In the sparsely populated settlements in the shadow of the Carpathians, the presence of bears is strongly felt. Illegal logging is making habitat and thus food for bears increasingly scarce. In search of food, bears increasingly have to descend from the jungles into villages, which eventually leads to conflicts between humans and bears.
Bears appear in the quiet streets of a town in Transylvania. When night falls and the streets grow quiet, the bears come out and look for food
The thriving population is a result of the communist era, when Nicolae Ceaușescu ruled over the Romanian lands and compulsively encroached on nature. He created feeding stations for bears by ordering that cattle carcasses be dumped in the woods to increase populations.
Ceaușescu also banned the hunting of bears, which was an act of self-interest. Only he and his party comrades were allowed to hunt bears, and horrifying stories from that time still reverberate. His actions resulted in Romania now being home to more than half of Europe’s entire brown bear population. While other countries have had to come up with resettlement programs, Romanians are suffering the consequences of Ceausescu’s “aid”.
With this photo story we want to show a beautiful but often overlooked part of Europe. One of the last places on this crowded continent still home to true wilderness. Where humans have lived with large carnivores since the dawn of time. From remains of humans who lived among the now-extinct cave bears 35,000 years ago, to a dictator forcibly interfering with bear populations, to a modern-day society where almost everyone has a story about bears.
Romanians have a rich history with bears, but have always had trouble coexisting with these large carnivores. Today, villages are raided, tourist groups attacked and shepherds take their sheep to the highest peaks of mountain ridges to protect their flocks, but even Romanians praise the bear as part of their winter traditions.
Life flourished after the fall of the regime in 1989, but before long this joy in freedom showed its darker side. It takes time to recover from a fixed set of rules implemented by a regime. Consequently, this unknown way of life led to unemployment and disorder. This lack of responsibility among Romanians is often reflected in the way they spend their free time, which is mostly outdoors. From camping to fishing to scaring away bears in the backyard on drunk nights.
However, the bears’ natural carrying capacity is too low, so numerous villages and even larger cities in Transylvania, such as Brasov, are attacked by bears. Around 6,000 bears are thought to roam the Romanian forests. The fight to live with bears eventually gained a priority on the government agenda, but the discussion about bear management is complex due to all the stakeholders involved.
Above, a large she-bear explores her natural habitat. Romania is home to one of the last remaining primeval forests in Europe. It is estimated that around 6,000 bears live in these forests
Around 300 bears live at the Libearty Bear Sanctuary in Zarnesti, where the enclosures are designed to replicate their natural forest habitat. Bears are usually solitary, but as long as the bears have enough food, they can live side by side
Every year, hunting associations report the total number of bears in their area. From this, the government calculates an annual kill rate, but hunters benefit from artificially high numbers that lead to skewed results. In September 2019, the Romanian Senate passed a law to remove the brown bear from the list of protected species and allow for seasonal hunting. Environmental groups argued that there was no reliable evidence of either the population size or the impact of the new legislation. Recently, the Romanian Ministry of the Environment announced that thorough investigations will be carried out to determine the actual situation.
Several cities in Transylvania, Romania, worship bears with a traditional dance to fertilize and purify the soil, drive away evil spirits, and welcome in 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 in Transylvania, bears are worshiped every winter through the traditional dance Ursul. A dance to fertilize and purify the soil, drive away evil spirits and welcome in the new year. In addition to worship, humans have also created opportunities to make money off bears through expeditions and ecotourism.
While all of this seems encouraging for both the bear population and local residents, bears still raid trash cans, breach fences and destroy crops. These ‘problem bears’ are often relocated to sanctuaries, but the capacity of these facilities is becoming increasingly strained as the species continues to lose habitat.
While this is happening in the villages, higher up in the mountains the shepherds go to sleep each night under a thick blanket of fog, guarded by a pack of specially bred livestock guardian dogs, unaware of what the night will bring.