Home > 2007

The most important management decisions are the actions that directly influence and regulate the population size. The bear population in Croatia has been continually growing since the 1950s, and is in a favourable conservation status, but the actual number is not known. Current estimate is around 1,000 individuals. Natural regulation would stabilize the population size at the habitat capacity level. As the bear habitat is also inhabited by humans, typically the capacity of the habitat is above the social capacity, i.e. above the point when the risk of conflict (damages and threats to human safety) is perceived as unacceptably high. Bears in Croatia may be hunted but hunting restrictions in the first half of the previous century helped the population to grow from less than 100 bears to the current numbers. According to the hunting guidelines, hunting of bears is managed through yearly quotas. However, at present the decision of quota size is made without an essential piece of information, namely the scientifically based population estimate. This is the source of various complaints: some people – assuming that there are too many bears- believe that the quota should be much higher, while others are against any quota claiming the bear population cannot sustain such losses. Hence, knowledge about the actual population size of the Brown bear population is an absolute prerequisite for gaining and maintaining public acceptance of the bear in Croatia.

The main and also innovative activity of this two-year project in 2006-2008 was to make a scientifically sound estimation of the total bear population size by using DNA extracted from bear scats and individual recognition of each bear. When the total population size is known, implementation of the management plan can be carried out further. Traditionally bear managers count the animals at feeding sites. This method tends to be biased but the genetic method and standardization of hunters’ counts allows for the calibration of traditional methods and the continuous insight into the population trend.

The project was financed by the Dutch Ministry of Agriculture under the BBI-Matra program. There was an accurate estimate on the number of wild bears in Croatia; from DNA-analysis it was concluded that there were between 700 and 1,000 bears living in Croatia (at that time). The public attitude towards bears was measured by means of questionnaires.

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!

In East Kalimantan (Indonesia), Sun bear habitat is rapidly shrinking due to forest conversion and fires for palm oil monoculture development. As a result of this Sun bears are now commonly held as pets and conflict with humans occurs when bears enter communities or feed on crops. Despite this, the Balikpapan municipality decided in 2001 to make the Sun bear its mascot. This has led to a better protection of the last bit of primal forest where bears live (the Sungai Wain forest), and a heightened awareness among the locals. The sanctuary is surrounded by an elevated bridge. From this bridge visitors can see the bears play, climb, and dig. Local guides are trained to give visitors information.

Bears in Mind has funded the construction of the center, development and printing of a number of awareness materials like design and production of a new sun bear activity booklet, re-­printing of Sun Bear booklet for distribution among visitors, production of variety of Sun bear promotional materials and improved visitor education through guide training.

Currently, 2024, Bears in Mind has committed itself to the much needed repairs / maintenance to visitor boardwalk, the Sun bear holding area and the Sun bear enclosure.

Threats to the sun bear
Visitors at the KWPLH Education Centre can access information through painted panels, paintings, bear statues, information panels and interactive displays. All the education material is being made by local artists. Local goverment has been very positive since the start of the project, and they contribute in the daily management costs. The Sun bear or Malayan bear is a protected species in Indonesia, but law enforcement is not very strict. Because large parts of the forest are still turned into plantations or cut down for agriculture, many bears loose their habitat. In search for food they sometimes come too close to human settements. Cubs are taken from the wild and are often kept as a pet, until they grow too large (and dangerous) to maintain and end their life in misery in a small cage or are sold for meat or other parts.

Bears in Mind continues to help sanctuaries for the rehoming of abused and mistreated bears and supports education programs on the subject. For the rescue and rehabilitation (and permanent rehoming) of the bears in SE Asia, Bears in Mind supports Animals Asia Foundation.

In Vietnam a rescue centre was established (Tam Dao Bear Sanctuary) where Bears in Mind funded an education project for visitors of the centre to experience. In the China Bear Rescue Centre various so-called ‘bear dens’ were co-financed.

The latest contribution to Animals Asia was done in 2022, when Bears in Mind funded the salary for a year of two local staff members at the new-to-be-build sanctuary in Vietnam. This new sanctuary in Bach Ma National Park will become the home for the last 300+ bears from Vietnamese bear farms.

Inappropiate disposal of waste is a serious problem. Especially in bear habitat, near hotels and campsites in the mountains where open containers are still used and attract bears in search for an easy meal. Bears in Mind and Slovak Wildlife Society (SWS) aim to prevent this by using bear-prooof waste containers, that can’t be opened by the bears. Educating the public is the other side of the medal. As website was specially developed in 2005, (www.medvede.sk), a film and education material created. By giving lectures in schools, public houses and hotels by the team from SWS, people are being informed about the ways to coexist with bears.

Slovakia ‘bear proof’
At a hotel in the High Tatra mountains the first bear-proof container protoype B was tested. A young bear, a regular ‘guest’ at the hotel, could not open the container. The idea is, in the coming years, that many such conatiners will be produced and placed where people are motivated to deal with the problems. At the same time practical solutions will be handed out, like placing containers in barns or building an electrical fence around the containers. Each specific location requires its own solution.

Three zoo bears were illegally released in the wild in Serbia in 2002 and one of them was a three-legged bear. This bear had attacked a farmer, who was able to catch the bear. Bears in Mind and Serbian NGO ‘ARKA’ were able to move the bear to the bear shelter in Banostor, Novi Sad. For the other two bears help came too late; hunters had already killed them. 

The idea was to bring the 3-legged bear, named Elvis, to the Bear Forest in The Netherlands. In the end, Bears in Mind did not succeed in this. Obtaining the certificates of ownership and export permission (CITES) from Serbia proved impossible. To improve the welfare of Elvis and the other bears in the Banostor bear shelter, Bears in Mind financed the extension of the shelter. An outdoor enclosure was developed with a nice pond for the bears to swim in. 

Elvis spent a happy time there, until he died in 2011.

How it all started…
The beginning of the idea and need to do something substantial for captive bears in Europe goes back more than 30 years. In 1990, Ouwehand Zoo in The Netherlands was asked by the Directorate-General (European Commission) to draw up a plan to accommodate several captive (ex-dancing) bears from Greece. Those would be confiscated following a change in legislation. The use of dancing bears as street entertainment was not only banned in Greece, but also in Turkey. In the years that followed (more than 200 bears needed to be rehomed), two large bear sanctuaries were built in the abovementioned countries and dozens of bears were saved under the LiBearty campaign set up by then WSPA and for Greece it was mainly ARCTUROS liberating dancing bears and providing them a new home.

More bears needed a new home (amongst them three blind dancing bears from Turkey) and following the initial request by the EC, Ouwehand Zoo was able to finally answer this request with the start of the development of The Bear Forest, a sanctuary for mistreated European brown bears. A separate foundation was created to manage this bear sanctuary, and the International Bear Foundation was born when phase one was finished of this special project in April 1993. Two brown bears already in Ouwehand Zoo, moved in first: Geert & Trudy. Followed by the rescue of bears Mackenzie & Nelly from former Yugoslavia and the rescue of lonely bear Jo from a bear pit in Maastricht – The Netherlands. The three Turkish blind bears Bora, Koröglû & Fiona were rescued and introduced into their new forever homes during autumn of 1993. Many more bears would follow suit…


In the years since then, the foundation has had multiple names, but ever since 2016 they have been operating under the name ‘Bears in Mind’. Bears in Mind is a valued member of and operates within several network organizations like the IUCN (World Conservation Union), EAZA (European Association of Zoos & Aquaria), EARS (European Alliance of Rescue Centers & Sanctuaries) and the IBA (International Association for Bear Research & Management).

The Bear Forest sanctuary
For 30 years now, the sanctuary for bears has been able to offer peaceful asylum to 35 brown bears in total. From circuses, private collections, theaters, film industry, road-side zoos to bears that were kept next to a restaurant or petrol station. Unfortunately, captive bears are found under many horrific and often shameful conditions. As of November 2023, 9 bears inhabit The Bear Forest: two from a former hunting farm in Bulgaria, three from war-torn Ukraine where they were kept next to a restaurant and a small children’s zoo until their rescue, one bear from a closed-down zoo in Georgia, one from a theater in Russia where the bear killed its trainer and had to be saved, one bear from private ownership in Bosnia and Herzegovina and one was from Sweden where she was kept as playing companion for a polar bear cub found on the sea ice and eventually both of them ended up in Ouwehand Zoo.

The bears live together with a small pack of four wolves. These animals are kept together in this mixed-species environment as a way of mimicking their natural environment. The interaction between wolves and bears stimulates the natural behavior of both species, beneficial for all. The wolves are mostly given meat, whereas the bears only eat little amounts of meat as part of their very diverse seasonal diet, based on what they would find in the wild. Bears in Mind introduced the Natural Feeding Program in 1999 and in the first year there was already a major difference noticeable in the behaviour of the bears, with many of them going into hibernation for the very first time! This was a clear sign that the natural behaviour of these traumatized animals could be restored if the right ‘tools’ and care was offered.

The sanctuary is 20,000m2 in size, has a large pool for the bears to drink/swim/cool down and play in, with a waterfall. It is part of the surrounding natural forest which borders the zoo and it has 11 artificial dens and two small wooden shacks for the bears to shelter from the weather or hibernate in. Before entering The Bear Forest, visitors are walking through ‘Karpatica’, a series of simulated Romanian-style houses with informative and interactive educational material for young and old. About the biology and ecology of bears in general, threats to bears and their habitat, and of course about Bears in Mind and their projects around the globe.

Since The Bear Forest is part of the general walking route through Ouwehand Zoo, almost one million visitors a year can view the bears and learn about them. This poses a huge opportunity to Bears in Mind, to try and reach these visitors and make them part of their conservation mission: to create a better world where bears and people can coexist in.


Bear Alert is developed by Bears in Mind to keep track of the many captive bears, often living under horrible conditions, in order to help as many individuals as possible. Over time, Bears in Mind has gathered information on more than 400 of these bears. Some of them have already been rescued from their miserable existence and brought to a sanctuary or zoo where proper care and space could be offered. Other bears unfortunately died before we could we do anything. But most of them still await a better life…

The individual reports about bears will be processed into a database. Short term solutions will be considered next. In most cases Bears in Mind staff will consult with her local partner NGO and / or with the owner of the animal to give advise on husbandry, food and water. Simple enrichment methods for the cages are used such as leafy tree branches or a play object. These methods are often cheap and easy to create and make the life of the bear somewhat more pleasant. In other cases, if legally possible, bears will be confiscated and relocated to a better facility.

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.

This project titled “Brown bear conservation and research program in a model area in Romania” is one of the longest continual projects supported by Bears in Mind, started in 2006. It has many topics, focusing on research on the bear population and conservation of bears in the Eastern Carpathians in Romania, with the aim to prevent bear-human conflicts. Damages caused by bears to livestock and crops are closely monitored. Research on denning behaviour and locations, knowledge about bear home ranges, movement and activity patterns, habitat use and food searching behaviour of the bears, is also carried out. Over the years, many bears have been fitted with radio collars to monitor their behaviour and gather as much data as possible.

Together with the help of local farmers, electric fences surrounding orchards and beehives are tested and placed. Milvus participates in public discussions on bears, organizes educational projects in schools, field excursions and develops educational material. They are mitigating plans for a new highway through prime bear habitat and have done extensive research on the impact on the population. Additionally, every year Milvus receives dozens of calls about orphaned (sometimes injured) bear cubs. After treatment by Vets4Wild (partner of Milvus), the cubs are sent to the rehabilitation centre run by Bear Again.

Improving the social acceptance of the species
Since 2018, Bears in Mind provides funding for a campaign to improve the acceptance of bears in Romania. Through a ten-episode mini-series, Milvus aimes to spread correct and factual information on bears, to try to counterbalance the omnipresent negative rhetoric (and frequent misinformation) in the Hungarian and Romanian massmedia. Each episode was realized in both Hungarian and Romanian languages, with both versions having English subtitles (these can be switched on in YouTube, CC button for Episode 1, and are embedded in each subsequent episode). Each episode was shared on Milvus Group’s own Facebook page, on YouTube, as well as on the Milvus Group webpage. For the shares on our Facebook page, we also had funding to advertise each episode. Ten episodes have been produced: