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.