Following recent media statements by Environment and Water Minister Julian Popov about bears in Bulgaria, the local chapter of the WWF environmental organization has published an article shedding light on the issues related to this protected species in the country. Among these are the problems with obtaining population size data and the human-wildlife conflict.
WWF Bulgaria writes that there are no exact data backing the Minister’s claim that the brown bear’s population in Bulgaria is growing. The estimates vary widely from 350 to 1,000 individuals, because a genetic analysis is needed based on collected samples from bears. The collection of samples began a year ago within a project of the National Museum of Natural History under a contract with the Ministry of Environment and Water, but the process has been suspended. It is unclear when the collected samples will be analysed, and these can be stored only for up to a year without compromising the analysis’ results.
Determining the brown bear’s exact population size is also difficult because of poachers, who are believed to kill nearly 100 bears a year in Bulgaria.
Sightings of bears on tourist routes and near settlements have increased recently, but that does not necessarily mean a population growth. Climate anomalies in spring 2023 have led to a food shortage for bears, making them forage in new areas. The lack of effective household waste management has resulted in bears staying close to settlements for easy access to food. Also, during the breeding period in spring and early summer, large males force young bears and mothers with cubs to move to their habitats’ periphery, which results in more bear sightings near settlements.
Another issue lies in the lack of an integrated official register for bear sightings. WWF Bulgaria collects such data, but there is no official data collection at the institutional level. There is also no single register for reports on damage caused by bears; such a register would allow a quick and timely analysis and the introduction of data-based preventive measures.
In addition to the lack of timely preventive measures, the human-bear conflict is exacerbated by people’s incorrect behaviour when they encounter a bear. One should not approach a bear to take photos, as that poses a danger to both sides, the article reads, referring to the Environment Minister’s statement that he has a photo of a bear he encountered in his village. Bears rarely attack humans, and there has not been a case where a bear killed a person in more than ten years, WWF Bulgaria recalls. Still, information boards in areas with bear sightings and information campaigns could help reduce incidents.
Other ways to reduce the human-bear conflict include the adoption as soon as possible of the updated Bear Action Plan and an ordinance on the rules of establishing and paying compensations for damage caused by a brown bear. Also, the Environment and Water Ministry should set up at least two additional rapid response teams for Northern and Western Bulgaria in Gabrovo and Blagoevgrad. Every regional environment and water inspectorate in areas inhabited by bears should have an employee trained to register damage and inform people, including when alerts about other protected species are concerned, the article reads.