Although brown bears are legally protected in Albania, many wild bears are poached and very little is done to control poaching activities. Keeping bears in captivity is also forbidden by law. However, research carried out by the local partner in Albania ‘PPNEA’ in 2014, indicated that a total of at least 41 bears are kept under sub-optimal conditions. Poor law enforcement as well as endemic corruption in the country have led to a further decline in the wild bear population. According to estimates by the LCIE (Large Carnivore Initiative for Europe) the wild bear population in Albania varies between 180 and 250 individuals (2016).
Reasons for keeping bears
To unveil the motivations behind and actors involved in this phenomenon PPNEA (financially supported by Bears in Mind) undertook a quantitative survey with visitors of premises that hold bears in captivity and qualitative group interviews in rural areas that are known as hotspots of bears’ capture and trade. The results indicated that the motivation of the local rural population in capturing and selling bears is mainly economic (bear cubs sell for amounts between 250 – 600 EUR / individual). However the captures are done randomly or when the chance is given and that regular hunting / trapping for this sole purpose seems to be non-exitent. This suggests that this activity is not a major source of income for locals and captured brown bear cubs seem to be a side phenomenon that reflects the general problems of hunting management and law enforcement in the country. On the other hand, a more problematic issue is that there is a general interest to visit places where bears are exposed and the figures are frightening. Only 20% of respondents declared that they do not have any interest to visit a restaurant / cafe because of the bear presence. In addition there also exists a misconception among the population that the captive bears are a touristic asset for the country. The data shows that almost 70% of respondents believe that the bears in captivity attract tourists; this is a much higher figure if compared to 45% of those who believe that the bear in nature attract more tourists.
There is also a low awareness level among visitors in respect to the illegality of capturing / keeping bears in captivity and protection status of the animal. Only 35% of respondents were aware of some vague legal protection status. These misconceptions about captive bears are major drivers that help such illegal business to operate. Furthermore the attitudes of the public are hostile in terms of undertaking any action to stop the illegal practise of maintaining captive bears in restaurants: 54% of interviewed persons where against the elimination and 64% of them will do nothing to solve the problem.
The low level of awareness among the general public in Albania is holding back potential solutions to the bear issues in Albania. Therefore the gap in knowledge should be filled by an effectively organized public-awareness campaign and social mobilization should follow up to try to stop the influx of captive bears in restaurants which subsequently will improve the situation for the wild population.
It is unclear what will happen to the many captive bears in Albania in the near future. Bears in Mind and her partners keep pushing the government to act and start developing a sanctuary to accommodate all the bears, but until now these attempts have proven unsuccessful. Once new developments will arise, it will be published on our website. Over the past years, many captive bears have been relocated to sanctuaries and zoos outside of Albania, by a number of NGOs. This does not solve the problem and the government has to step up and take responsibility.
Over the past ten years, all captive bears used for entertainment (like the restaurant bears) have been relocated to foreign sanctuaries and zoos. Longterm plans by the Albanian government to set up their own bear sanctuary and take responsibility for their captive bear problem, failed.