The brown bear is one of the most elusive inhabitants of the European forests. I will never forget my first encounter with this secretive animal. I took a field trip to Medvedjak in the Kočevje forest with our student group. Kočevsko is in the southern part of Slovenia and is intertwined with many interesting natural and cultural sights. But wildlife and vast forests are certainly one of the sights to see.
Two of my colleagues and I were assigned to go bear watching one evening. We drove to an area where hunters set carrion, maize, and salt for bears and other animals. These types of feeding sites are mainly for research and tourism purposes, but they raise many debates. The public often discusses their use, as it is perceived to be more attractive to bears than their natural food. But over the years, research has shown that these areas have several desired effects, and one of them is certainly less habituation to humans.
As we settled into the hunting observatory, the waiting part began. Two dormice kept us company, but hours passed before we had the honor of seeing a bear. At first, we could hear the gentle cracking of the branches, but since we were almost completely in the dark, we didn’t know what was going to appear and where it was coming from. But after a couple of moments, there he was – a big brown bear. We were all in awe. Because we had to be quiet, we could only show our excitement with wide smiles across our faces. I have no idea how long the bear was feeding on the maize because the experience completely overwhelmed me and I lost track of time. When the bear finally decided he had enough, he retreated into the woods. His steps were slow and quiet, and if it were not for the rustling of the leaves, we would not even know he was there. He disappeared like a ghost.
This experience stuck in my memory so much that I was completely impressed by the story and presentation of Christine Sonvilla at this year’s first European Wilderness Week, organized by the European Wilderness Society and held online from 19th to 23rd October 2020.
Christine Sonvilla and Marc Graf are a team of professional, award-winning photographers, filmmakers, videographers, and conservationists. Their work is focused on wildlife topics. In 2018 they had a cover story published in National Geographic. Their story was first published by the German edition in June 2018, followed by the Slovenian edition in August 2018, and in September 2018 the story was issued by the Czech edition. Also, they try to present these topics to the general public through various collaborations and exhibitions.
Thus, at European Wilderness Week, Christine spoke mainly about one of the assignments she and Marc took on last year in search of bears in Slovenia, Slovakia, Poland, and Italy. She vividly described their expedition, the bear activity, and even some of the obstacles they encountered. The main topic of her talk, however, was the coexistence of humans and bears in Slovenia and Central Europe in general. Although according to researchers, there are a little less than 1,000 bears in Slovenia, living with them becomes a problem especially when they wander into agricultural areas or human settlements. This is largely due to improperly fenced pastures and orchards, unsecured bins, and forgotten food that attracts bears. These human-predator conflicts are, in addition to the current status of the brown bear population in Central Europe, thoroughly presented in Sonvilla’s and Graf’s book titled “Unter wilden Bären”. This book is an absolute treasure trove of beautiful photographs and important research work done by Christine and Marc in recent years. With this book, they proved that when there is interest, a man and a bear can coexist even in such an environment as today’s Europe. Their next book about wilderness and large predators in Central Europe is due in 2021.
When their colleague Robert Haasmann joined the team, the project “Leben am Limit” was born. This is another in a series of ways to make people aware of the value of large carnivores in Europe, the importance of coexistence, and the conservation of their habitats. Their project “Leben am Limit” became a member of the European Rewilding Network, which was established by the organization Rewilding Europe. This is another proof of their well-done work and a result of many expeditions to the heart of bear forests.
Considering the way we live in today’s Central Europe, the contact between large carnivores and humans will remain constant. But are we really so different from these forest giants? Like Bernd Brunner once said: “Bears find themselves at the spot where two deep-seated but contradictory human impulses collide: the desire to feel protected from unforeseeable danger and the longing for unspoiled nature.”