Tracking Bears in Romania's Carpathian Mountains
With the greatest concentration of wild bears in Europe, Romania is the best place to see these rare animals in their natural habitat.
After some research, we reached out to Danut Marin of the Translyvanian Wolf. Dan has a wealth of experience in ecotourism and has won multiple awards for his work - so we were delighted to join him tracking and spotting bears in the Carpathian Mountains.
On a chilly November morning, we left Brasov to drive to sleepy Zarnesti, a small town nestled in the foothills of the mountains. Having briefly toured Dan's fully-booked guesthouse, we set off in his 4×4 to the outskirts of the Piatra Craiului National Park.
Romania is host to some of Europe’s biggest national parks.
Thanks to their management under the communist regime, they all have thriving populations of wildlife with very healthy forests. Detailed records of every hectare have been kept up to date, right down to specific measurements of a given tree. This meticulous detail prevents illegal logging; when trees are legally due to be cut down, they are painted at the stump and also numbered 1.5m above ground level. This way, the authorities can look at the logs on a horse and cart to check for their number and if they see a stump with no paint, they know it has been illegally felled.
MEANDERING MOUNTAINS & VILLAGE LIFE
We walked a track from to the mountain's upper meadows, where sheep graze in summer. Almost immediately, we saw fresh evidence of bears in the area. Dan pointed out some recently printed tracks of a young bear that had been walking on the footpath. Further clues that we were in bear territory was the hair left by a bear scratching his back against the sticky sap on this tree, pictured above.
Dan took us to Magura, a traditional shepherd's village that sits at 1100m above sea level, a steep drive up the hill from Zarnesti. Charming, traditional and with great vistas, Magura took our breath away. Though many houses are now holiday homes, full-time professional shepherding still takes place in the village.
Shepherds are usually employed by a group of families, who each own 5-10 sheep. The shepherds travel large distances to better pasture. In early spring, the sheep are allowed to graze on lowlands, however, from mid-May this land is reserved for hay making, so the shepherds must take the sheep to higher meadows.
At night, shepherds place the sheep in pens and sleep in a one-man shelter, their dogs (typically a pack of 15) guarding the perimeter of the pen. To shoot bears requires an expensive permit from the government, but the dogs are pretty good at scaring off any brave enough.
We drove off road for half an hour to reach a small wooden hut, a bear hide nestled in the trees. The hut was 80m from a small clearing where the Forestry Commission rangers place food for the bears every day at 3.15pm. We arrived just after a fresh bunch of sweetcorn and sugar had been laid down. By supplying this area with food, rangers ensure that the majority of the some 3000 bears across Romania stay away from humans and their flocks.
Forty-five minutes of silence was rewarded when a male bear, about 5 years in age nervously approached the clearing. He was suspicious of our presence and after five minutes or so, he ran off into the forest.
Half an hour later, a much bigger, darker male approached the clearing. Staring face-to-face with a fully grown adult brown bear is an unforgettable experience that we managed to catch on camera (taken through binoculars!)
Bear hides are run by the Forestry Commission and access is usually only granted through a tour, for the bear’s protection. In France, it is thought that just twenty bears remain and in Germany they were driven from the wild 170 years ago. Recently, a bear (nicknamed Bruno) migrated from Northern Italy, through Austria only to meet an unfortunate end when he devoured a couple of German sheep. Visitors can now pay money to see Bruno, stuffed, in a museum - which we find very sad indeed.
INTERESTED? Danut’s tour was definitely worth the €55 we paid for it. He offers full day tours to see bears, wolves and other Romanian wildlife. He also has relations with a number of local community groups that are keen to welcome tourists who are eager to learn more about their history and culture.
The Libearty Bear Sanctuary offers the chance to see the European Brown Bear. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to visit as they are strict on visitor numbers and hours. That said, we heard great things so certainly give them a try if you’re in the region.