Science & Environment

Bin-raiding brown bear collared in the name of research

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Media captionTagging a wild bear that has lost its fear of humans is a tricky business, as Graham Bishop from Project Bear explains

Slovakia's bears are a rare conservation triumph, but their growing number has forced some of them to swap forest life for a more urban setting. Now a radical plan is under way to try to understand these "problem bears".

I get the call at 5am.

"Wake-up! We've got a bear - you best get ready," booms the voice from the other end of the line, shaking me out of my sleepy blur.

Overnight, an inquisitive bear has wandered into a cage, unable to resist the temptation to snack on some oats and fruit that have been left inside.

We arrive, and inside the small enclosure is a young female, standing about 1m tall.

For the last few weeks, she has been raiding the bins in a nearby village, totally unafraid of any humans living there.

But today, looking a bit bewildered at her predicament and emitting the odd low groan, she is going to give conservationists the first look into the private life of one of Slovakia's so-called problem bears.

Unwelcome visitors

Until recently, getting a glimpse of a European brown bear (Ursus arctos arctos) would mean venturing deep into Slovakia's mountainous forests.

But now close encounters with these animals increasingly are happening much closer to home.

After these animals were hunted almost to extinction in the 1930s, the bears have made a big comeback. However, the boost in numbers has meant that some curious bears have started to take an interest in village life.

Image caption This camera-trap photo reveals a problem bear's love of convenience food

Pavol Majko, director of the High Tatras National Park - a stronghold for brown bears - says: "The majority of bears in this area stay in the mountains, but a small number have lost their fear of humans.

"They are coming to the villages, attracted by waste in unsecured bins."

But for the people living in this area, these new visitors are not welcome.

Jan Mokos, Mayor of the High Tatras village, explains: "The people are scared and they're coming here to complain almost every day. But it's not only the people who live here - it's tourists, too."

He proposes drastic action.

"Of course, we can do something about this problem by making sure our bins are secure, but I think some controlled shooting is also necessary."

Bear necessity

But conservationists say killing problem bears is not the answer. Instead they want to study them.

Image caption The collar records the bear's location then sends the data in a text

And the animal that has been captured will provide them with that chance. They are going to fit her with a GPS collar that will track her every move.

Graham Bishop is working on Project Bear, which is part-funded through an eco-tourism company and is a collaboration with scientists from the High Tatras National Park.

He says: "At the moment, we have very little knowledge about these problem bears. All of the information is from physical sightings.

"With the collar, we can find out what she is doing every hour of every day."

First the bear is tranquilised, and then - only once she is sound asleep - the team tentatively approaches. They get to work fitting the collar; the bear, oblivious to the hubbub around her, gently snores.

The conservationists have to work quickly - if the bear wakes up early, the consequences could be terrible. But soon her new accessory is fixed and activated.

It works using global-positioning technology to record her position at regular intervals. Then, every few hours, it sends the team a text message containing this data.

Image caption The bear is anaesthetised while the collar is fitted

It means the researchers can monitor the bear from the comfort of their office, plotting her positions on a map to find out more about her behaviour.

With a battery life of four years, the collar should provide the team with a wealth of data over this period. After this, it will automatically drop off.

Mr Bishop says: "Once we can see what the bear is doing, we can start to work out what is attracting her to the villages, and also what is repelling her away. We can then look at these factors and try and replicate them."

In addition to making sure villagers secure all their waste, another idea, he suggests, could be to set up strategically placed feeding stations outside villages.

Speedy solution

But conservationists in Slovakia stress that a solution is needed soon.

With a growing bear population and increasing numbers of people coming to the country through tourism, the issue of problem bears is here to stay.

For now, though, some of these answers could be found with the help of the bear, called Galina by the team.

She begins to wake up from the anaesthetic - very sleepy and confused, nodding her head and licking the air, as the life begins to return to her limbs.

Eventually, a little unsteady on her feet, she gets up, and slowly wanders back into the forest.

She does not know it, but the data she provides could hold the key to finding a way for bears and humans to live together.

Image caption After being fitted with a collar, the bear heads back into the forest

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