The European brown bear has an incredible refuge in Europe. I went to search for them in Romania’s Carpathian Mountains in October 2017.
Romania has somewhere in the region of 5-6,000 wild brown bears, having recovered from around 1,000 individuals in the early 20th century. The reason that Romania is The Bear capital of Europe (well, excluding Russian Europe) has a large part to do with the communist regime of Nicolae Ceausescu, whereby logging and forest use was strictly controlled – even to the point where bears could only be hunted by a select minority. Ironically, as the people of Romania increasingly went hungry, these forest ecosystems recovered spectacularly and as a result the Romanian Carpathian Mountains boast some of the most ecologically rich places in Europe.
We settled on Zarnesti as our base, a small hill village that contains all the traditional charm but offers what turned out to be one of the finest guest houses in Romania! The Hora cu Brazi is a beautiful chalet type hotel – perfectly situated overlooking the sheep and cow grazed hill pasture. The staff were extremely helpful and the meals were superb. Be sure to try the rosehip preserve at breakfast!
It is also just a short drive from Bran Castle – the infamous home of Count Dracula. We couldn’t miss the opportunity for an evening drive over to see this gothic fortress. We were even treated to my first ever Northern white-breasted hedgehog wandering along the middle of the road!
As this was a short trip, we decided a guide would offer us the best chance of seeing all the species we wanted to find – particularly bears…
On excellent reviews, I contacted Dan Marin. He can be found at Transylvanian Wolf. Dan was able to offer two days guiding for our party of three which worked perfectly – one in a private area of the mountains.
A short 10 minute drive from Zarnesti down private tracks brought us to the edge of a rich deciduous woodland dominated by hornbeam. We soon started seeing all the expected species for such an environment with jay, hawfinch, nutcracker and many different woodpeckers all common.
Almost as soon as we started walking we came across very large footprints. Bear! According to Dan’s estimate, one had walked along the forest path we were using about a week before us. The carefully paced paw tracks left me with a tantalising vision of its ambling gait as we tracked the same route:
The terrain here is fairly unforgiving so decent ankle-supporting walking boots are essential. We worked our way up around the edge of the track, scanning every clearing we came across. There was evidence of bears everywhere! October can be a great time to see bears as they are all busy stocking up for their winter hibernation.
Despite being late October I was amazed to still find good numbers of butterflies on the wing, with both Queen of Spain fritillaries and scarce swallowtails still out:
Dan kindly finished off lunch with a round of home-brewed herbal tea, using a concoction of flora collected on his guided walks.
Despite ample field signs, the bears were not obliging by feeding in the open so we went for a change of tack. It was time to head to one of the bear hides…
Bear hides are sometimes criticised for providing food. However, this strategy is used in Romania to great effect. By situating the feeding stations – and their associated hides – deep in the mountains and well away from human habitations, it reduces the incidences of bears coming into the suburbs looking to raid bins. The revenue raised from tourists paying to see the bears at the hides goes straight back into the management of the park.
There are a number of bear hides located around Zarnesti and Brasov. We set off for ours at around 4pm to see the bears coming in for their evening forage – again with Dan as our guide. The hides can only be booked through the licensed guides, but at around €50 per person we thought this was a great opportunity to see bears at close quarters. And this evening we were in for a treat…
Our hide was perched high on a steep face, looking down into a small clearing. This, Dan told us, was where each day one of the forest rangers would come and leave an assortment of nuts, dried fruit and biscuits.
No sooner had we settled in, cameras poised, at the front of the hide (we had it to ourselves, though it could easily seat 10+) – a large bear wandered out of the woods! My first ever wild bear!!
This lone individual sat down and started feeding, but after five minutes suddenly got up and started backing away from the food. A second bear appeared out from the trees, and although a similar size and build to the first, this bear was clearly dominant.
“She’s the boss” said Dan – “she always wins her fights”.
Except this time, the subordinate bear decided to take the peaceful approach, submitting the feeding spot to the dominant female. As she sat there gorging on crushed biscuits and old fruit, we noticed a third bear tactfully circling the feeding individual. This was a big male, and he looked more than a match. If the female could hear him – and she very likely could – she made no efforts to give that away, ignoring him completely as he inched closed to her gourmet buffet.
The next five minutes I will remember for a very long time. With less than five metres remaining between the two beasts, the female stopped eating, turned to look directly at the intruder on her meal…and launched herself up the slope towards him.
This was no play fight. The noise of the most powerful carnivores in Europe going head-to-head in what had the potential to be mortal combat sends a primeval shiver straight through you. The sheer strength exuded by both animals as they took turns to swipe each other off balance demonstrated spectacularly how these animals are capable of running faster than a thoroughbred race horse (a strength they use to hunt down agile deer calves in the forest). Rolling down the slope in a cloud of dust, pulverised biscuit crumb and bear phlegm, whilst bellowing their guttural roars provided the sort of action I only thought possible on the wild plains of an African national park or the dappled waterhole of an Indian nature reserve.
But this was in Europe – home to some of the largest megafauna outside Africa left on the planet (brown bear, European elk, wisent). I wholeheartedly recommended you try to experience it for yourself. You’ll never forget it.