Crossing the road is no joke for brown bears

The latest victim was a cub just 10 months old that barely weighed 40 kilos. At an age when cubs are still being reared by their mothers, it attempted to cross the Egnatia Highway at Xino Nero, between Kozani and Florina. It was struck by a vehicle and the bear’s bleeding body was left on the road. Since 2003, 22 road accidents in Western Macedonia have involved brown bears, 18 of them on the Egnatia Highway and intersecting roads in the Siatista-Kastoria-Krystallopigi area, and six on the Kozani-Florina stretch. Heavy loss Given that the bear population of Greece numbers no more than 250 animals, these deaths represent a heavy loss. There have been good intentions on all sides. That particular section of the Egnatia Highway was re-excavated under pressure from environmental organizations, specifically in order to protect bears. But the measures taken to protect the animals and to raise public awareness – new transportation infrastructure, new highways in northern Greece – have not only fragmented the habitat of a rare, protected species but have also disrupted the ecological balance of the surrounding area. The local wildlife has to adapt to a new, inhospitable and at times hostile terrain. Some may argue that development inevitably brings collateral damage, but Arcturos and Kallisto, two organizations that promote wildlife protection in the area, believe that, with specific measures, major projects and wildlife can coexist successfully. A little more money could prevent road accidents that have miraculously not cost human lives as well, environmentalists told Kathimerini. In fact, while rerouting the road cost an additional sum of around 100 million euros, the cost of putting in a better fence is estimated to be no more than 10 million euros. The environmentalists argue that the fence that has been installed along sections of the Egnatia Highway does not meet requirements, being only 1.30 meters high and not strong enough to keep out large animals. Reinforced fence Similarly, the new reinforced fence that was erected on the Panaghia-Grevena stretch (from Panaghia to the Venetiko interchange), after repeated memos to officials, has also failed to keep the bears that frequent the area from getting onto the highway. The reinforced fence was installed along a 12-kilometer stretch, and Egnatia Odos SA, the company that operates the highway, says the monitoring committee has yet to approve another two competitions that would add a further 40 kilometers of what they called good fencing. Meanwhile, environmental experts want the fence raised to a height of 2.5 meters above ground, and 0.80 meters below ground, on an incline and with electrified wire at certain points. Wildlife crossings The fence in place on the Egnatia Highway is only 2.20 meters high, reinforced by steel posts every 2 meters and with barbed wire at the top. «If we put in electrified wire, we’d have to dig up an expanse of 20 meters in the direction of the forest, or we’d run the risk of burning Valia Kalda,» Egnatia Odos president Apostolos Goulas told Kathimerini, referring to the national park. The fence is not on an incline, «for aesthetic reasons,» he explained. The stretch that needs attention is Siatista-Krystallopigi. As Arcturos director Lazaros Georgiadis explained, bears use the area to travel between the main group in Pindus and the Peristeri mountain range. There are no wildlife crossings along the road, which bodes ill for the future. Signs and inattention «This upsets us too,» Egnatia Odos president Apostolos Goulas told Kathimerini. He believes the Egnatia Highway is often blamed for all road accidents involving bears in Western Macedonia. But the toll is rising as road accidents are the primary cause of the death of bears in Greece. Erecting warning signs to drivers on the rural road grid and the highway has not brought results. «Although at first we thought people were paying attention and drivers were slowing down after the signs, it seems the message hasn’t got through to everyone,» said Arcturos director Lazaros Georgiadis. «For example, the accident in Florina that killed a bear cub occurred just a few meters past the warning signs.»

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