Tatra Brown Bear
Brown Bear with collar
The home of the Brown Bear - High Tatras, Slovakia
The High Tatras, carving the border of Poland and Slovakia as part of the Carpathian Range, were created over 40 million years ago, at the same time as the Alps, during the collision of the African and Eurasian plates. This, thundering start, and centuries of being chiselled by the mountain extremes of avalanches and high winds means that the area is dramatically and powerfully beautiful. Its alpine environment is thick with birdlife from buzzards to the three toed woodpecker.
The High Tatra National Park has animals on a grand scale: wolves; chamois; deer and a colony of beavers who have created a dam, across a crashing river, which would be worthy of any architecture award.
There's also a top of the pile, alpha animal as the area has one of the highest densities of Brown Bears in the world. The bears, completely ruining any scare factor by being predominantly vegetarian, spend the months before their big sleep munching down the avalanche slopes of the Western Tatras foraging for berries, bush leaves, nuts and roots. It's an enormous task to eat enough to see them through the snow especially for a female bear who may additionally need to sustain a pregnancy.
The world of the bears is intriguing, from bear politics (if you are a medium sized bear, you don't graze on the slopes of the dominant male bear) to bear romance (are the tree scratches to indicate to a potential mate that you are here or to mark your territory and keep competitors away?) . One of the largest problems facing the High Tatra's Brown Bear is that humans don't understand enough about their behaviour which can lead to conflict. For the majority of Slovakians living in the mountain villages, the bears are a nuisance and a potential danger with "problem bears" visiting to go through rubbish bins. Nobody knows how many bears there are or understands their travelling patterns leaving it easier for a worried village to feel overrun.
Step forward Project Bear. The project works with the National Park authorities to carry out research, using GPS collars, which will increase understanding of bear behaviour and reduce human-bear conflict. The collars provide hourly, extensive data as to the bear's travel, preferred habitat and needs. Currently, only one female bear, Maria, has been collared but the plan is to expand this to collate more robust data. Along with the collars and bear watching, camera traps are used for pictorial monitoring of scratching posts (during my visit I saw amazing footage of a bear having a Baloo style front and back scratch) and animal paths. This all combines to provide deep insight into the lives of the bears.
The Project Bear team arrange tracking tours and this is a great experience if you want to learn more about the entire High Tatra ecosystem. One of the unique aspects of being a guest of Project Bear is that, due to their working relationship with the park authorities, you will have access to paths that are closed to tourists. Silently tracking the paths and monitoring the avalanche slops, you will see the luminous purple poo of a berry loving bear, claw scratches and bites in the tree and have the best chance of a close but safe encounter with a bear. This is both the mountains and nature though, so you need to be prepared for variances in the amount of wildlife seen and fast changing weather. When I was there, the area experienced rain in the quantities usually only seen on a family holiday in the Lake District and the group only saw one distant bear. Whatever the weather, you spend cosy nights curled up in rangers huts and mountain refuges whilst, outside the window, the wild beauty of the High Tatras is shadowed until morning.
- Project Bear is based out of Poprad, Slovakia and the nearest airport is Krakow (Poprad airport is currently closed). Full information about the project and tracking tours can be found at www.stunningslovakia.com.
Fran Harris with pictures courtesy of Project Bear.