Prague, 4 February 2004 (RFE/RL) -- To kill a bear in Romania would have meant certain imprisonment during communism, regardless of the damage the animal may have been causing. That is, unless the hunter was a top Communist Party official, or dictator Nicolae Ceausescu himself. The hunting ban imposed by the Communists left Romania with Europe's largest brown bear population outside Russia.
Hunting restrictions in other Eastern European countries during communism also led to brown bear populations considerably higher than in Western Europe.
"Certainly, it does seem that a large percentage of the parliament are hunters. A much higher percentage of members of parliament are hunters than the percentage of the population as a whole."
But environmental organizations now warn that the region's bear population is threatened by the continuous reduction of their natural habitat and the mounting pressure posed by hunting. Romania, in particular, has seen an explosive growth of hunting tourism after the fall of communism, with foreigners ready to pay substantial amounts to shoot a bear.
According to estimates, the number of bears in Romania's Carpathian Mountains, which was around 8,000 at the end of communism, has decreased considerably over the past years. A Romanian environmental organization, Aves, warned the government in a recent report that bear hunting has become a threat to the species and called the situation alarming.
But Agriculture Ministry spokesman Alexandru Dinca told RFE/RL that official data shows the number of bears is kept within normal limits.
"According to our specialists' evaluation on the ground, in 2003, the brown bear population in Romania was about 6,200. There are indeed voices that are challenging these figures. The optimum bear population would be 4,080. There is, indeed, a margin of error in our census, but it is out of the question that the situation has become alarming," Dinca said.
Aves, which is based in Harghita -- the region with the largest bear population in Romania -- says the existing number is much lower. While the official tally says Harghita had 753 bears in 2003, Aves puts the number at only 250 during the same year. Aves accuses the authorities of counting the same animal two or even three times.
According to international norms, 10 percent of the bear population can be hunted annually to maintain a healthy stock. Critics say the numbers are overstated intentionally to increase the hunting quota. But Dinca said the quota has not even been reached over the past several years. "The ministry has no interest in artificially overstating the number of bears to increase the available hunting stock. Consider the following situation -- over the past several years, the number of hunted bears never reached the maximum approved. It has always been smaller," Dinca said.
At the same time, people in some of Romania's regions complain that bears have become not only a nuisance but a potential danger. In some districts of Brasov, in central Romania, bears have developed a habit of feeding from garbage cans at night.
With many Westerners ready to pay large amounts of money to shoot bears, hunting tourism has flourished in Romania. Gyorgy Portik, the head of a hunters' association in Harghita County, says hunters can pay up to $9,000 for the privilege of hunting a bear:
"The lowest prices as set by the ministry are 5,000 euros [$6,274] up to 350 points, and above 350 points, the price is 7,000 euros. Three hundred and fifty points means above a gold medal [trophy], since gold medals begin from above 300 points. But this doesn't mean this is a very big bear. It is an average bear, above 100 kilos, up to 130 to 140 kilos maximum," Portik said.
International environmental organizations say they are also inclined to believe that the bear population in Romania is being overestimated.
Gabriel Schwaderer, executive director of the European Nature Heritage Fund (EURONATUR), an independent German conservation foundation, tells RFE/RL that more accurate methods should be used to estimate the number of bears.
"The [Romanian] Carpathian brown bear population is the largest one in Europe outside Russia, and we think that the estimation of 4,500 to 5,000 bears is still right, but we really don't know exactly. All those numbers are estimations based on bear counts where probably the method is not really well standardized. And we propose to improve the method in Romania and to work there with DNA analysis and then we can really trust more the results," Schwaderer said.
Schwaderer says the tendency to overestimate bear populations in order to increase hunting quotas exists in other countries, too. He says that in Slovenia, the estimated number of bears has been 400 for many years.
"Now the government tells us the population developed very well and they expect somehow 700 to 800 bears and, in fact, that [is] the argumentation line to increase the hunting quotas. And we are very concerned about this development because we think these numbers of about 700 to 800 are not correct. We, from EURONATUR, are supporting developments to make a better census so that we better know what we are talking about," Schwaderer said.
Another international organization, the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), says that in Slovakia, too, official statistics appear to have been inflated. Robin Rigg, who is leading a WWF-sponsored project on bears in Slovakia, says official statistics put the number at twice the real estimates. "The official statistic is somewhere in the region of 1,200 to 1,300. But because they use wide areas, the same individual [bear] may cross several hunting units and therefore be counted several times. Most zoologists and many hunters agree that a more realistic figure would be between 600 to 800 bears," Rigg said.
But rich foreigners are not the only threat to the region's bears. Critics point to the fact that in some Eastern European countries, many leading politicians are also hunters, following in the footsteps of former communist officials. Romania's Prime Minister Adrian Nastase is a keen hunter and honorary head of the hunters' association, and so are other members of the government, including Agriculture and Environment Minister Ilie Sarbu.
Sarbu himself was seriously wounded in a hunting accident in December 2003 and has yet to recover fully.
Rigg says Slovak politicians also love hunting. "Certainly, it does seem that a large percentage of the parliament are hunters. A much higher percentage of members of parliament are hunters than the percentage of the population as a whole, and I certainly heard and visited sites where foresters are baiting bears to come in at specific locations, and VIPs are then invited to come and view bears from hides [hiding places] that have been constructed nearby," Rigg said.
The environmental organization Aves says that in Romania, hides are not only used for viewing bears but also for shooting them from a safe distance. It also points to other illegal practices, such as using dead cows and horses as bait, killing mothers who have cubs, and trapping bears in their dens.
Aves warned that, unless authorities take immediate action to stop what it calls the "massacre" of these animals, it will lodge official complaints with international organizations, including the European Parliament.