Slovakian elections set for later this month have been shifting towards an unexpected issue. Bears have been threatening people living near the Tatra Mountains, and how to respond has been dividing politicians.
BRATISLAVA — Slovaks will be going to the polls to select a new parliament on September 30. Among other issues, they will be deciding the fate of the country’s bear populations, which have recently become one of their major political topics. A portion of these animals live along the Polish-Slovakian border.
The growing population of bears in Slovakia and worries about potential attacks on humans have now been addressed by senior politicians. These include not only parliamentarians from across the political spectrum, but also members of the government and even the Slovakian President, Zuzana Czaputova. Czaputova, a well-known environmentalist, has been especially outspoken on the matter.
When a female bear jumped out of a thick bush at a man near the village of Sučany in northern Slovakia while he was out walking his dog, he began to fear for his life. Using a legally held gun, he shot at the bear several times, which killed her. In a second publicized incident that day, a jogger near Liptovsky Hradok reported a bear attack, and had to be hospitalized with an injured shoulder and an open wound on his calf. A few hours later, a forest worker fell victim to a bear attack near the south Slovak village of Drienovo, and was forced to defend himself with a weapon held in his hand.
More incidents involving bear attacks took place in just these 24 hours in mid-July than in the entire year, bringing the total number of bear attacks in Slovakia to eight. This caused widespread public outcry, with social media being almost immediately flooded with videos and photos depicting bear encounters not only in the rural wilderness, but also in villages and cities. The bears are typically unafraid of humans while they forage for food, reports Zprawy Aktualne, and they can often be seen in residents’ backyards. Last year, a bear even made its way into a hotel in the High Tatras, a known tourist destination.
“The situation is serious,” said Environment Minister Milan Chrenko.
A fierce dispute over bears
Representatives of the Slovak State Forests have appealed to the authorities in order to guarantee protections for their employees. Some members of the public have advocated for bears to be caught and shot, claiming that they are too big of a threat to local residents. Environmental activists, however, defend the bears, stating that there should be better practices for deterring, rather than killing or harming, the bears.
Milan Chrenko, the Environment Minister of Slovakia, stated that “Some people fear going to work, or going to the forest for a run” because of the possibility of running into a bear, stating that the issue also “causes problems for farmers and sheep herders”.
President Czaputova acknowledged this threat, stating “I don't think it's right to underestimate or ignore bears that are becoming more and more brave” when it comes to interacting with human populations. There are now 1,056 bears living in Slovakia, according to a joint study published last week by Charles University, the Czech University of Life Sciences, the University of Ostrava and the Slovak State Nature Conservancy.
During a parliamentary committee meeting, the speaker of the parliament, Boris Kollar, disagreed with the environmentalists' calculations that there are about 1,300 bears in Slovakia. Kollar also expressed serious concern about the increasing danger of bears, stating “they have become man-eaters”.
Slovakian President Zuzana Czaputova on a visit to Berlin to speak with the German Chancellor, August 21, 2019, Germany.
A wider problem
Tomasz Zwijacz-Kozica, the head of the Department of Scientific Research and Nature Conservation Planning of the Tatra National Park, says that the situation has been worsening recently. “It is obvious that conflicts between people and large predators are intensifying,” he said recently. But he agrees that bears are not the only ones to blame for the issue: “We also have to fight misconceptions.”
Unlike in Poland, permission to shoot bears has been granted quite often in Slovakia in recent years.
Despite their emergence in the Slovak political scene, bears are also not the only large predator present along the country’s mountain ranges. The Carpathian populations of lynxes, wolves and bears are among the largest in Europe. However, it is uncertain whether they are stable, and many myths persist in political, media and public discourse because data are not collected in a cross-border controlled way. There is a lack of common regulations and policies for the protection of these animals and for coordination between the countries concerned.
Wyborcza first shed light on this issue last year, when a mother bear and her cubs were shot along the Slovak side of the Tatra mountains. At that time, we proposed the creation of a coherent protection zone for bears on the Polish and Slovak side of the Tatra Mountains — in national parks and in the border area — without culling them. Since the shooting occurred, no permission has been issued to kill any more animals.
Naturally, the bears have no idea that there is a state border along the Tatra mountains that they call home, and they frequently travel between the two countries. This happens from the highest peaks in Poland and spans across the borders of not only Poland and Slovakia, but also Hungary, Romania, and even Ukraine. Unlike in Poland, permission to shoot bears has been granted quite often in Slovakia in recent years.
However, in Poland there are around 10 times fewer bears than in Slovakia, and officials from the country claim that they only shoot bears when human lives are at risk. The issue has become so widespread that it has also been impacting nearby Romania, whose leadership has agreed to the shooting of 500 bears on its territory, an issue which has also been brought to the attention of the European Parliament.
No point randomly shooting
“Although a bear may be afraid of humans at first, it loses its shyness if its trip to find an easy meal is successful,” zoologist Michal Haring told news service Aktuálně.cz, “Such cases are dealt with by an intervention team established by the Ministry of the Environment in 2014.”
He described the process established by the ministry as such: “First, they try to drive the bear away using spray, pyrotechnics, lights or gas guns. When you see it's irreversible, you need to capture it or shoot it with a stun gun and remove it from the scene,” he said, adding that “the sooner people report the bear’s movements in populated areas, the more likely it is that its shyness will return.”
But rather than shooting or scaring, Haringstates that the key to coexistence is prevention. "A beautiful example is the city of Vysoké Tatry,” he said. “It was enough for us to secure the waste there, and today bears don't go there anymore.”
Haring believes that instead of looking for solutions, politicians are looking to score points on the issue just months ahead of the upcoming elections. “It's easier for politicians to shout populistically that bears need to be shot. However, widespread shooting does not greatly reduce the risk of a collision or help reduce damage. There is no point in shooting randomly selected innocent bears who are just peacefully living their lives.”