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Project diary 2013
MayWe had the chance to take part in the Bear in Mind conference, which took place on 23-25 May in Ouwehand Zoo, Netherlands, together with celebrations of the 20th anniversary of the existence of our important sponsor, Alertis. It was a fantastic opportunity to hear first-hand information about projects from different parts of the world (Romania, Armenia, Iran, India, Alaska, Pakistan, Laos, etc.) which, like us, are working on research and education about large carnivores in various, often very demanding, conditions. Once again we realised that bears around the world are still being killed for their body parts, especially gall bladders used in Chinese medicine, and kept in captivity for amusement, to generate income or to show someone's status. Seeing the aggression, even barbarity, of people in Kashmir towards bears which happened to come close to dwellings was a very emotive experience. We were also stunned by recent images of polar bears starving to death because they do not have access to food due to global warming causing the retreat of ice sheets.
A positive and inspiring example was provided by a presentation about projects on research and production of alternative energy (e.g. from plants). It was quite an experience to see the vast numbers of bicycles for which Holland is famous, which demonstrate the ecological thinking and responsible approach of local residents. Along with the chance to meet wonderful people dedicated to their mission it was a great motivation for our ongoing work, but also a reflection that species protection is often a complex task for everyone of us, sometimes through such a simple thing as unplugging electrical devices at night.
AprilTogether with Gregg Losinski, who is responsible for environmental education in Idaho (USA), we managed to arrange several interesting meetings: he lectured on bear and wolf management in Yellowstone National Park to students at the Technical University in Zvolen and the Secondary Forestry School in Liptovský Hrádok. We visited third year pupils at Hradná Primary School, where we played an educational game about animals and habitats and acted out how population cycles operate as well as showing video of how bears in Yellowstone have been testing a modified refuse container from Slovakia. Finally, an interesting and very important meeting was held at Vysoké Tatry Town Hall with representatives of the town, the state forestry service and Tatras National Park. Gregg answered questions on securing refuse and proposed a possible - and essential - solution for management of bears in the Tatras. We agreed that, after final testing and modification of the container in the USA, the design will be trialled in the Tatras. Gregg, who has family from Slovakia and Poland, is keen to help solve issues of coexistence of people and bears here and to share his experience of how they deal with similar problems in the USA.
It has been an unusually long winter - late March and early April brought as much as 15-25 cm of fresh snow in some areas - and I wonder what influence this will have on bear activity and human-bear conflicts this year. On the evening of 23 April, in the same moment that a wild boar with young piglets was crossing the stream just next to us, we saw a bear grazing at the edge of a meadow not far from the village of Liptovský Ondrej. It was clearly a small, fairly young animal that had found a spot with juicy fresh grass, but I hope it does not get into any trouble. At the time, I was guiding a journalist and colleague from our new partner, Grand Hotel Kempinski, so it was the perfect start to our 15th season of providing guided wildlife tours in Slovakia.
MarchA special mechanism designed by our Canadian partners Haul-All to bear-proof refuse bins in the Carpathian Mountains has been successfully tested at the Grizzly & Wolf Discovery Center in Idaho, USA. The modified Mevako container was tested by several bears, including a 270 kg grizzly and a Kodiak bear called Sam who, at 500 kg, is bigger than any bear ever recorded in Slovakia. Sam is so heavy he buckled the lid of the container, nevertheless the seal and lock still held. The aim is to keep bears out of refuse and away from people, and it seems that the Haul-All mechanism could be an effective and relatively cheap and convenient option.
In the Tatras we usually record the first bears emerging from their winter dens in mid to late February and bear activity becomes more common through March. It was a little surprising not to find any signs of bears during a field course we ran for students of Animal Behaviour and Wildlife Conservation at Wolverhampton University from 2 to 9 March. During last year's course the students came across quite a few bear tracks, but there was a lot less snow then compared to this year. Neverthess when we checked our camera traps we had some nice pictures of a fairly large bear who looked in pretty good shape, with plenty of body fat.
FebruaryA brown bear, very likely from Slovakia, appeared in northern Hungary in the area of Balassagyarmat in mid winter. According to professional hunter Tamás Major, the first rumours and signs of garbage-scavenging started to appear in January, but conclusive evidence came early this month when a local hunter found fresh footprints in the snow. Apparently the bear is not hibernating and Major thinks it was a yearling disturbed and separated from its mother by drive hunts for wild boar.
This is at least the second recent case of a bear from Slovakia appearing in Hungary. In summer 2012 there was an individual in the area of Sahy and nearby villages on both sides of the border near the River Ipel/Ipoly. This is close to Börzsöny, where a bear was seen, and eventually killed, in 1984. Brown bears are protected by Hungarian law, but according to Péter Bedo these stray individuals usually end up being classified as 'problem bears' and in most cases they are either shot legally or just disappear from the area, possibly killed illegally.
Brown bear females give birth this month while in their winter dens. Pregnant females begin to hibernate much earlier than other bears and stay in their dens 1-2 months longer. The body temperature of a hibernating bear is only a few degrees lower than normal, and they can wake up and become active relatively quickly, for example if disturbed. On 21 January temperatures were above freezing and it rained during our White Wilderness project for the first time since it began in 2010. Although we did not come across any clear bear tracks during fieldwork, there were reports of bears active elsewhere. It soon got colder again, though, and with more snowfall in most cases any bears that had been out probably returned to their dens.
At the invitation of OZ Tatry we prepared a discussion with presentation and the exhibition "Bears & Us" for Janka Kráža Primary School in Liptovský Mikulá. All age groups from 1st year to 9th took it in turns to come to the talk. The topic interested both pupils and teachers, as many of them had their own experiences, direct or indirect, with bears. We believe that this format can bring the life of bears closer and teach people basic rules of safety in bear country.
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