Anna Francis

Rescuing brown bears

Wildwood Trust - 20th Oct, 2016

In 2014, two European brown bears arrived at Wildwood Trust, Kent. The two bears had travelled overland from Kormissosh, a hunting reserve located in the Rhodopes Mountains, Southern Bulgaria. Rescuing these bears from a canned hunt centre required a lot of planning.

Kormissosh is a 42,000 ha hunting reserve found in Bulgaria that has 15 hunting lodges. Whilst Bulgaria was still under Communist rule, brown bear breeding centres existed to ensure the supply of Brown bear to be shot by the ruling commissars and their favoured guests. It was only when the country joined the EU, in 2007, that such activities were outlawed. 

Up to 75 bears would be kept in small, bare concrete pits with no roof to provide shade – in summer temperatures could reach 35oC. Consequently the bears expressed a considerable amount of stereotypical behaviour.

Wildwood Trust became aware of the situation and agreed to seek to rehome two of the bears, initiating a massive public awareness and fund raising drive alongside detailed planning for the bears’ arrival. Deciduous woodland was chosen for the site of their enclosure and the design was developed with input from experienced bear keepers, welfare experts and vets.

The two brown bears arrived on site in November 2014 after an overland and sea journey of more than 1,600 miles, made over two days and one night. Their journey was documented by the BBC and broadcast on The One Show. On arrival, the bears had thorough veterinary checks and were found to have worn down and crumbling molars and heavily decayed canines which had to be removed.  No records were kept at Kormissosh on the bears, thus their age was estimated from dentition at approximately 14-16 years old. From faecal samples, the bears were found to have high internal parasite loadings and were extremely underweight. At that time of year bears are approaching hibernation and should score 5 out of 5 for overall body condition. However, these two bears had no fat reserves and were scored just 1-1.5 (emaciated; bones protruding, no discernible fat or muscle) by the vets. 

When they were at Kormissosh they were kept singularly, now they were to have their own quarters with each individual let out on alternate days and being able to see, smell and nearly touch each other through bars.  Enrichment was provided within the quarantine area and the range of food items provided greatly increased, including fresh fruit and vegetables, mealworms, sugar beet pulp, bran and rolled oats and the odd peanuts, honey and marmalade – a big change from the mite riddled porridge cakes they had been given in Bulgaria. Levels of stereotypical behaviours were reduced from the moment they arrived but the greatest reduction was observed when the bears were finally allowed out into the main enclosure together. Keepers place food items all around their enclosure and the interactions between the two bears led to their relationship on social media being referred to as a ‘bear bromance’. Their latest body condition scores are now up to 3.5 – 4 and they are well on the way to reaching their target weight of 300kg. 

Whilst their behaviour patterns have altered, with stereotypical behaviours greatly reduced, the bears did not hibernate during the winter of 2015. There are many possible reasons for this and it is something that is being carefully monitored this year. However, overall, this project is viewed as a complete success for the bears, with both their physical and mental condition improving greatly, though the rehabilitation is still on-going - watch this space!      

This project description was written by Angus I. Carpenter, Head of education, conservation, research and training, Wildwood Trust. 

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