Why does human-

conflict happen?

Brown bear attacks: female with cubs most dangerous

Brown bear conflict with humans has been on the rise, according to a study on 600 worldwide attacks.
When do these occur?
50%
People at leisure: hiking, picking berries, mushrooms, camping, fishing
28%
People at work: farming, tending livestock, logging, wildlife fieldwork
22%
People hunting
The most common scenarios for a brown bear attack:
In Europe most attacks occurred in Romania (outside of Russia, where no data was collected)
Source: Brown bear attacks on humans: a worldwide perspective
The majority wasn’t hikers in the forest
50% of bear attacks in Romania involved shepherds, farmers, cattle herders
Europeans killed in bear conflict since 2000

We spoke to the victims

  • In 2022, I was walking on a forest road, I found a few mushrooms there. I bent down to pick them and I was surprised.

    A bear was behind me. I screamed. He bit my shoulder. He broke part of my nose, and he took out my eye. He leaned on my back and then it snapped.

    There are marks left on about 80 percent of my body.
    “What would bother him? I don't know, I didn't make a fuss. I can't figure out what I did wrong.

    Every time I hear about the bear I have a problem, it kind of tickles my back.

    Now I go to the forest, but with more fear, I no longer go where I used to go.
    Ionut Racos, handyman, Lepsa, Vrancea county, Romania
  • In April 2023, 26 year-old Andrea Papi was killed by a bear while hiking in the Trentino province of Italy.

    The bear, named JJ4, had been responsible for four previous attacks, but the community did not have the right to legally kill the bear.

    The death of the boy has been a trauma for the whole community. People are now afraid to go into the forest and clearly there is a strong alarm and there is also great anger. Because we have a continuous feeling that human life is somewhat overshadowed by bear management.

    The population must be given peace, must be given security, must be given a sense of control. I tell you the truth, we fear that there may be another attack. This is how we feel. Who will be next?
    Lorenzo Cicolini, Mayor of Rabbi, Trento Province, Italy
  • In 2021, my 80 year old father was healthy and one day came to help me with the animals in the pasture when he was needed. I went to milk the cows.

    When I came to the pasture, I couldn't find him.

    I found a goat, caught by the neck with the hooves ripped out.

    The emergency team launched a drone. They found my father in some bushes. His head was crushed, and his left shoulder blade pulled out.

    I think the goats went to eat from the bushes, and the bear was in the bushes.

    The bears eat our animals, and they eat us.

    They are not afraid of people, they are not afraid of dogs. When they hear a human voice, they come at you and kill you.

    At the end of the day, we will go bankrupt, because these bears are taking our animals.
    As for our profit? The bear eats it
    Alexandru Roman, shepherd, Mures county, Romania
Are the bears guilty, or are we?
If it's an unexpected meeting, like in the forest, the bear also runs and defends the cubs. She's scared.

The bear can give him a paw and a paw can be deadly. So we have to end this idea that the bear is a big killer, the bear has become public enemy number one.

The Bear doesn't want to harm, but defends itself.

These were accidents like airplane or car accidents. This does not mean that we no longer take the plane, we no longer take the car.
Cristina Lapis, founder of Libearty bear sanctuary, Romania

People attack

There are still cases of people provoking bears in their winter sleep, and catching bears in snares.
This is happening in Romania, Albania and Kosovo, countries where hunting is illegal, and in other former Yugoslavian states.
On our cameras we see illegal hunters, who pass in front of the cameras and those who illegally cut down forests in different places in Kosovo. We have documented on video bears that seem to be injured
Arian Mavriqi, wildlife photographer, Kosovo
Some of the best bear habitats in the world in eastern Carpathians have no bears. There is suspicion that these are illegally poached.

One Romanian biologist said to us: “To shoot a bear, you do not need a permit, you need a gun.”

When people attack bears, they fight back, which causes conflict. Some cases of Romanians killed by bears in the last decade were due to villagers trying to kill bears that kidnapped their animals and ate their crops.

In Albania, bears used to be poisoned with excess strychnine from army depots. Now they are shot dead.
We see that many bears are killed, because farmers or beekeepers want to protect their farms and flocks. Shepherds often kill them to stop the damage that bears cause to their livestock or beekeepers kill them to preserve the ‘peace’ of bees from harmful bears.
Kastriot Korro, Lecturer in wildlife diseases, Agriculture University of Tirana
Illegal hunting is a huge problem considering the numbers. Out of a population of 200 to 250 around ten or 20 are killed.
Sajmir Shehu, project coordinator, Four Paws Albania
Bear thieves often kill a mother bear and steal her cubs to sell.
Usually wildlife is considered no one’s property, so those who can try to steal from it.

Sometimes bear thieves pretended to say they found the cubs alone in the mountains or on a road, and they took them out of pity to protect and feed them.

From our investigations in 2010 and 2013, the price of a cub could range from 300 to 800 euro
Aleksandër Trajçe, executive director, Protection and Preservation of Natural Environment in Albania (PPNEA)

Hunting ban

Hunting countries
Source: own data
Since 2016, bear hunting has been banned in Slovakia and Romania, two countries with high bear numbers.
Both countries have since seen a rise in numbers.
But also a change in bear behaviour.
Bears no longer fear humans. It's already been seven years since the hunting ban. Bears don't know what you are and they come close, instead of running away, and they stay and smell you. And I'm telling you, it's not that comfortable to smell a bear half a meter away
Bogdan Costescu, forestry engineer, Rasnov, Romania
However research across a large number of countries where brown live showed “there was no significant difference in the number of attacks between ‘hunting’ and ‘non-hunting’ countries,” 

Mother

seek shelter from abuse

Bear families begging for food: Arges county, Romania (photo: Diego Ravier)
A bear is a bear’s worst enemy.

In mating season, a male bear is attracted to a female. However, she is still looking after cubs. He wants her to reproduce with him. So that he can have her all to himself, he kills her cubs.

Therefore, female bears search for shelter for themselves and their offspring.
We're seeing females with lower fitness and a smaller physique have more offspring and more are appearing in urban areas. They want to raise their cubs near humans, because it means safety for the bear and cubs
Istvan Imecs, biologist, Bear Smart City, Baile Tusnad, Romania
Human settlements near bear territories could be helping weaker animals to survive

Research from the Scandinavian brown bear population shows that “Successful mothers were more likely to use humans” as a shield to protect them.

But these bears become used to human food and do not fear humans.

This can lead to conflict

Change in ownership of rural properties

Damage [from bears] has always existed. There is no moment in Romania's history when there was no damage
Mihai Pop, conservation director, Association for the Conservation of Biological Diversity (ACDB)
What has changed is people’s ownership.

Before communism, land was owned by large estates, the Church and peasants with experience of working in nature.

During communism, this land was collectivised in state farms.

After Communism, in the 1990s the state broke apart collective farms, and gave plots of land to the people.

Now there are 3.5 million farmers in Romania who look after their plants and livestock. They often cannot afford expensive biosecurity measures such as electric fences or trained anti-bear dogs.

overpopulation

The number of bears [in Romania] has increased since 2016 because bears have not been culled, and then, normally, they had a natural increase. Now we have about five times more bears than the habitat allows,
Small bears are pushed out of range by large bears defending their hunting territory. And then human-bear interactions are much bigger and longer.
Bogdan Costescu, forestry engineer, Romania
But the precise numbers of bears in Romania is in dispute.
This could be as low as 3,000 or as high as 16,000.
This conflict is based on the idea that there are too many bears, but no one has ever counted these bears correctly. No one can say exactly how many bears there are, because they have never been counted according to international norms, according to DNA traces [for the whole country]
Cristina Lapis, founder of Libearty bear sanctuary, Romania

-human habitat overlap

People from the cities are building holiday homes in the countryside, in countries such as Romania, Albania and Kosovo
They are moving into bear territory, hiking in new areas, and driving ATMs through the forests.

The frequency of people’s interaction with bears is increasing with more human activity in traditional bear habitats. There is also more bear activity in not so traditional bear habitats and it seems to me we are losing a little of this knowledge on how to coexist.
Csaba Domokos, project lead on carnivores, Milvus Group
Attacks are less frequent where human developments and activities extend more into bear areas,” says 2019 research ‘Brown bear attacks on humans: a worldwide perspective’, “and more frequent in countries where recreational activities in bear areas are more common.

habitat destruction

Bears who come close to humans are at risk of being killed by cars (photo: Diego Ravier)
New infrastructure such as highways entering bear territory can break apart the bear range and increase interactions between bears and humans.
If we create infrastructure and a road system inside a large natural area, thus fragmenting the territory, it means that the bear, to carry out its natural biological activities – feeding, resting, reproduction or wintering – must necessarily cross areas that are a source of danger for them.
Roberta Latini, biologist, National Park of Abruzzo, Lazio and Molise, Italy
This is evident in Albania, Romania, Italy and Russia.
Bears are killed by cars and trains in Romania in large numbers.
When their natural habitat and food source is destroyed, such as the Siberian pine in Russia, this can force them to seek food elsewhere.
Major areas of Albania have been deforested in the past years, so the homes where bears live has been significantly altered. They have lost major parts of their former range. Before the 1950s bears were present in almost the entire country with the exception of the lowlands. Now they are more restricted in the northern highlands, eastern and southeastern mountains
Aleksandër Trajçe, executive director, Protection and Preservation of Natural Environment in Albania (PPNEA)
This led to a wider area of tension between humans and bears.
The main cause for orphan bears is Forest exploitation, says Leonardo Bereczky, who runs the Bear Again Rehabilitation Center for Orphan Bears in Transylvania. “Females are disturbed by loggers during early spring when they are not able to carry the cubs away.”
Especially disturbing are the new constructions that are being made everywhere in Rugova (west Kosovo, and Montenegro), and the Sharr Mountains (south Kosovo, and North Macedonia) and other places by humans, because they are destroying their habitats and entering their territory. This automatically brings us to serious problems. As a result of this in the future we may have a total extinction of the bear because we are going into their habitats
Arian Mavriqi, wildlife photographer, Kosovo

Climate change

The length of the winters are getting shorter and bears are spending less and less time in winter dens during hibernation and this will increase the interaction between people and bears even further
Csaba Domokos, Milvus Group
[In Slovakia] the Tatra mountains traditionally had a very short growing season, and the main crops were potatoes and turnips and not much else, these days due to warmer climate and longer growing season and economic systems and subsides, farmers are able to grow more, but there is a big focus on maize, and that is a rich food source for large mammals including bears
Robin Rigg, chairman, Slovak Wildlife Society, Slovakia
In Slovenia, where one third of all bear’s calories in their diet come from artificial feeding sites.
We have observed that the bears are spending much less time in the winter dens for hibernation compared to other countries where there is no artificial feeding. Bears are spending half as much time in the winter den as they would without feeding

Miha Krofel, large carnivore expert, professor, University of Ljubljana, Slovenia

A lack of help from authorities

There needs to be a national education and information campaign on bears to make people more aware of the dangers of moving through bear country

Human disregard of safety rules in bear country is a major cause of conflict according to Russian research.

This also requires political will at a local and national level.

[Bear management] was probably the most complex issue in the ministry of the environment during my mandate and generated the highest interest in some moments in the last years. I think if someone is committed to show all the details behind the decisions then trust can be built between the decision maker and the society. The policy lead for decisions is probably the most difficult in the ministry. Nobody wants to deal with this issue in the Ministry of the Environment.
Romania’s ex-Minister of the Environment Barna Tánczos

Find out more...

The production of this investigation was supported by a grant from Journalism in Europe IJ4EU and Journalism Fund Europe.