Slovenia, Europe's refuge for brown bears


Brown Bears once roamed across much of Europe but in many parts today they are either threatened or extinct. In fact, the total population is put at only 15,000. But Slovenia remains a quiet refuge for some of those brown bears. And the small Alpine country is now helping repatriate bears back into parts of the Alps from which they have disappeared.

Europe's brown bear population has dwindled to near-extinction in places like the French Alps. About ten years ago, there were only about a dozen of them left there. In 1996, France imported two Slovenian brown bears in the hopes of repopulating the area. But unfortunately the two bears, named Melba and Ziva, didn't last long. Just one year later, Melba was shot and killed by a hunter.

The future of Slovenia's bears, in the meantime, is considerably brighter. Dr. Peter Skobrne, undersecretary at the Slovenian Ministry of the Environment and Spatial Planning, gives us an overview of the situation:

"There is no solid data about how many bears there are in Slovenia. According to the trends we're seeing, the population is stable and rising. It's currently somewhere between 400 and 700 bears."

This is in itself a minor success story, since the number of bears in Slovenia after the Second World War was reported to be in the single digits. Since then, strict measures to protect brown bears have helped the population surge.

This has also lead to Slovenia exporting some bears to other Alpine countries, including Italy, Switzerland, Austria and France. The cost of a bear rings in at under 10.000 euros.

The New York Times recently caused a minor stir in the local media, when it published a story claiming that "Slovenia has, for Europe, become to bears what Japan once was to transistor radios."

Peter Skobrne was unimpressed. He replies:

"It's interesting that reporters are always looking for some sensational news and when there is no sensational news, they make it that way. I think that is the case with this quote. Actually, in the last ten years, Slovenia exported about 15 bears. You cannot compare this with Japanese transistor radios. Also, the exporting of bears has never been a commercial endeavour for us, but has always been in the interest of maintaining bear populations in the Alps, which includes the countries of Austria, Italy and France."

So while it probably won't enjoy an economic boom due to bear sales, Slovenia has at least shown how to successfully manage a threatened species in Europe.