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The East Balkan distribution of brown bears is comprised of two presently connected population segments; the Central Balkan and the Rilo-Rhodopean bear population, shared by Bulgaria and Greece. With more than eight known human bear accidents, including one lethal between 2010-2017 as well as increasesd caused in bear damages, Smolyan region in Bulgaria has become a “hot-spot” for anti-bear attitudes. As a result there is a high risk of bear poaching increase. Localised monitoring has provided a rough estimate of population size but until today a joint rigorous methodology has not been carried out. As knowledge of precise demographic parameters is imperative for the design of assessing mortality and designing conservation actions, estimating the bears in the region seems urgent.

This project, led by Balkani Wildlife Society and supported by Bears in Mind, aims to estimate the population size of the East Balkan distribution of brown bears using non-invasive capture-recapture multiple data source genetic methods. The main overall objective is to provide accurate estimates for total (N) and effective population size (Ne) for one of the largest distribution clusters of the brown bear in Europe.

On August 3 2019, bears Medo & Buya were loaded onto a transport van which took them all the way from the small town of Vlahi in Bulgaria to the small town of Aprica in Northern Italy. It was a long but successful journey, where the bears were actually very calm throughout the trip.

On August the 4th they arrived in Aprica and were taken up the mountain to their new home. Their 10,000sq meter natural forested enclosure is part of an education centre for Alpine wildlife: https://www.parcorobievalt.com/centri-visitatori/osservatorio-eco-faunistico-alpino

During the next days both bears settled in nicely, each their own separate indoor enclosure. After several weeks of exploring the forested outdoor enclosure, the bears were finally reunited again!

They are doing very well and we hope that they will have many wonderful years to come!

Let’s take you back a bit…

Bear Medo was rescued from a circus in 2004 and via temporary keeping in Sofia Zoo, placed at the large carnivore centre in Vlahi in 2006. With financial help from Bears in Mind a special enclosure was built. The main purpose of housing the bear in Vlahi was educational, as living ambassador for his kind. The visitors of the Large Carnivore Education Centre which opened in Spring 2007, had the chance to see a bear in semi natural environment and to observe behaviour close to the natural. Visitors learned more about bears in the wild and the real needs of conserving the species. They received information about the purpose of having the bear there and about the LC centre. School groups which visited Medo, received special lectures about bears in the wild. Local people accepted the bear very positively, with big interest and Medo often received gifts like a big bag with apples (or other fruits), cabbage, tomatoes, etc. The Balkani Wildlife Society (BWS) team was very happy to see that, as it was important for Medo’s long term stay in the village.

In April 2014 bear Medo got a new neighbour: bear Buya from Kormisosh! Bears in Mind helped BWS financially to build a new enclosure for Buya. Once it was finished and all permits were in, Buya moved out of Kormisosh to her new home in Vlahi.

Unfortunately, due to the rough economic situation in Bulgaria and more specifically for NGOs like BWS, funds quickly dried up and the bears could no longer be kept in Vlahi. After Bears in Mind funded their care for another year, it was decided to find a new and safe home for Medo & Buya.

In cooperation with Bears in Mind, Balkani Wildlife Society in Bulgaria visited & surveyed around seventy dancing bears, zoo bears and circus bears, starting from 1999. These bears were all given a microchip. Balkani Wildlife Society visited the captive bears on a regular basis and provided veterinary care where needed. During this period, the Belitza Dancing Bear Center was developed. In 2007 the last dancing bears were placed in this shelter.

In 2015 Bears in Mind rescued the last bears from former Bulgarian bear-breeding station Kormisosh.

The project started in January 2004 and different stakeholders were invited to an introductory meeting at the beginning of the project. The most important goal of this meeting was to create motivation and commitment among the partners to draw up a management plan. The meeting was led by a neutral facilitator. The main issues such as hunting, estimation methods of bear population and contents of the management plan were discussed. The field work was directed at collecting data on population size, population trends, distribution, habitat use, mortality causes, damage being done by bears, public attitudes towards bears, human impact on the bear population etc.

Bears in Mind was able to secure funding from the Dutch Ministry of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality through their PIN-Matra and BBI-Matra programme. Bears in Mind was responsible for the overall project coordination and interaction with the Dutch sponsors. BALKANI Wildlife Society was responsible for project coordination and implementation locally. In June 2008 the final version of the management plan was presented to the Bulgarian Ministry of Environment and Water and received approval!

Bears in Mind has supported the development of the Large Carnivore Education Centre in Vlahi, in the Pirin Mountains. Various other projects in this region (see links to the projects below) have also been supported. After completion, the centre has been in full use. Not only school children, but also students and tourists visit the centre to learn about Bulgarian wildlife which features information on the countries carnivores. A small shop has been opened and visitors can enjoy coffee and a snack in the small café. On the second floor an interactive exhibition is set up, highlighting examples of conflicts between humans and carnivores and their possible solutions. In addition, a room is converted to make it suitable for workshops and (small) conferences. 

Near the educational centre the bear enclosure for former circusbear Medo and bear Buya (from Kormisosh) was built. At the beginning of August 2019 these bears have been relocated to a new home in Northern Italy.

When bears received a protected status in 1993 and could no longer be hunted, the bears in Kormisosh did not have a ‘purpose’ anymore. They received no care and were ‘forgotten’ and left to die a miserable death. Since the mid 90s, the situation indeed only got worse and the bears that still lived in the former hunting station were literally rotting away.

Bears in Mind and her Bulgarian partner Balkani Wilidlife Society (BWS) worked closely with the responsible Bulgarian government to end this horrible suffering once and for all. The first priority was to give these bears basic medical care and to make sure they received proper food on a daily basis. In addition, a number of animal keepers were trained to take care of the bears. In close cooperation with the Bulgarian government and local NGOs, Bears in Mind found suitable, permanent homes for all the 14 remaining bears from Kormisosh. In May 2015 the two last bears – Keta and Mincho – were relocated to the Bear Forest in Rhenen. Kormisosh is no more!

Semperviva is a Bulgarian organization which started to breed livestock uarding dogs again. Every year, one or two litters of puppies are raised. When the puppies are old enough they are taken (for free) to pre-selected shepherds, who sign an agreement confirming their understanding of how to take care of the dogs. The dogs need to work in pairs and very often a younger pup is trained by an adult dog. With its follow-up programme Semperviva checks on the dogs twice a year until they are confident that the dogs behaviour is appropriate. Bears in Mind funded the breeding project between 2002-2011.

In the old days, the Karakachan dog breed was used specially to protect flocks of sheep. The Semperviva programme makes it possible for shepherds to obtain a puppy and receive training in how to care for the dogs and use them to protect their livestock. Every year, a dozen puppies were placed in the eastern part of the Rhodopy mountains in Bulgaria. Furthermore, the number of attacks by bears and wolves before and after the introduction of the dogs are compared. Over the years, it has been proven that flocks accompanied by these dogs have suffered substantially less losses to large carnivores.