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140 years after extinction: can bears return to Bialowieza?

140 years after extinction: can bears return to Bialowieza?

Author: John Linnell/Tuesday, June 18, 2019/Categories: Gallery

Brown bears went extinct in Białowieża Forest in the end at the 19th century. The last bear was killed in 1879, exactly 140 years ago. Since then, bears have been visiting Białowieża sporadically, but never staying. Decades after the last bear was killed, in 1908, an incomplete historical document suggests that a bear or its tracks were recorded in Białowieża Forest. In 1937, the decision to reintroduce bears in Białowieża Forest was made, motivated by conservation purposes. It represented the first reintroduction programme of a large carnivore in the world. That winter, the bear “Lola” gave birth to two cubs in a special cage placed in the heart of Białowieża National Park. This method, known as soft-release, allowed the two cubs born in captive to gradually experience and go into the wild by themselves, without much contact with humans. Both bears managed to survive. At that time, the release of captive animals was the only option. In the end of 1939, when Soviet troops occupied Białowieża Forest, Lola was freed from her cage and the reintroduction program abandoned. The outbreak of World War II spoiled what might have been a successful project. Reproduction in the wild was documented for 8 years and bear presence for 13 years. Since 1950 bears have been recorded occasionally in Białowieża Forest. In 1963, bear tracks were observed in the Belarusian part of Białowieża Forest (Buchalczyk 1980) and then again a bear was observed in 2003 in the Wild Swamp area in Belarus. In June 2010, an unconfirmed observation of a hunter placed a bear in the Polish side of the Forest, close to the village of Babia Góra. It has been only recently that a bear and its signs are observed on repeated occasions on both sides of the border and for more than a month now. In the beginning of June this year the bear and its tracks were observed in the Belarusian side, and on 14th June presumably the same animal was seen in the Polish side, still very close to the border. In the night from 14th to 15th June, a camera-trap of the Mammal Research Institute PAS registered a male bear. It is nothing strange that large carnivores suddenly appear in places they have been absent for years. They can travel very long distances, even in heavily humanized landscapes. For instance, the wolf “Alan” crossed all Poland, from Germany to Belarus, in 2009, in less than two months. Bears, especially young males, can disperse long-distances in their search for mates. We documented the longest dispersal of a brown bear in continental Europe. The bear “Iwo” moved from the Tatra mountains if Poland to the Gorgany mountains in Ukraine, crossing Slovakia twice and visiting Hungary in his trip. He travelled more than 3500 km, crossing roads and other barriers, during the 2-year period we could track him thanks to a GPS-collar. In straight line, the distance between the two locations farthest apart in his trip was 360 km. Unfortunately, most long-distance dispersers end-up being killed before they can reproduce and “connect” genetically different populations or start new ones. About 170 km separates the Białowieża Forest from the Naliboki Forest in Belarus, a distance a dispersing bear can easily travel. Bears seem to have recolonized Naliboki Forest recently. Since 2011 they are permanently present in the area and their numbers are increasing. Therefore, it is not strange that bears will start to appear in Białowieża and other Podlasian forests with a higher frequency than before. Bears are recolonizing areas where they used to be present decades or centuries ago across all Europe. Białowieża Forest is withinbear dispersal distance and offers a very good habitat to live and, most importantly, also to reproduce, as shown by a habitat model for the species in Poland. Natural come-backs of species are always better than reintroductions. In 2012, an attempt to reintroduce bears in the Belarusian side of the Białowieża Forest was abandoned. This was a good decision, as bears have shown they can reach the area themselves. People not used to coexist with bears should be well informed about how to behave during encounters with them. It is important to keep calm and follow basic rules. Probably the most important message to people is: never feed bears! Responsible institutions and persons should take the appropriate steps for a proper management of waste and rubbish and to start implementing methods of damage prevention, e.g. in apiaries, in Białowieża Forest. There is also a need to ensure that he is not shot by mistake by hunters who are pursuing other species. If the bear population in Belarus keeps increasing, and the connectivity of the landscape will not get worse (which is difficult in the era of road and infrastructure expansion), bears could, and probably will, settle in Białowieża Forest. This will be very good news: for the ecosystem, that will see restored functions and interactions that were lost; for the bears, who currently mostly inhabit mountain areas, this would mean an increase in their lowland populations. As for us, humans, this is a good opportunity to learn to share the space and coexist with other species. Białowieża Forest is a reference area for conservation at the global scale, and could be an example to follow in this respect as well.

Nuria Selva, Institute of Nature Conservation Polish Academy of Sciences, Mickiewicza 33, 31120 Krakow, Poland

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