Special Report filed by AAF Animal Attack Files Special Report
from The Electronic Telegraph

      Brown bears reprieved in French Pyrenees
By Adam Lusher

August 27, 2000

A GROUP of Slovenian brown bears from the French Pyrenees has won a reprieve from deportation.

The bears' lucky escape only happened after their case was taken all the way to the highest court in France. The future of Zivos, Pyros and four cubs looked bleak earlier this month after farmers in the impoverished Ariège area claimed that the Slovenian bears killed more than 200 sheep last year.

The animals were turned loose in the mountains in 1996 as part of an attempt to restore the native population after ruthless hunting led to bears disappearing completely from Ariège and the rest of the central Pyrenees in the Eighties. Apprehensive local farmers lobbied the French government to insert a clause in its latest hunting bill which allowed mayors to order the capture and deportation of any bear deemed a danger to livestock, and this year they tried to invoke the measure to get rid of their unwanted neighbours.

The bears have, however, just been rescued by the Conseil Constitutionnel, the equivalent of America's Supreme Court. It has ruled that any deportation would be unconstitutional because it would defy European conservation directives.

The farmers, struggling to make a living in one of the most rugged areas of France, are angry. French conservationists, however, now want to continue the reintroduction programme until there are 100 bears in the Pyrenees, where currently there are only about 10.

Roland Guichard of Artus, the organisation trying to protect the bears, said: "The hunters are furious; we are happy. The bear was always part of the landscape of the Pyrenees before it was exterminated. We would like to introduce more bears and see them multiply. It would be fantastic for tourism, but the bears' opponents don't understand this. For them, any wild animal is there to be killed.

"It's a bit xenophobic. The Slovenian bears aren't at all aggressive, but whenever a sheep is killed, everyone says, 'There's no doubt it was a foreigner.' It's a reflex. The truth is the bears killed only 60 sheep last year. Domestic dogs kill far more, about 1,000 a year, but when it's a wild animal, suddenly the death of a sheep is a catastrophe."

The European brown bear (Ursos arctos), a cousin of the North American grizzly, can weigh more than 860lb and reach 7ft or more when standing on its hind legs. Although essentially vegetarian brown bears are capable of killing animals the size of an ox.

The Worldwide Fund for Nature said that the plight of the brown bear in Western Europe was "catastrophic" and it was in greater danger of extinction than the giant panda. Attempts to boost numbers in the Pyrenees, however, aroused almost instant opposition. Two females, Mellba and Zivos, were introduced into the Haute Garonne area in 1996. Almost immediately Zivos wandered into neighbouring Ariège and became the prime suspect for a spate of sheep deaths.

The compensation awarded to farmers who lost livestock to bears failed to quell opposition. Graffiti declaring Non aux ours (No to the bears), started appearing on walls and cliff faces, especially after Pyros was introduced and the bears started breeding.

In September 1997 Mellba was killed in Ariège by a man, who, it was claimed, had acted in self-defence during a hunting accident. In 1999 it was claimed that a bear was seen killing sheep just for the fun of it. Hints that there might be more "hunting accidents" followed. Months later, men, women and children marched through the small town of Foix carrying placards reading Tuons l'ours (Let's kill the bear). By September 1999 the mood was so ugly that Lionel Jospin, the prime minister, felt obliged to pay a visit to Ariège.

The possibility of evicting bears was added to the draft legislation in March, sparking worldwide protests from conservationists. It is now argued that the key to man and bear living together in harmony is the return of the patou, the traditional Pyrenean guard dog, which became much less commonly used by shepherds as bear numbers dwindled to almost nothing.

M Guichard said: "The bear is an opportunistic animal. If the guard dog is there, it won't go after the sheep." The farmers of Ariège, however, remain far from convinced. José Barbosa, who manages a flock of 250 sheep in the Orlu valley where 54 sheep were mauled last year, said: "This animal is bloodthirsty and carnivorous. It isn't a teddy bear."

© Copyright of Telegraph Group Limited 2000.

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