Tuesday, June 26, 2007

The Carpathian Brown Bear

I went to Romania to follow up on a story about bears.

Romania has the largest population of bears in Europe, some 47%, or between 2,500 and 6,000 individuals.

The reason for the discrepancy is that there are no independent assessments available. The Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, which is responsible for making the estimates, also sells hunting licenses (which can go for anything up to £20,000) so it is in their interest to exaggerate the numbers.

Wealthy people from all over Europe are queuing up to bag one of these creatures.

Conservation groups are worried that they may be being hunted to extinction.

During my research I managed to see a bear in the wild, which I took as an extraordinary privilege. It was a young male, about 4-5 years old, feeding in a forest clearing amongst a family of wild boar. As the bear approached the boar would scatter. The bear was obviously the king in his realm. You could tell by the walk, a kind of stately, regal amble, afraid of nothing.

As we approached the clearing the bear heard us and stood on its hind legs to sniff the wind. It was at least seven feet tall. You wouldn’t want to meet one of these creatures in a rage. It could kill a man with a single blow.

Fortunately the wind was in the wrong direction and bears have bad eyesight, so we managed to make it to the hide safely. I watched it with my friend’s binoculars for at least half an hour. I couldn’t take my eyes from it, not for a second.

Perhaps that is why hunters want to kill bears, because it makes them feel strong to bring down such a majestic animal.

You may wonder why I should be so concerned. They are only animals after all.

Yes, but they are European animals. They are the indigenous wild creatures of Europe. Once upon a time they lived in England too.

Romania also has wolves, lynx and wildcat, and forest wildernesses that seem to stretch from horizon to horizon.

There is a breathtaking beauty there that makes the blood in your veins run faster.

It’s not that I am against hunting as such. I went out with the hunters on more than one occasion, and shared a meal of wild boar stew. It was delicious. Wild boar, you see, you can eat. But you cannot eat bear. The only thing you can do with a dead bear is to brag about it afterwards.

Romania is in the process of development. It has been a backwards country, but it is catching up fast. People want jobs and money, naturally, but there is a short-sightedness in their attitude.

Their wildlife is a great resource. There needs to be a change of emphasis. If you shoot a bear with a gun, that’s it: it is gone forever. But if you shoot it on film, it is still there for others to see.

These creatures are not just a Romanian treasure: they are a European treasure too.

It is up to all of us to do something to protect them.

Angel Pig

I am currently sitting in a restaurant in a town called Baile Tusnad in the Harghita mountains in Transylvania. I am waiting for a mechanic.

I’ve been having adventures.

The day before yesterday I went out into the wild with a Hungarian doctor, his TV producer son, and a gamekeeper called Istvan. Istvan had this dark weather beaten face which glowed with a sort of inner kindliness. We were looking for wild boar.

We cast corn about in the soil, then climbed up a platform hidden in a tree and waited. We spoke only in subdued whispers. It was about eight o’clock in the evening, and the sky was just turning red. We waited and we waited. I began to think they might not turn up.

And then, suddenly, we saw these dark shapes emerging from the trees, muscular and huge with hulking shoulders and craggy heads like great black rocks, with curling tusks and wet noses, snorting and trotting up the hill with a sort of hungry wariness, cautiously looking around them for any possible danger. They were a family group of about ten individuals, snuffling about and rooting in the soil for the corn.

I immediately had a sense of them there, not just physically, but psychically too. There was an alertness, a bright keenness like a spark, hidden in that dark, mean-looking form. I was suddenly aware of being in the presence of another kind of intelligence than my own. I felt that they were communicating with me on some level that I have yet to access with my ordinary mind.

Then, later, I drove home along all these twisting roads down the steep mountain-side, back to the house I am staying in, and about two miles from home my brakes failed. I pulled in to the side of the road, letting the car glide to a halt. Then my heart pumped with sudden adrenaline as I realised that, had they failed a few miles further back as I was coming down that mountain-side, with all the twists and turns giving way to sheer drops, I would certainly have died.

It is in moments like this that you feel as if you are being watched-over somehow. Is there a guardian angel out there looking out for me, I wonder?

If I was a Catholic I would have crossed myself, kissed my rosary, and thanked Jesus, God, Mary and all the saints and angels together. As it was I could only thank whatever higher powers there might be that my life had been spared this time.

Scientifically speaking, of course, this is an absurd thought. What higher power? And anyway, even assuming there was such a thing, why would it save me and not someone else? Maybe someone else had died in my stead that night. People die all the time. Maybe I was just lucky.

And yet I can’t quite get over the feeling that something was looking out for me, that something “other”, something alien and unknowable, some intelligence greater than mine, nevertheless cares for me, is concerned for me, and wishes me well. Maybe it was not my time to die. My brakes must have been failing all the way down the mountain. Something held them off till I was in a position to get myself home in safety.

What does an angel look like, I wonder?

Isaiah describes them as fearsome creatures with six wings. When he saw them he quaked with fear and wonder. One of them carried a burning coal from the fire and touched it to his lips to take away his sins.

Me, right at this moment, I imagine my guardian angel as a human-shaped wild boar, with a craggy face with tusks and keen bright eyes full of alert intelligence.

I can’t help feeling that I won’t be allowed to die till I have learned what the wild boar were telling me that night.


You may have heard on the news that there was a vote of no-confidence in the president of Romania recently, who refused to resign, thus forcing a referendum. In the end the president won.

The issue was corruption. The president said that the prime-minister was corrupt. The prime-minister said that the president was corrupt. Both claimed that the other was in the pay of some large interest group, thus compromising their integrity as elected representatives.

The European Union has expressed disquiet that a member country is so entangled in corruption. A European anti-corruption minister has been appointed to look into the issue.

When I asked my Romanian friends about this they looked embarrassed and answered with a shrug. “It’s true,” they said. “What can you do?”

And it is true. Romania is corrupt. No one gets anything done in this country without slipping back-handers to the appropriate official. If you are caught speeding you don’t pay a fine, you pay the policeman who caught you, otherwise you will find yourself entangled in bureaucracy for months.

When you want medical help you bribe the doctor. When you want legal help you bribe the lawyer. If your pet is ill you bribe the vet.

You even bribe God. In front of the altar of every church, in front of every icon, there is a collection box. No prayer is considered efficacious without the addition of an appropriate amount of cash. The larger the request, the more money is required.

What the allegations and counter-allegations make clear is that corruption in Romania goes to the highest level of government.

So what’s new? The joke here is that anyone in the West considers they have the right to complain about corruption.

The EU is corrupt. Britain is corrupt. The USA is corrupt. The difference is that in these countries the corruption is so endemic, so established, so institutionalised, that no one recognises it as corruption anymore.

So the Romanian president may be receiving back-handers from some interest-group or another. The American president, on the other hand, is the direct representative of an interest-group. He owes his position of power entirely to the manoeuvrings of his family and to the business interests they represent.

I think it is clear by now that our own British prime-minister is also indirectly in their pay. It’s true that he doesn’t receive back-handers, but you can be certain that he will be well-rewarded for his efforts once he is out of office.

He lied to parliament to institute a war against a third-world nation to steal its oil. He sold peerages. He has presided over the whole-scale destruction of parliamentary democracy and its replacement with unelected advisors in the service of special interests.

It should be a rule that no one profits from public office. If a person is substantially better off after leaving office than he was before, then that is surely evidence of corruption.

Which would make every prime-minister in history measurably corrupt.

At least the Romanians don’t pretend.