After a short drive through the forest, the car stopped. Our companion; a local hunter and bear expert, signaled us that we should be as silent as possible. He pointed to the middle of the gravel road: put your feet there and you walk more silently. We went almost tip-toeing towards a small clearing. With a hand-signal he told us to slow down more, no, to stand still: the bear was already there! We could hear our heart beating while we watched the large brown animal, who moved quietly from one place to the next in an open grassy area in the middle of the forest. As silently as we could, we climbed up a metal ladder towards a hunter’s hide. Occasionally, the bear looked up at us, evidently well aware of our presence. But the hidden bits of food were more interesting, and from the hide, we could watch and photograph the bear for another ten minutes, before she moved away into the vast Slovenian forests.
We waited. Slowly the sun went down. Jays, Woodpigeons, and Blackbirds came and went. A Robin sang. Bushcrickets called unseen from the undergrowth. Above us, in the ceiling of the hut, Dormice stirred. The forest has a special magic when you sit and wait quietly. Our guide made an almost inaudible sound but it was enough to wake us from our daydreams: the second bear had arrived. This bear seemed to think about every step, all his senses full alert. There was food here, but he didn’t quite trust what was going on. After he made a wide circle over the feeding place, he disappeared quietly into the forest. He hadn’t touched any of the food.
After a while, the third bear arrived and began to eat quite quickly. We made some photographs, even though the light was so poor that we knew that the pictures wouldn’t be very good. The bear looked up, straight at us, and ran. I had forgotten about a tiny red light that my camera makes to focus when the light is poor, and the bear immediately noticed that light …
We were ecstatic, three bears in one evening! We started to talk softly, almost whispering, while we walked back. Moments later, our guide signaled us and we stood still immediately. There, practically next to our car, was a female bear with three small cubs. The moment we saw her, she noticed us and moved decisively away into the by now very dark forest. So that was seven bears in one evening …
For our friends and customers, such an experience is magical, meeting these mighty beasts in their own home, in the forest. But it left me with mixed feelings. Evidently, these solitary creatures had gathered here because of the daily feeding in front of the hide. All bears were clearly aware of our presence, even though we were doing our best to be silent and we did not use insect repellent or any other strong smells. When I meet bears in the forest, they usually run as soon as they notice me. What worries me, is that the first one this evening had not. Even more, she was present before we came and had likely arrived soon after our guide brought food. In clear daylight. Bears are opportunistic animals which quickly learn where they can find something to eat and all these bears had learned where the feeding place is. Without that, it wouldn’t be possible to offer »bear-watching« to our guests with any hope for success. And bear-watching is, understandably, one of the biggest attractions in Slovenian eco-tourism. It is also a growing attraction: every year the offer broadens with more organizers offering more opportunities from more bear-watching hides.
There are roughly 500 brown bears in Slovenia, which mainly live in the Southern part of the country. In this area, the density of bears is one of the highest in the world. The same area is inhabited by people: there are numerous villages in the valleys and even the forest is dotted with cottages, hunters-huts, and bee-stables. Bears live very close to people here. Most locals can tell stories of how they met bears, sometimes deep in the forest but often enough close to, or even inside villages. At this moment, the vast majority of the local inhabitants has a positive attitude towards the bears, but the balance is delicate. Incidents happen: bears raid beehives, break large branches out of fruit-trees and forage on compost heaps and in garbage bins. Occasionally they kill a sheep and the discussion flares up about the condition of the sheep, the quality of electric fences and the pros and cons of guard-dogs. And sometimes bears scare people by leaving big footprints on their doorstep or showing up in unexpected places. Even though a mother bear with cubs can be a dangerous animal, attacks are rare and if they happen, they are mostly a bluff to scare people away so the cubs can have a possibility to flee.
For opportunistic animals like bears, there’s a lot to eat in Slovenia. If food would be the limiting factor, there is space for several thousands of bears, at least. Naturally, the bear-population is growing. In fact, they are among the most fertile bears in the world and females commonly raise three or even four cubs, rather than the one or two which are the norm elsewhere. If the bear-population increases, the number of meetings with bears will increase, as will the number of incidents. We expect that, when this happens, the local attitude towards bears will change very quickly. And when people don’t accept bears any longer, there will, quite literally, no longer be a place for free-living bears. Every year the number of bears in Slovenia is estimated, and on basis of this estimation, a quotum is set for bears which »should be removed«. Removal includes everything from bears killed in traffic (mainly when crossing railroads at night), to bears which are shot because of a poor condition and bears which are shot because they frequently come into villages and cause conflicts. The quotum is further »filled« by shooting healthy bears. This annual removal of bears is seen as an essential measure to manage the Slovenian bear-population.
It is in this light that we should see bear-watching. Of course, it is an unforgettable experience to see a bear, often from quite close by. In order to be able to offer this, we need bears to get used to feeding places. But, inevitably, those bears notice our presence, smell our smells and hear us approaching the hides. Some also see us, like the mother with cubs which was close to our car. We don’t do anything except taking pictures and some bears, like the first one at the hut, become quite careless about our presence. In Slovenia, no bear stays in the forest all his life. There are simply too many houses and villages close to the forest and all bears have large home-ranges. How would this bear react once she discovers that there is another feeding place, in the form of a garbage-bin, in the middle of a village? Would she still avoid all human smells and sounds, or, one day, boldly get breakfast in broad daylight?