Home Newsletter 2010 Escalation of human-bear conflicts and tension in Smolyan region

By Aleksandar Dutsov


Smolyan region is located in the Rodopi Mountains in South Bulgaria. In this area there are over 200 settlements randomly distributed on about 2,700 km2 of bear habitat. The region is inhabited by round 100,000 persons, of which about half lives in towns like Smolyan (32,000), Devin, Chepelare, Madan (5,000-10,000). The territory is also used for grazing by round 28,000 sheep and goats and 22,000 cattle and horses. In the past 15 years intense human migration occurred from small settlements towards big towns and abroad. Most of the agricultural land and many houses in the area were abandoned, resulting in less disturbance and forestation of surroundings of the villages and within them.

However, in recent years tourism development, forestry and hunting activities have intensified. Some human activities, such as supplementary feeding of game (ungulates) and the intensive collection of mushrooms and berries have increased the risk of appearance of habituated and food conditioned bears. This problem is also exacerbated by the unorganized disposal of garbage.

Due to the above mentioned problems extensive damage of bears on human activities occurs in Smolyan region. Since 2001 damage caused by this species is registered and compensated. Initially many damages were not claimed because the persons affected were not informed that they could be compensated. Later the number of claims decreased until a peak of damages in 2009 (fig. 1), when compensations became popular and almost all damages were reported. In addition, that was a year with limited natural food, following 2-3 years of abundance of beach nuts, acorns, etc.

Most reported cases of bear attacks for 2009 were on beehives (61%) and on sheep and goats (28 %). Information about damages were regularly presented by media together with comments of representatives of hunting societies and/or regional structures of Forest Agency. Both parties usually claimed that the number of bears in the area is much higher than maximum permissible number (carrying capacity) which they call “overpopulation”. The purpose of that was to justify hunting and provide funds for supplementary feeding of bears. On 25 October 2009 a hunter was attacked by a bear during hunting wild boar. This event didn’t cause a serious conflict because hunters are the most risky group and probably that bear had been wounded by a hunter and attacked for reaction. But then on 17 May 2010 a man who was collecting wooden posts in the forest was attacked and killed by a bear not far from the village of Kutela. The cause for this could have been twofold: either the bear could have been a female with cubs and attacked the man to protect her offspring. Alternatively the man could have scared the bear at a distance that the bear considered too short for guaranteeing safe excape. This tragedy, which happened in spring after the year with the peak in registered damages, further contributed in significantly increasing the existing tensions. In the same period due to the financial crises many people who lost their jobs started to make incomes by collecting mushrooms. About a month after the upmentioned incident two more persons were attacked by a bear during mushrooms collection. A woman was badly injured and hospitalized. She survived but with severe scars on the face and under severe stress. The third case was a man who got only lightly scratched. Also at that point no concrete measure was taken to improve the management of such problem individuals, but the issue about the presumed overpopulation was raised again.  This theory is not based on reliable data but is based on indicators such as: 1) that the number of more meetings with bears has increased - without considering changes of environmental and socio-economic conditions such as increased number of visitors and hunters, 2) a growing number of damages – which is actually probably due to an increased presence of problem bears, created by anthropogenic food sources.

In order to decrease this tension the Ministry of Environment and Waters promised the translocation of 8 bears with the objective to decrease local bear density (however, without making the difference between problem individuals and other bears). Two permissions for shooting the problem individuals were also issued and 2 bears were shot shortly after the accidents.

The team of the LIFE EX-TRA project prepared some press releases and participated in meetings for urgent activities with State Agencies, Regional Council and local municipalities and NGOs. Together with EcoLogic Consultancy Information and Nature Conservation Foundation we prepared a leaflet titled “Bears and human – mutual coexistence” containing information on how to behave in bear habitats, in case of bear encounters, etc. in order to avoid accidents.

In order to try to mitigate the negative feelings of local inhabitants, meetings with the communities were organized in 25 settlements where the most of the bear attacks occurred. In the meetings experts from Balkani WS society together with representatives of ministries, municipalities and of the regional council discussed with the local inhabitants the problems with bears.

Last but not least, the project staff participated in meetings with members of the parliament and other interested parties, concerning the adoption of legislation amendments proposed by the parliament. Unfortunately the Hunting and Game Conservation Act was changed and now the Brown bear in Bulgaria is legally a game species with hunting quota of minimum 3% of the national population. The main argument for this change was to control the overpopulation of bears even thou the articles 12 and 16 of Habitat Directive 92/43 are violated and there is no transposition of EU legislation into the national one.