A bear in the backyard: a photo shoot

A bear in the backyard: a photo shoot

In the sparsely populated settlements that lie in the shadow of the Carpathians, the presence of bears is strongly felt. Habitat and therefore food are becoming increasingly scarce for bears due to illegal logging. In search of food, bears have to descend from ancient forests to villages more frequently, which ultimately results in conflicts between man and bear.

  • Bears emerge in the quiet streets of a Transylvanian town. When night falls and the streets become quiet, the bears go out and look for food

The thriving population is the result of the communist era, when Nicolae Ceaușescu ruled over Romanian lands and obsessively intervened with nature. He created feeding stations for the bears by ordering the corpses of the cattle to be dumped into the forests to increase the population.

Ceaușescu also prohibited bear hunting, which was an act of personal interest. Only he and his group members could hunt bears and the horrifying stories of this period still resonate. His actions have led to the fact that Romania is now home to more than half of the total brown bear population in Europe. While other countries have had to develop reintroduction programs, Romanians are suffering the consequences of his “help” from Ceaușescu.

With this photographic story we want to show a part of Europe that is beautiful, but often overlooked. One of the last places on this busy continent that still hosts true wilderness. Where people have coexisted with large carnivores since the beginning of time. From the remains of people who lived among the now extinct cave bear 35,000 years ago, to a dictator who obsessively intervened in the bear population, to a modern society where almost everyone has a story about bears.

Romanians have a rich history with bears, but have always struggled to coexist with these large carnivores. Today villages are looted, groups of tourists attacked and shepherds bring their sheep to the highest peaks of the mountain ridges to protect their flocks, but Romanians also praise the bear as part of their winter traditions.

Life flourished after the fall of the regime in 1989, but in a short time this joy of having freedom showed its dark side. It takes time to recover from a fixed set of rules implemented by a regime. As a result, this unfamiliar lifestyle has resulted in unemployment and disorder. This lack of a sense of responsibility of Romanians can often be seen in the way they spend their free time, which is mainly outdoors. From camping, to fishing, to bear hunting in the backyard on drunk nights.

However, the natural carrying capacity for bears is too low, so numerous even larger Transylvanian villages and towns such as Brasov, are plundered by bears. There are believed to be around 6,000 bears roaming the Romanian forests. The struggle to live with bears eventually gained a priority on the government’s agenda, but the discussion of bear management is complex due to all the stakeholders involved.

  • Above, a large female bear explores her natural habitat. Romania is home to one of the last remaining ancient forests in Europe. It is estimated that around 6,000 bears inhabit these forests

  • About 300 bears live at the Libearty Bear Sanctuary in Zarnesti, where enclosures are made to recreate their natural forest habitat. Bears are generally solitary animals, but as long as they have enough food, they can live next to each other

Each year, hunting associations provide data on the total number of bears in their area. From this, the government calculates an annual quota of bears to be culled, but hunters benefit from artificially reporting high numbers, which lead to biased results. In September 2019, the Romanian Senate passed a bill to remove the brown bear from the protected species list and allow for seasonal hunting. Environmental organizations responded by arguing that there was neither reliable proof of population size nor of the effects of the new legislation. More recently, the Romanian Ministry of Environment announced that there will be extensive research to ascertain the current situation.

  • Several cities in Transylvania, Romania worship bears with a traditional dance to fertilize and purify the soil, drive away evil spirits and welcome the new year. The relationship between Romanians and these large carnivores has a rich history and this tradition is unique in the country

Meanwhile, in several cities of Transylvania, bears are worshiped every winter by the traditional Ursul dance. A dance to fertilize and purify the soil, drive away evil spirits and welcome the new year. In addition to worship, people have also created ways to make money with bears with expeditions and ecotourism.

While all of this sounds encouraging, to both the bear population and the locals, bears continue to raid dumpsters, break through fences and destroy crops. These “problem bears” are often moved to sanctuaries, but the capacities of these structures are increasingly strained due to the continued loss of habitat of the species.

While this happens in the villages, higher up in the mountains, shepherds go to sleep every night wrapped in a thick blanket of fog, guarded by a pack of specially bred cattle watchdogs, not knowing what the night might bring.

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