Global Ideas takes a look at Kosovo's Bear Sanctuary Prishtina, where freed bears can live and relearn natural behaviors after a law ended mistreatment and inadequate captivity in the country in 2010.
The treetops are shaking, as Mal joyfully wrestles with a young and delicate trunk on a lush green hillside not far from Kosovo’s capital Pristina. The bear, who spent the majority of his life inside inappropriate concrete housing, is one of 19 bears currently taken care of in the Bear Sanctuary Prishtina.
The sanctuary, which was established by Four Paws, the Kosovar Ministry of Environment as well as the municipality of Pristina, is a 16-hectare preserve located in a green valley near Lake Badovc. The compound is divided into several big permanent enclosures as well as six temporary familiarization enclosures, and aims to recreate the living conditions of the wild. The enclosures therefore feature several dens, forest areas, shade-providing underbrush and ponds.
Brown bears are among the world’s largest carnivores and due to their size, fully grown animals have few natural enemies… Except for humans, who have extensively contributed to a decline in their numbers by hunting them and robbing them of their habitat. Today’s worldwide population of brown bears is estimated to lie between 185,000 and 200,000 animals.
As such, unlike other bear species such as sun or sloth bears, the International Union for Conservation of Nature does not consider brown bears to be at risk of worldwide extinction and lists them as being of "least-concern".
To man, bears symbolize strength and endurance and are often deeply rooted in the cultural customs and folklore of countries where they are, or in some cases were, native. But there is also a long tradition of killing and abuse, with their mistreatment for public entertainment, such as staged fights, dating back to the Roman Empire.
Even today, the use of bears for circus shows and funfair attractions is still popular in Eastern Europe, Russia and Asia.
On the outskirts of Kosovo’s capital Pristina, traces of the dubious mistreatment of bears to act as attractions for restaurants are still in evidence. Visible from the highway, a big advertising panel depicting the silhouette of a bear leads to a restaurant. Just next to the restaurant’s parking lot is a battered cage. While today the cage is empty, not long ago, guests were greeted by a group of five bears, kept in a space not even adequate for one.
In June 2013, after finishing the construction of some of the first enclosures, Four Paws began the evacuation of privately kept bears, including the five from the aforementioned restaurant: Anik, Ero, Hana, Mira and Mal. In conjunction with the Kosovar Police as well as NATO peacekeeping units, a total of 16 bears were rescued. All of them are now taken care of at the reserve.
Upon arrival at the sanctuary, all bears are sterilized to prevent reproduction for the simple reason that the site is not a zoo but a place where rescued bears can live in conditions closer to their natural needs. But why not just free them?
Bears tend to roam rather than sticking to one specific territory, and can have a home range of several hundred square kilometers. Given that some 53 percent of Kosovo’s 10,900 m² expanse is given over to agriculture, and factoring in population and livestock density in rural areas, it is likely that their release into the wild would result in human-wildlife conflict.
Additionally, most of the bears were captured as small cubs and literally grew up caged among humans, therefore never really learning their natural wildlife behavior, such as hibernation during winter months and foraging for food. The sanctuary adopted a program which aims to encourage the bears’ natural behavior.
One way to counter this change in behavior is by breaking up their routine feed and hiding it in their surroundings and toys. This challenges the animals to use their senses to find the food, and the hope is that they will eventually adopt a more natural routine. However, as most of the bears suffered from severe malnutrition in captivity, their food-related problems also include what they eat.
Though bears are carnivores, meat is not their main food source, so the sanctuary’s menu reflects that. Over the course of one year, one bear is fed around 3,300 kilograms of fruit and almost one ton of vegetables, followed by bread and meat. Different kinds of nuts, dog pellets and - yes - honey make up the rest of a bear's diet.
As of today, there are no more privately kept bears in Kosovo. Four Paws is currently running a petition to strengthen animal rights in Albania, where an estimated 50 bears live in poor conditions and are exploited for their entertainment potential.
In cooperation with the Albanian authorities, the first five bears were rescued in late 2016. Three were transferred to the Prishtina Bear Sanctuary, while the other two, Luna and Jeta, are currently in a zoo in the Albanian capital, Tirana, but are due to be transferred to Kosovo in spring 2017.