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Shoot on sight or give them space? Slovakia grapples with what to do about bears after woman dies

Shoot on sight or give them space? Slovakia grapples with what to do about bears after woman dies

Slovakia has seen its second bear attack in three days, according to officials, with one town in the north of the country declaring a state of emergency.

Local authorities say that five people aged between 10 and 72 have been injured in the town of Liptovský Mikuláš, near the Tatra mountains. On Tuesday, authorities said they expected to capture the bear after six armed patrols were hunting the animal. People have been advised to exercise caution - especially in the morning and evening.

“The bear has been pushed into uninhabited zones by rescue and security forces where emergency teams … have orders to eliminate it,” according to the town hall.

Footage showing the bear running along a road, scattering pedestrians and charging at a man who was forced to climb a fence to escape the animal was posted on social media.

“We are a town between mountains, but still a town. We cannot allow a bear to attack five people in the centre in broad daylight,” the town hall added.

This attack happened just a day after a 31-year-old woman from Belarus died while being chased by another bear in the area on Friday evening.

Her male companion said they were walking in a densely forested area of the Demänovská Valley when the animal began chasing them.

The pair fled in opposite directions and the man was found “scared but unhurt” at the top of a ravine. A rescue team with sniffer dogs found the woman’s body at the bottom.

The bear was still nearby, and the mountain rescue service scared it off with warning shots from a rifle.

Initial investigations by Slovakian authorities suggest the woman died from the fall rather than from being mauled by the bear.

Bear attacks prompt calls for a cull

The series of attacks has led to calls to reassess the protected status of bears in Slovakia and more widely across Central and Eastern Europe.

Over the weekend, Minister for the Environment Tomáš Taraba criticised media coverage that downplayed the role of the bear in the woman’s death. He claimed in a post on social media that the “unnecessary tragic event” was the result of “NGOs reaching out to the Ministry of the Environment, telling us how bears are herbivores and how they pose no risk to humans”.

“In Slovakia, we have a ruling of the Constitutional Court, which makes it impossible for us to shoot bears across the board. So congratulations to the Constitutional Court, I hope you are happy with your work,” Taraba added.

He said that the current situation was a result of “extremist ecological groups that have turned Slovakia into open-air museums where one can no longer move normally”.

Bear attacks have become a major political debate in Slovakia with most politicians talking about the issue during last September’s parliamentary election.

Some members of Slovakia’s populist-nationalist coalition believe that looser environmental protections are needed. They argue that conservation efforts have caused brown bear populations to soar meaning they could now be culled and hunted.

At a press conference in Liptovský Mikuláš on Sunday, junior environment minister Filip Kuffa said that Slovakia will join an initiative with Romania to propose downgrading bears’ protected status at the next EU Council of Environment Ministers.

He also outlined a draft law that would mean bears could be shot in Slovakia outside urban areas under certain conditions.

How many bears are now in Slovakia?

Slovakia has seen several bear attacks over the last few years.

In 2021, a 57-year-old man was found in the central Banskô Valley with his neck, hip and hand mauled and bear prints nearby. It was reported at the time as the first fatal attack the country had seen in a century.

Slovakia’s bear population was almost hunted to extinction in the 1930s. Conservation efforts and legal protection since 1989 have seen these animals return to their natural habitat in the Carpathian mountain range - which runs from Romania, through western Ukraine into Slovakia and Poland.

Kuffa claimed that the population is now “too high” but “no matter how many there are, the bears have changed their behaviour”.

“Historically there has never been such an unprecedented number of bears attacking people,” he added.

Researchers from the State Nature Protection Agency estimated last year that there is a stable population of around 1,275 bears in Slovakia, saying there has been no recent significant increase in their numbers.

Groups including WWF and the Slovak Wildlife Society have pushed back against a cull of the brown bear population.

Environmentalists say it is inevitable that people will sometimes come into contact with these animals. They believe one of the biggest problems is open bins and food waste that draw the bears into residential areas increasing the likelihood of confrontations with people.

Erik Baláž, an ecologist from conservation organisation My Sme Les, believes “meaningless solutions” like indiscriminately shooting bears aren't the answer.

He said in a video on social media that it isn't good “when such cases are abused politically and different passions are aroused and different extremist solutions are proposed that will not work.”

Baláž goes on to explain that, while he isn't completely against shooting bears, education and measures to prevent conflict should come first. He says the environment ministry should track bear activity - like damage to orchards or attacks on livestock - and focus action there.

“A politician cannot come and say that this was a predatory attack and spread fear, saying that now people should think that bears will come and eat people. It is absolute nonsense,” Baláž added.

A predatory attack would mean the bear wanted to kill and eat a person. Marián Hletko, former head of the Brown Bear Intervention Team, told Slovak news agency TSAR, that there is no evidence this was the case in either of the two recent incidents.