It keeps you on your toes this bear watching. “Female with cub in the trees,” whispered our guide, David Guthrie, rocketing off through the flower-strewn meadow for a better view. Our seven-strong group tried to keep up, desperate for a first close-up of a European brown bear. By the time I arrived, panting, at the forest edge, our prey had vanished into the trees. “Did you see them?” my fellow trackers asked. “No,” I muttered grumpily, scanning the mountainside forlornly with my binoculars.
We were in Slovakia in the High Tatras — the highest part of the Carpathian mountain range, which stretches in a bow shape from the Czech Republic in the west to Romania in the southeast — on a bear-tracking holiday. Helping us was the fleet-footed David, a Briton who has worked as a safari guide in Tanzania and helped set up Project Bear in October last year with the aim of carrying out the first study of the population in the area.
No one knows for sure how many bears live in the Tatras, but current estimates suggest about 800. Thanks to enlightened protection policies in the 1930s and the creation of Tatra national park in 1948, the bears here have survived the hunting that decimated other populations in Europe.
WHEN BEARS ATTACK
A few days earlier we had landed in Krakow, Poland, and driven 200km to the romantic Grand Castle hotel in Liptovsky Hradok, Slovakia — a Renaissance manor house built next to a ruined Gothic castle.
At breakfast, the talk soon strayed to what to do if a bear comes running towards you, a fate that a week earlier had befallen a local man who narrowly survived an attack by a female defending her cub.
“Don’t worry, there hasn’t been a fatal bear attack in Slovakia for 100 years,” says David, keen to dispel our concerns that we were about to become the main course at a bears’ picnic. “If a bear does charge at you, tell it a story — speak nice and calmly, and walk away slowly. If it still comes for you, throw down your rucksack to distract it — but do not run.”
Sound advice when you consider that a full-grown male bear can move at up to 60kph, weighs 300kg to 350kg and is about 3m tall when standing. As we headed off to the mountains for two nights in a rangers’ hut, I hoped bears weren’t too keen on celebrating centenaries.
The advantage of having the Project Bear team as guides soon became apparent. Not only were we allowed to walk in areas of the national park otherwise closed to the public and stay in remote park staff huts, the guides also had an uncanny ability to spot wildlife among the trees, rocks and bushes that scatter the mountainside.
One cloudy morning, keen to make up for my earlier missed sighting, I trained my binoculars on a dark shape high up on the slope. After two minutes, it hadn’t moved. “Nothing there, just another bush,” I announced confidently, and turned my attention elsewhere. Seconds later, David pointed out an adolescent male bear — the “bush” I had been gazing at earlier.
I blamed my poor eyesight on Slivovica, a fierce Slovakian plum brandy I had sampled the night before. But the realization that I was no David Attenborough did not detract from the wonder of seeing these magnificent beasts, living wild so close to home.
There are other places in Europe where you can see bears — Bulgaria, Romania and Finland, for example — but, as David explained, tour leaders there often use food to lure them to hides to guarantee tourists photographs. This practice changes the behavior of the bears, which get to know that actually there is such a thing as free lunch and adjust their living patterns accordingly.