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Hell in the Pyrenees

Monday, May 22, 2006

Hell in the Pyrenees

[Translation of El infierno está en el Pirineo by Eugeni Casanova published in La Vanguardia magazine on Sunday 20th May 2006. Eugeni Casanova is the author of ´Crónica de un exterminio. El oso de los Pirineos´ (Milenio, 2002) - Chronicle of an extermination. The bear in the Pyrenees.]

Slovenia, which today exports bears, has fewer bears than were living in the Pyrenees in 1960 where there were around one hundred. A similar decline has been experienced in Yugoslavia, Sweden, Finland and Romania. The majority of the central European and Scandinavian countries have seen substantial improvements in their bear populations. In 1932, Slovakia had 20 plantigrades (animals that walk on the whole sole of their feet such as bears); in the 1960s there were more than 300 and in the 1990s there were 700. In Bosnia-Herzegovina there were between 15 and 20 individuals in 1968 in the reserve of Bugojno. Twenty years later, the population had grown to 160 and they had to award hunting licenses because the territory could not support any more.

The difference between these countries and the three countries of the Pyrenees lies in the degree of protection. In the former, effective and convincing measures have been applied for the complete protection of the bear (in Yugoslavia, the bear has been declared a national monument), while in France, Spain and Andorra there have been only high sounding proclamations. Wherever there have been bears in the Pyrenees, they have been pursued by all means available: beating, traps, poison, fires.. including dynamite in Ariege.

Barely a century ago, the animal could be found throughout the whole range, from Jonquera to Irati, and was still sighted in many parts of the pre-Pyrenees. Already at the end of the 19th century some conservationist voices were being heard who said that the bear was in danger and it was essential to protect it. It was all in vain. The persecution continued unabated and complete protection was not afforded until 1972 in France and in 1973 in Spain. At that time there were still some individuals, perhaps some 35, that could have saved the population, but the hunters didn't cease fire for a single second.

To record some of the last examples, in January of 1990 a group from Aragon killed a bear in the area of Es Bordes. The law of silence operated in this case, the mountain omerta (Sicilian code of honour that forbids informing about crimes): everyone in the valley knew and everyone kept quiet. The same had happened a few months before in Garde, a valley near Roncal (Navarro), where two herdsmen lay in wait for several nights after it had been noticed that a bear was wandering in the valley and killed it. In the valley near Aspe, adjoining Roncal, they killed a young female in 1992. Also, near Hecho (Aragon) there were strong rumours of a cover up in the winter of 1993-1994 that coincided with the disappearance of a bear. Again in Aspe, some hunters killed a female in November of 1994 and after carrying away the skin and the head as trophies, left the remains in a dried up river bed; this was later identified in February of 1997.

Once the first bears were re-introduced from Slovenia, it became their turn: on the 27th September 1997, a young man who shot and rode a mountain bike, in spite of having been warned, climbed to the place where the bear, Melba, and her three cubs were living and killed her “in self defence”. Two of the cubs unexpectedly survived, but the third died. Following this particular story of shame, on 1st November 2004, some hunters caught the bear, Cannelle, in the Bearnese woods, the last indigenous female. Now the only remnant of the most legendary animal of the Pyrenees are two males.

Why has the extermination of the bear been carried out with impunity? In the old days, if a family lost some sheep they could have been ruined. But times have changed and today it is the hunters who created and orchestrate the hatred against the animal. Perhaps it is because they want for themselves the territory in which they believe they have the rights of use and abuse. There are no objective reasons for the fear: there is no documented instance in the whole of the range of an single attack against a person unless the animal was cornered or it was a female defending her young. In the last few years, with 18 bears in the mountains, the Catalan government has only paid compensation for less than 30 sheep per year.

In France, the National Hunting Agency is charged with the protection of bears and this seems to have produced good results.

In 1991, the Council of Europe did not renew the certificate it had granted to the Pyrenees National Park because nothing had been done to protect the bears; the park was set up in 1967 for this particular reason. The situation is even worse: the local hunters have ensured that the territory of the park has been reduced to the highest peaks only, leaving the area where the bears live as unprotected. Today, the bear is the only animal at risk that does not have a protected territory.

In other countries, comprehensive conservation plans are in place and the remaining bear populations have food left for them in their territories. This is beneficial from many points of view: the animals are not under-nourished, a common situation in the wild, and are more likely to survive; they are more controlled and they rarely attack sheep which protects the herdsmen and avoids conspiracies of silence. Such a simple measure could have preserved the species in Spain. Why was it not done, in spite of having been debated? Very possibly because bears were troublesome.

In Catalonia, the story of the last plantigrades is a story straight out of Vaudeville. In 1986, there was an attack on a goat which caused a huge surprise (the Enciclopedia Catalana declared that the bear had been extinct since 1971). The Generalitat didn't do anything to investigate what was happening to this fantastic creature of the woods. At that time there was still a small population of six or eight individuals living in the French valley of La Pique adjoining the Aranese valley of Artiga de Lin. There they spent five years building a super highway to nowhere and when it was finished in 1988 the bears had disappeared. The last documented sighting in the Val d'Aran was in Carlac in 1994. In spite of this, the Administration had decided many years before that there were no bears.

In 1989 some clear footprints were spotted in Amitges, in the National Park of Aigüestortes, and the refuge caretakers informed the forestry authority. The response they received was very illuminating: “Keep quiet!. You must not say anything.” Manel Caujola, from Alos d'Isil, was one of the most respected foresters of Pallars Sobira and only when he retired was he able to say that in 1993 he had clearly seen a bear in the river bed of La Mina, near to his village.

The most flagrant case of hiding information was by the biologist Jean-Pierre Pompidor, who was the director of the Reserva Natural de Jujols, in the Macizo del Madres, which is between Cerdany, Capcir and Confient in the north of Catalonia. For years he collected all kinds of evidence of the presence of bears in the hills: clear photographs of footprints (until 1996), hair, excrement, claw marks.. He sent the information to his ministry in Paris for analysis and after more than a year of silence they replied to his questions that they had lost everything. Obviously, if there were bears then everything would have to be revised: tree felling, herding, communications...

In 1996 the project, Life for re-population of bears, was launched, and the Generalitat was found wanting. It failed to inform anyone about the arrival of the bears, it failed to apply any protocol for helping them and squandered a large part of the grant it received from the European Union for promotion and protection of the plantigrade. The Aranese delegate, Paco Boya, asked a number of questions in Parliament of the Agriculture Department about what had been done with the money, but was not given any reply. In fact, the Parliament asked France to capture the bears and take them to a zoo. All this was to protect “the traditional mountain activities”, which is the argument of the hunters and the politicians that represent them. However there are barely a dozen people who look after livestock in the areas in which the bears live.


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