Sunday, 18 November 2012

Where's the Bear?

When speaking of bears in the Pyrenees, people always say 'the bear' in the singular. Sadly, that is almost the truth.
The brown bear was once present in every region of France. Over the centuries, hunting, poisoning, deforestation and poaching led to a massive decline in the bear population. Their last refuge was in the Pyrenees. Here the bears were both loved and hated. They were hunted for their skins and, in a poor region where any meat was acceptable - badger stew and crow pie figured in local recipes - for their meat. The forests nearly disappeared as miners used the wood for charcoal, new roads crossed valleys where the bears had previously been able to live undisturbed. The local farmers were always hostile to the presence of bears who could kill as many as twenty sheep in a single attack. Bear cubs were taken from their mothers and trained to perform. This was a tradition in the Couserans region, where the living was particularly hard.

And there were always the hunters, eager to shoot a bear for sport. When a hunter shot Cannelle [Cinnamon] the last native Pyrenean female bear in 2004, the population was reduced to just five male bears. Brown bears from Slovenia have been brought in, and the bear population is currently about twenty. There is violent opposition from the farmers of the Ariege region, who want the bears to disappear permanently. During the summer months, their animals - cows, sheep, goats and horses - are taken up to roam freely in the lush upper valleys. This is called "Estive". As the bear is an opportunistic hunter, the farmers risk losses to their stock. The struggle over the bear is far from over.

Safety leaflets for walkers in the central Pyrenees offer the following advice:

-- If you come across a bear at less than 50 metres, help it to realise you are there by moving slowly and speaking softly. Never shout.

 -- Move away gradually, keeping away from any path the bear might use to escape.


They state that if the bear rears up on its hind legs, it is not being aggressive, only curious.

How brave would you feel at such a moment?

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