Invasion of the 94-stone body snatchers

Don’t run: At 30mph, a brown bear can outrun Usain Bolt, the fastest man on Earth. © Alamy

Is it time to stop the return of the bear? Once threatened with extinction, these wild animals are making a comeback, raising serious concerns about the dangers to people and livestock.

If you go down to the woods today, you might want to watch your back. The British countryside is still bear-free but, across the rest of Europe, your chances of bumping into Ursus arctos are on the rise.

That’s what happened to 12-year-old Alessandro Franzoi, a few days ago, walking in the Italian Alps. Standing two-metres tall on its hind legs, weighing nearly 100 stone (600 kilos), with claws 10 centimetres long that can easily rip off a human leg, a fully-grown adult brown bear is a terrifying sight.

But Alessandro did exactly the right thing to stay safe: he avoided eye-contact and walked calmly and slowly down the mountain. Afterwards, he said, “It was the best day of my life; a dream come true.”

But not every bear story has a happy ending. In recent years, “problem bears” have grabbed headlines across Europe. A spate of attacks in Romania, last year, left six people dead and many more injured. In Spain, a bear called Goiat has been terrorising farmers and killing their sheep and horses.

In Italy, an “escape genius” called Papillon climbed over three electric fences and a four-metre high barrier, leading to a massive bear-hunt. Politicians called for him to be shot – but, in the end, he was re-captured unharmed.

Bruno the bear was not so lucky in Germany. After seven weeks of evading rangers in the Bavarian woods, he was killed by hunters.

But why are these dangerous animals roaming free? In the Middle Ages, they were hunted to near extinction. But, in the last two decades, conservationists have re-introduced the keystone species to alpine forests and there are now 17,000 bears in Europe.

Bear fans argue they boost tourism and enrich the environment, supporting a diverse ecosystem in a process called rewilding. But farmers are not happy. Although mostly vegetarian, hungry bears will attack livestock and the EU has had to offer farmers compensation to stop them reaching for their guns and bear traps.

A minority wants to see the bear return to the UK. Last year, four bears arrived in a new wooded enclosure near Bristol. Meanwhile, in Scotland, a multi-millionaire has plans to introduce bears and wolves on to his Highland estate.

His neighbours are against the idea and many worry that the outdoors will no longer be a safe place to explore. In the United States and Canada, some walkers carry pepper spray to protect themselves; the majority of people in the UK still think bears are just too dangerous.

So, is it time to stop the return of the bear?

It’s no picnic

Some say, yes, rewilding has gone too far. There are 10 times more people living in Europe than 1,000 years ago. Back then, we kept out of the woods for obvious reasons but, today, hills and woodland are important spaces for recreation, camping, and walking. These animals not only threaten farmers’ livestock, they also prevent us from enjoying the outdoors.

Others say, no, the dangers have been blown out of all proportion. A few aggressive bears and unusual cases cause panic and create shocking headlines. However, the vast majority of bears do not present a risk to humans. They are shy, cautious creatures. Instead of spreading fear, we need to educate the public about how to safely co-exist with these magnificent animals.

You Decide

  1. Would you manage to stay calm if you were followed home by a bear?
  2. Should we reintroduce bears into the countryside?

Activities

  1. Design a poster to educate people about what to do if they encounter a bear.
  2. Write an adventure story from the perspective of Papillon, the “escape genius” bear.

Some People Say...

“When all of the grizzlies are dead because they are occasionally dangerous, the wilderness will not be made safe. Rather, the safety will have destroyed the wilderness.”

Roger Yorke Edwards (1924-2011), Canadian biologist

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
One study published last year showed there were 291 bear attacks in Europe between 2000 and 2015. The number of incidents has been rising each year as the bear population increases. Although the males are larger, it is mothers protecting their cubs that result in most violent encounters. Bears are protected by law in Europe, so it is illegal to hunt, buy, or sell them without a licence.
What do we not know?
There are two important questions we need to ask. First, what is our countryside for? Conservationists and rewilders believe the land should be restored to how it was before human intervention, but the countryside has important agricultural and recreational uses that need to be considered. Secondly, how safe are wild bears? Biologists argue we pose a bigger threat to bears than they do to us. But would you go for a walk in the woods if you knew there were half-tonne carnivores lurking in the bushes?

Word Watch

Ursus arctos
The scientific, Latin name for the European brown bear, which used to inhabit the ancient forest that covered most of Europe, 1,000 years ago.
Goiat
His name means “lad” in Catalan. Goiat is a 250 kg, young male brought from his home in Slovenia to join about 45 bears roaming the mountains between France and Spain.
Papillon
French for butterfly, the bear was named after the 1973 film about an escaped French convict, starring Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman.
Keystone species
Some animals play a major role in maintaining their habitat and ecosystems. Deer strip woodland of vegetation and, by controlling the deer population, bears help preserve forests and their wildlife.
Tourism
Supporters want to create national parks like Yellowstone in the US, where bison, grizzly bears, and elk attract four million visitors a year.
Rewilding
Farming has fundamentally changed most of our countryside, squeezing out wild plants and animals, creating a “biological desert”. Rewilding aims to reintroduce the lost diversity, making a more interesting environment free from human interference.
Vegetarian
Three-quarters of a bear’s diet is made up of nuts, berries, and grasses. However, in order to put on weight for their winter hibernation, they will scavenge carrion and hunt small mammals.
Minority
A poll in January showed 30% of people in the UK were in favour of reintroducing bears. It is the least popular mammal to be brought back. The most popular is the beaver, with 76% in favour of its reintroduction.

Subjects

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