 years old. The hunter felt at once thrilled and fearful. He took aim through a window, then pulled the trigger.
The bear stood no chance. It died instantly, the bullet entered just behind its left arm - blood dripped from the wound.
"I asked for a big, old male. They gave it to me. I am very pleased. I will come back in the autumn, to hunt black goats," said 66-year-old Fernando Pancorbo from Spain, who has been hunting for over 50 years.
Hunters from around the world are drawn to Romania because of the abundance of wild brown bears - and they`re prepared to pay up to 20,000 euros to bag one. Three hundred were killed for sport in 2010.
All of which is perfectly legal, despite the fact that the European Union deems these animals to be endangered, placing them on its red list of protected species. So how is this possible?
The problem stems from an exemption in EU law which permits the killing of bears if they are found to have threatened people or damaged public or private property.
This is seized upon by some unscrupulous managers of hunting areas, who exaggerate or simply make up reports of the destruction caused and then rake in fat profits from the fees they charge foreign hunters to kill the supposedly errant animals.
The selection of new managers for Romania's hunting areas, a process which started in February, has provoked an ongoing dispute over the effects it will have on game management.
The new system allows those hunting associations that can prove they have the consent of more than 50 per cent of land owners in their area to take over directly the hunting management from its previous administrators. The rest of the areas that have not been distributed in this way will be put up for auction.
Some say the new managers will do an even poorer job than their predecessors, while others argue the former will finally put a stop to the plunging numbers of all game - that's resulted from the poor enforcement of hunting regulations.
The major loser in the process is Romsilva, the only state-owned manager of hunting areas, which so far has administered 26 per cent of the country's 2,162 hunting regions. It's estimated that its share of
the latter will drop to ten per cent.
"It's a radical change in hunting. Only now the bear will be in danger, because poaching will increase exponentially," said Armand Chiriloiu, representative of the hunting department of Romsilva.
The danger is that the new associations, many of whom don't have experience in game management, will be keen to make profits from hunters - with bears at the top of the list of prized trophies - but in doing so undermine the hunting business.
"Unfortunately, they will drive the price down and the bear will lose its value. I am very worried. It takes only two to three years to destroy a species," said Arpad Sarkany, owner of Abies Hunting, one of the largest hunting marketing agencies in Romania, which brings Romsilva most of its wealthiest hunters.
The new private administrators of hunting areas are, in turn, scathing of the former managers' record on game management. Benke Jozsef, whose company will take over 500 square kilometres of Romsilva's best hunting regions in Harghita, said his "plan is to stop the massacre Romsilva conducted in the region.
"Besides the hunting quota, they shot at least double [this figure]. The whole [hunting] system is full of flaws."
The hunting exemption can only be applied if it can be proved that the killing of such bears does not affect the overall population.
The hunting lobby maintains that the latter is the case, but there`s no reliable way of counting animal numbers in place, nor is there a coordinated approach to monitoring their movement, at a time when bears are covering greater distances than ever before.
There have been several attempts to improve surveying methods on the ground, however these have
proved ineffective and expensive.
As a consequence, hunters are able to kill bears almost at will, exploiting the legal loopholes and a bear management system that works to their advantage.
The body in charge of deciding whether a bear should be killed is the state-owned Forest Research and Management Planning Institute (ICAS), headed by the president of a major private hunting association.
It gathers reports on bear numbers and the damage caused by them from the several hundred associations that manage hunting around the country - whose income is generated by hunting activities.
Based on this information, ICAS has proposed 340 kills for this year to the EU.
It has approved the quota - after checking that all the necessary procedures have been adhered to - and the ministry of environment and forests has duly given its go-ahead.
With critics decrying the vagueness of the system and the apparent conflict of interests, I decided for myself to see what a bear damage complaint that ICAS uses to sanction a kill actually looked like.
I approached the only state-owned administrator of hunting areas, Romsilva, which oversees bear populations in parts of a number of counties.
I randomly picked Arges, which this year received permission from ICAS to hunt 23 bears.
For this county, Romsilva had acquired licenses to kill 12 animals on the basis of six damage complaints which had been sent by local municipalities and signed by their mayors.
"I've never signed something like that. We haven't had problems with bears during the last ten years," said Ion Naftanila, mayor of Albestii de Muscel, when I told him his signature appears on one of Romsilva's complaint papers.
I then approached Eugeniu Patru, the mayor of Pietrosani, whose letter of complaint is also included in the Romsilva file.
"I made a complaint in the summer of 2009. I haven't sent any request since then, because we don't have problems anymore," he said.
The other three mayors I spoke to admitted there had been some problems with bears in their villages and that they filed complaints to Romsilva in this respect.
My snapshot survey of the complaints system revealed clear failings, so what measures does ICAS have to check on the accuracy of the damage reports the managers of hunting areas submit.
"We verify up to 20 per cent of the files we receive from (them).
The truth of the information included in these files is their responsibility," said Ovidiu Ionescu, head of ICAS and president of the Brasov hunting association, which this year has a hunting quota of 12 bears, the largest for such an organisation in the county.
A ranger heads towards an observatory, where a bear eats the food the ranger left for the animal previously. These cottages are meant for observation, but they are also used for hunting.(Photo: Magda Munteanu)
Ionescu denies that his Brasov role compromises his work at ICAS, "If I had been involved in counting the bears within my organisation, I would have had a conflict of interests.
But since I [don't] take part in this process, there is no problem."
So what sort of procedures exist to confirm the veracity of Complaints?
According to Romanian law, one has to be submitted to the local town hall within 24 hours of damage being incurred.
Then once this has been registered, a special commission - made up of an environment ministry representative, a member of the Environmental Protection Agency (APM) and officials from the town hall and the management of the local hunting area - must go to the site of the damage, assess it and identify the bear that caused it.
Though this process sounds thorough, in practice it appears to be anything but.
"They come to check the damage in less than half of cases. If the bear ate the sheep, what's there to check?" said Remo Mateescu, vice-mayor of Corbeni, in Arges county.
The concern is that, as long as the administrators of the hunting areas have a strong economic interest in getting EU killing exemptions, the temptation to overestimate the scale of or even invent the damage caused by the bears is great.
Bear footprints- used to count the number of bears (Photo: Magda Munteanu)
"In Vrancea, I've seen about ten identical complaints, written by administrators of the hunting area that were blindly signed by mayors and villagers," claimed Silviu Chiriac, a representative of the APM in Vrancea.
He added the damage files that some administrators produce show there are losses but do not quantify them or identifying the actual bears that caused them.
Indeed, the complaints that I had access to in Arges county were the briefest of assessments, no more than a few lines, noting only that bears ate sheep or destroyed orchards - without elaborating - and requesting that the county authorities do something about it.
Further enquiries revealed that nobody is in charge of monitoring damage caused by bears nationwide and the environment and forests ministry has no idea of the income generated by hunting activities.
This has brought about a situation where a hunter who's prepared to spend thousands of euros is entitled by law to kill a protected animal.
"The size of the bear he kills depends on the depth of his wallet. I estimate that less than ten per cent of the hunted bears are the ones that cause problems. It's actually a hunt for trophies," Chiriac, of the APM at Vrancea, said.
Despite suspicions over the way the EU exemption system functions in Romania, Ctibor Kocman, representative of the European Commission in Romania, says they can do little until they have evidence that it is having an effect on bear numbers.
A female bear and her two cubs eat in front of the observatory (Photo: Magda Munteanu)
"I have doubts related to the scientific methods Romania uses to manage its bears.
We cannot [stop Romania hunting bears] because we don't have proof of the quota's negative effects on the bears," he said.
The old Lada Niva creaks as it splutters along the bumpy forest road in the Pastravar valley of the Harghita mountains.
But then the idyllic scenery ends abruptly as up ahead a deforested area comes into view.
Two roebucks lift their heads and look at us from behind some tree stumps.
"Stop," said the grizzled ranger, who has spent all his life in the woods, tracking animals.
He gets out of the car and looks at a trail of paw marks that lead uphill. "There is a bear passage over there," he said.
He jumps over a small creek and, hands in his pockets, follows the animal traces.
"They are old. The bear was here three days ago," the ranger said. He bends down, picks up a small stick and measures the footprint. "Twenty-four centimetres. It's a young male, four to five years old. His den is up there," he pointed uphill towards the forest.
The bear population of the Apuseni mountains, currently estimated at about 300 animals, has been in steady decline, but could be dealt a severe blow once a planned highway through the area is built.
"[The bear population] will not be able to sustain itself and the [road] project doesn't include any passes for animals," warned Csaba Domokos, bear expert with the nongovernmental association the Milvus Group.
The Targu Mures - Iasi highway, which will run through the Carpatii Orientali and Carpatii de Curbura parts of the mountain range that have the most bears.
"I am now working on identifying those bear routes that will be interrupted by the highway at Pasul Bucin and the Tarnava Mica river basin," Domokos said.
The aim of the research is mainly to identify corridors used by bears on the planned route of the highway, and then to propose bridges over the road which the animals can cross.
Milvus will try to apply his model to other parts of the country where bear communities are threatened.
"But for some areas it will be too late," Domokos s
I feel I`m standing next to Winnetou, the famous Indian character from Karl May's novels.
But to him this is just part of his daily routine. His job is to monitor bear numbers in this Romsilva-managed hunting area.
The country`s bear population has been the subject of dispute for many years, with estimates varying wildly.
At the top end, the managers of hunting areas put the figure at 7,800, which means that the country has 40 per cent of the bear population of Europe, excluding Russia.
The environment and forests ministry says the number is 6,000-6,500. It believes this total has remained constant for the past decade, but is around 2,000 more than the optimum population size.
The government's assessment, however, is challenged by some NGOs who a few years ago said there were no more than 3,000 bears left in the country.
One of the main reasons why the estimates vary so markedly is that the method for counting doesn't take into account trends within the bear population.
"The Romanian authorities have no idea of how the bear population is structured or of bear cubs' survival rates.
All their estimates are purely guesses," argued Csaba Domokos, bear expert with the non-governmental association the Milvus Group, and a member of the National Working Group for Large Carnivores, an advisory body for the environment ministry.
Critically, he believes the authorities don't know whether the hunting of bears affects the development of the species.
Being able to prove that it doesn't is a key requirement of the EU when it decides to issue exemptions to the ban on bear hunting.
Officially, Romania has a bear management plan, as requested by the European authorities.
A ranger measures the size of a bear footprint (Photo: Magda Munteanu)
But Domokos warns this plan is based on data that cannot be verified and that hasn't been published in international scientific journals.
"All practices included in this plan are based on data which we don't know whether is real or not.
The resulting numbers are, therefore, completely irrelevant," he said.
Environmental campaigners say the authorities' estimates of bear numbers are too high because they are based on figures from managers of hunting areas across the country and are assessed by an organisation whose head is the president of a big hunting association.
They argue there's a clear conflict of interest here as the hunters are ones actually counting the prey.
But Ionescu from ICAS insists that his aim is to genuinely increase the numbers of bears in Romania.
He explained that managers of hunting areas take measures to help cubs survive and increases birth rates.
"If every bear represents a potential 5,000 euro [of revenue], my interest is to decrease poaching and protect it, so that it can bring me value. If it is a protected species, it is of no value to me, because it cannot be hunted," Ionescu said.
However, activists fear that some administrators inflate the figures to show that killing individual bears won't damage the overall population.
Counting Under Scrutiny
Three Environment Protection Agencies (APMs) from Vrancea, Covasna and Harghita are working on a 550,000-euro project that will test five innovative bear-counting methods in Romania.
Their aim is to complement the current evaluation procedures which are based on footprints counts and the monitoring of bear behaviour at observatories.
The initiative stems from a growing acknowledgement that present counting methods do not take into consideration the fact that bears are increasingly migratory.
"We want to introduce elements of statistical analysis to decrease errors," Mihai Pop, from the APM in Covasna, said.
The new evaluation methods include the use of sensor-activated cameras, bear marking, tightly-controlled monitoring and counting and sophisticated computer software to estimate animal numbers.
When the project ends in December, 2013, the three agencies will decide whether any of these methods can be applied in Romania.
"If they prove inapplicable in Romania, nobody can say anymore that our current counting methods are not good," Pop said.
Should the agencies decide that the new system works, it will present a costed proposal to ministry of environment and fores
"The number of bears has increased yearly only on paper," said Chiriac from the APM in Vrancea, who is now coordinating the 550,000 euro Lifeursus initiative, the third EU-funded project on large carnivores in the Vrancei mountains.
Its aim is to implement best conservation practice to better preserve the largest bear population in Romania, in the central-eastern part of the Oriental Carpathians, in Vrancea, Covasna and Harghita counties.
"If Vrancea and Covasna share the same bears, how is it possible that we proved [there are] only 300 bears and Covasna says it has more than double [this number]? The more bears they say there are, the larger the number they are allowed to kill."
The environment and forests ministry admits that it only randomly checks - through its APMs - the figures the managers of hunting associations provide ICAS.
"From our estimates, there's a 20 per cent rate of error. We've had bears travelling through 14 hunting areas and could have been counted 14 times," Jozsef Both, from the APM in Harghita, said.
The three-year-old bear seems relaxed as he eats the grains the ranger has spread in front of the observatory.
It lifts its head and pricks up its ears as we approach and enter the hut on the Romsilva's hunting area in Harghita.
Its name is Foltos (Hungarian for stained - the region is mainly ethnic Hungarian), because of the white spot on its neck.
"I know my bears better than my neighbours. One has a small beard, another is hunchbacked or holds its paw [against its body] as it eats," the ranger said.
He comes here almost daily, at dusk, to keep an eye on the bears that eat the food meant to keep them away from people's crops.
He observes Foltos from behind the three small windows in his hut. "This place is only for observation. It's not for hunting," the ranger said.
The bear leaves and, about 15 minutes later, Micutu appears at the fringes of the forest. He's small, fearful and cautious.
He sniffs the air from the distance, then turns around and disappears into the woods.
"Bear behaviour has changed during the last few years. They travel much more and it's difficult to anticipate where they'll go," the ranger said.
The old methods of counting bears are not taking into consideration changes in bear behaviour, in particular a tendency to wander further and further afield because of the encroachment of agricultural activity and deforestation.
Rangers are able to monitor bears in hunting areas, but can no longer predict where they will go nor follow them for any distance.
Europe's Bear Population
Region Countries Number of bears
Iberia Spain 120
Pyrenees France, Spain, Andorra 15-17
Apennines Italy 40-50
Alps Italy, Austria, Slovenia, Switzerland 30-50
Dinaric Pindos Slovenia, Greece, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Croatia, Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia, Albania 2,100-2,500
East Balkans Greece, Serbia, Bulgaria 720
Carpathians Czech Republic, Poland, Slovakia, Romania, Ukraine, Serbia 8,000
Scandinavia Sweden, Norway 2,600
Northeastern Europe Finland, Norway, Russia 4,300
Northeastern Europe Estonia, Latvia, Russia, Belarus 6,800
"We have gathered information that has turned upside down everything we thought we knew about bears. We found out that we don't know anything about bears," Chiriac said.
He said that attaching GPS collars to some bears had revealed that they can travel more than 1,000 square kilometers in one year, ten times more than they did a decade ago.
This means that rangers in contiguous hunting areas are likely to be counting the same bears as they migrate through the forests.
Since there is no national coordinator for the monitoring process - who would investigate the possibility of the individual bears being counted several times - the final countrywide figures are almost certainly inflated, environmentalists claim.
Experts say that in light of the distances bears now travel, ICAS should adjust its maps of where they traditionally live.
"They began to expand their habitat and now live in areas that don't appear on ICAS maps," Domokos of the Milvus Group said.
He points out, for example, a region of Mures county where the ICAS map indicates there are no bears, yet he says he has personally seen 17 there and said he knows that ICAS has approved a number of killing licenses.
Clearly, thorough research needs to be conducted to learn more about their new habits and habitat.
Domokos is currently working on a project that includes scientific collection of data regarding the size of bear habitats, seasonal movements and habits.
His plan is to attach GPS collars to bears to better track them, but he has limited funds and, for the moment, can only afford to monitor two animals using the devices.
Romania's Bear Population
Targu Mures 400-600
However, such piecemeal initiatives are of little value.
Experts believe that one would have to tag a substantial number of bears with GPS collars, including cubs and old males, to get an accurate picture of migratory habits - an endeavour that might prove to be prohibitively expensive as the tagging of 1,000 animals would cost of the order of 3.5 million euros.
And, according to ecologist Nicolae Daramus, until there is "a census [of bear numbers] conducted scientifically, the species should not be hunted".
It's almost dark when the female bear and her two cubs come to the observatory to eat. The ten-year-old mother lifts her nose and smells the air like a dog, then sits down and allows her babies to play.
"It will soon let her cubs go. We'll have a big male around here in short time," the ranger said.
This article was produced by the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network as part of the Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence Alumni Initiative, established and supported by the Robert Bosch Stiftung and ERSTE Foundation.
Magda Munteanu was born in 1978 in Bucharest, Romania. She has ten years’ experience as a journalist, mainly covering finance and the economy
The re-emergence of Turkey as a growing economic, political and religious power in the Balkans is the subject of the latest Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence Alumni Initiative project.
Twelve countries, including several Balkan states, have signed up to the European Roma Decade 2005-2015 initiative. Halfway through the decade, has any real progress been made?
The Alumni Network is an ever-expanding group of journalists who have all participated in the Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence.