Wed, May 09, 2018 - Page 7 News List

FEATURE: Bears, wolves find solace in Greece


Orphaned as an infant, three-year-old Patrick takes a wary view of visitors. He crouches low, licks his claws and starts humming — a bear’s equivalent of thumb-sucking.

“It soothes him when he’s stressed,” said Melina Avgerinou, a caretaker at the Arcturos bear sanctuary in northern Greece.

Patrick’s tale is typical of many bears that have found refuge in the Arcturos sanctuary at Nymfaio on the slopes of Mount Vitsi, about 600km northwest of Athens.

He was less than a month old when found wandering near the Greek-Albanian border, his mother was apparently killed by poachers. Too young to know the ways of the wild, he never learned to survive without human assistance. The sanctuary released him to nature when he turned one, but he sauntered back about a month later.

“As he did not learn to fear humans, it’s not safe for him in nature, so he will stay here for the rest of his life,” Avgerinou said.

Like Patrick, others here have psychological and physical scars. Barbara, an aged female, came from a Serbian zoo. Two decades later, she still paces nervously in her forest enclosure and shakes her head as if chained to a cage.

Three-year-old Usko was found in Macedonia as a baby. He was paralyzed from the waist down, so Arcturos staff fashioned a wheelbarrow that enables him to move around in an area with flat surfaces.

“There are a lot of problems with captive bears, mainly in the Balkans. The biggest problem is in Albania and [Macedonia], where there are still legal shortcomings,” Avgerinou said. “So there are still bears that need shelter... There are other sanctuaries in the Balkans and [elsewhere] in Europe, but they are generally full.”

A baby called Luigi — named after Italy goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon — arrived last month after a fruitless search for his mother. Two youngsters from Montenegro had preceded him and three infants from Bulgaria are to be added soon.

Founded in 1992, Arcturos shelters bears and wolves mainly from the Balkans, but has also taken large predators from as far away as Austria and Georgia.

More than 20 bears and seven wolves live in separate enclosed habitats in the villages of Nymfaio and Agrapidia — most of them rescued from Balkans poachers, animal collectors and restaurant owners who had them on display to amuse patrons. The wolf colony is about to double as seven more are due to arrive from a zoo in Italy.

The bears live in 5 hectares of beech forest on the mountain, donated by the local municipality. The wolves share 6.9 hectares of oak forest further down the valley.

“We try to teach people that we are not alone in nature, and that we should not see nature as a rival,” Arcturos guide Vassilis Fourkiotis said.

Arcturos was originally created to counter the use of bears as entertainment. Bear dancing — forcibly taught to the animals by making them walk on hot coals — is a practice once popular at fairs that still survives in the Balkans, although it was eradicated in Greece a few decades ago.

Over the years, the organization’s activities have expanded to environmental awareness campaigns, vet care and reintegration. So far, two males and a female have been successfully returned to the wild.

A 500,000 euro (US$594,301) donation from the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, the creators of the National Opera and Library in Athens, is to enable the sanctuary to expand into the largest center of its kind in the Balkans.

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