Conservationists, livestock breeders must battle it out

THESSALONIKI – The atmosphere was heavily charged in the conference room at Kastoria’s prefectural headquarters, as environmentalists and livestock breeders prepared to cross swords over the area’s bear population. Irate livestock breeders were confronting representatives of the Arcturos bear sanctuary, who were in turn trying to convince them that the bears damaging their property were not from the sanctuary, nor were the wolves devouring their flocks animals released into the wild for the purpose of slaughtering their herds. «Take your bears and get out,» came from one quarter. «How can we? The bears that are damaging your pens are wild; ours are enclosed (at the sanctuary) in Nymphaio. They never leave the site, nor do we release wolves into the forest,» replied the environmentalists from Arcturos. «You are paid to feed the bears and wolves that are destroying our livelihoods. Where will it end? They’ll be eating us next. We don’t dare go to our pens,» was the response from the other side. Arcturos suggests a number of ways to protect farms, such as installing electric fences around the livestock pens or planting fruit trees in specific areas to provide food for bears so they don’t raid fields. «You’ve been saying these things for years and haven’t done anything,» said the farmers, who say they cannot come up with the some 6,000 euros it costs to fence in their houses and livestock pens, since ministry subsidies are insufficient. The only thing both sides agreed on was for the prefecture or forestry service to organize armed groups to frighten the bears away from villages and farms. Even here there is disagreement. Arcturos says plastic bullets should be used, the others insist on real bullets as well, in case the hunters are endangered. Neither side had any satisfactory answer to the question of how the bears, who are an endangered species, could coexist with the local population. A few years ago, Lazaros Georgiadis of Arcturos was seriously injured by a brown bear he was treating at an animal welfare center in Fano, in Florina. «The biggest problem is that they believe that we and other environmentalists are releasing bears, wolves and I don’t know what else into the forest and this not true. We believe that the combination of measures we propose will restrict the problem. The fortunate thing is that no one is claiming we should kill the bears,» he said. They might not say so openly but the people who live in the mountains of western Macedonia and Epirus, in fear of attacks by bears, say privately that they see no other than a «final» solution. Deputy Prefect Paschalis Getsios was furious with Arcturos. «We are none the wiser after the meeting. We were expecting specific proposals to prevent problems but they haven’t made any. Let them live here and see how bad it is, how people sleep with guns by their beds. How are we supposed to chase away the bears with plastic bullets?» As to whether he was in fact suggesting wiping out the bears, he replied: «You’re right there. We are not against the environment but human lives come first for us,» he said, and mentioned a number of incidents in which bears entered villages, massacred animals and destroyed crops. Livestock breeder Cosmas Evangelidis spoke in a similar vein, saying they had been forced to leave the lights on in their houses and play the radio at full blast all night to keep bears away. The Kastoria meeting led to no truce, but only highlighted the divide between the opposing sides. There is no doubt that Arcturos has saved the brown bear from extinction but the people living in border areas are facing a serious problem. The solution cannot be found either by Arcturos or the livestock breeders. It is a case for state intervention. On that, everyone is in agreement.

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