The calls of great tits, coal tits and chaffinches are the only sounds that break the silence at the Arcturos Sanctuary, in a forest in Nymfaio, Western Macedonia.
Drops from last night’s rain are still dripping from the beech trees as the morning chill turns jackets into valuable allies for the caretakers of the forest’s 12 ursine residents. And now it’s breakfast time.
“We feed the bears in three different locations. Today’s menu includes apples, cherries, peaches and watermelons,” explains 25-year-old Vasilis Fourkiotis, tour guide and Arcturos caretaker with a degree in environmental sociology. Hailing from a family of stock breeders, Fourkiotis already has four years of experience in the field.
“The animals don’t all live together. They are separated so they can coexist in harmony, as they are naturally anti-social creatures,” says Fourkiotis.
“Moreover, in order for us to lessen the chances of the animals suffering anxiety due to the fact that they are to a certain degree confined, we religiously apply international protocol in respect to large predator management, which suggests that we enforce the animal husbandry principle of behavioral enrichment, providing the bears with environmental stimuli for their optimal psychological and physiological well-being,” he adds.
“In other words, we disperse the food all around the area the bears have access to encourage them to be active. Don’t forget that a bear can walk up to 40 kilometers in search of food,” says Fourkiotis.
Having eaten his watermelon, 15-year-old Manolis stands up on both feet and appears to wave. His brother, Kyrgiakos, continues to munch away at his own watermelon a few meters away, indifferent to our presence. When they were cubs, the two brothers were found by a person who took them in as pets. But when they tipped the scales at 250 kilograms and grew to 2 meters in height, they simply became unmanageable. When Arcturos was called in to help, the two bears were completely used to living with people. It would be impossible for them to live in their natural habitat now, which means they will have to live their whole lives in captivity. However, they could do far worse than the Arcturos Sanctuary, an area of some 50 acres offering food, guaranteed care and optimal living conditions.
“We keep the animals here in order to provide them with the best possible living conditions. However, a bear, just like any other wild animal, needs to live and die free in its natural environment,” explains Vangelis Despotakis, Fourkiotis’s co-worker.
“Here at the sanctuary we have three bears from circuses, five from a zoo, three orphans and one blind bear.
Unfortunately, it is now impossible for these animals to live freely in nature. They think that humans are their source of food; that’s why they try to get close to us every chance they get. All the animals are neutered given that we do not want more bears living in captivity. In the wild, cubs stay with their mother and learn from her for a period of two to three years. Under the conditions of a shelter, however, this obviously doesn’t happen,” he adds.
The public seems to have a somewhat distorted view of the Arcturos organization’s role. For example, the NGO’s staff often receive calls from animal breeders, demanding that the organization get rid of bears in the mountains.
“The bears are not our property,” says Despotakis. “We exclusively support bears that can’t survive on their own. We do not interfere with those that live freely, nor do we breed bears in order to release them at a later date.”
The situation in regard to how people treat animals has without doubt improved in recent years. However, as a guide, Despotakis believes that his role is not limited to unlocking gates, showing people the animals and providing information.
“I believe that I am here for a purpose. That is to instill in the public a different philosophy on how we treat nature and animals. We should stop feeling sorry for creatures which have have suffered from a position of power. The protection of wildlife, despite its obvious benefits, should serve as a medium through which we can improve human life as well, by reorienting the meaning of animals for humanity. People should not have the kind of relationship with nature that sees them caring for the environment so long as they can benefit from it, and realize that animals and the natural environment have an innate importance to us as human beings,” he says.
Recording the population
The first systematic effort to record Greece’s bear population was published in a recent article in the Journal for Nature Conservation. The data suggest that there has been a significant increase in Greece’s bear population over the last 15 years.
“With more than 450 registered bears, Greece’s bear population is considered one of the most significant in the Balkan region. The bears are part of a common clade ranging from the Swiss Alps to Greece. This new evidence challenges data found in the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of endangered species, which suggests that there are no more than 200 bears living in Greece,” Arcturos’s scientific coordinator, Alexandros Karamanlidis, told Kathimerini in a recent interview.
The innovative method employed for the recording of Greece’s bear population, introduced by Karamanlidis himself, is what sets Arcturos apart from other similar nonprofit environmental organizations.
“The most common method employed for the recording of bears involves setting up traps in order to collect hair, which serves as a DNA sample. When I was a PHD student, I observed that bears in Greece enjoy scratching themselves on utility poles. Hence, I set up hair traps on utility poles so that the bears come to me, rather than me going after them. Arcturos has set up hair traps on 300 selected utility poles, knowing each pole’s exact location using GPS technology.
“As far as conducting research on brown bears is concerned, we’re at a very advanced stage compared to other countries in our geographical region. Good research is conducted in Slovenia and Croatia as well. We cooperate with both countries as we share a common database in which all animals are registered. Hence we are able to compare and analyze the Greek brown bear’s genetic profile. We are also able to compare the bears’ genetic diaspora, which secures the species’ survival on an international level,” he said.
“Bears are still endangered. However, there is no doubt that they are not as endangered as they once were. Greece, being one of the few countries in which the brown bear has ‘resurrected’ itself, has made a huge effort. It would be a shame if people still have the wrong impression,” added Karamanlidis.