A bear rescue in disputed territory
Back in 2011, while I was working for Fauna & Flora International in Georgia (the former Soviet Republic, not the American State) I received a rather unusual e-mail from a UK-based organisation called Hauser Bears. The mission of Hauser Bears is to work to protect bears around the world which they often do by actively supporting conservation and welfare projects. In this case, they had been contacted by someone working, in Georgia, for the European Union Monitoring Mission; the EUMM have been in-country since 2008 when a war between Georgia and Russia sprung up over a border dispute.
Whilst on patrol along the disputed Administrative Boundary Line (what they call an international border when the countries on either side disagree on where it is) the team had come across a bear cub being kept in a village very close to the boundary. As often happens in this (and other) part(s) of the world, the cub’s mother had been illegally killed by hunters and then either left in the forest to be found by someone else, or taken by the hunters and sold on as a pet (if you’ve ever been close to a fully grown brown bear, you’ll understand how foolish this is).
Hauser Bears had then contacted me, as a representative of one of the few international conservation organisations working in the region, in the hope that I would be able to provide logistical support for a rescue (or confiscation, depending on whether you are taking a legal or humanitarian view on the issue). I, of course, was more than happy to help, particularly as Hauser Bears were committed to funding the entire operation. They had also attracted the attention of a British filmmaker, Fergus Beeley, who was on his way to film the whole operation for television. I couldn’t really let him arrive in-country with no rescue to film now, could I? So, I enlisted the help of our local partner, NACRES, and begun working on organising the rescue/confiscation.
As we soon discovered, the situation was complicated by a lack of in-country facilities to take on the care of a European brown bear. Although bears are protected by law in Georgia it has been estimated that there are around 50 in private collection (which may not sound like much but, in a small country like Georgia, that is probably around 20% of the national population) because, quite simply, the authorities have no means for housing any they confiscate.
The only facility that has the resources is the National Zoo, in Tbilisi, and this became saturated with rescued bears a decade or so ago.Luckily for this bear the well-connected Hauser Bears had secured a place for it in the Romanian bear sanctuary, Libearty. All we had to do was get the bear from A (a remote village in a disputed territory) to B (an equally remote sanctuary in Eastern Europe).
In order to do this we needed to enlist the help of the EUMM (we couldn’t enter the area where the bear was without their protection), the government’s Environmental Inspectorate (basically, the national Ecological Police), the zoo (for veterinary support) and DHL (to transport the bear to Romania). And all this would be for nought if we couldn’t get permission from the Environment Ministry to export the bear out of Georgia (a protected species, remember) and the CITES permits required to then import him into Romania. Was this bear, I wondered, at all aware of the many wheels that were now grinding in order to secure its future?
After countless e-mails, telephone calls and meetings, everything began to fall into place and it was not long before Bejan (NACRES’ senior biologist), Giorgi (the zoo’s head vet) and myself were headed to the city of Zugdidi to meet up with the EUMM team that would escort us and the local Inspectorate team, to the village where the bear was being held.
When we arrived at the village, on a cold morning in early March, I was struck by how quiet it was. Many families had left, either during the war itself or once they suddenly found themselves torn between one country and another. What was left was a barely-functioning rural village already feeling the extreme pressure of having to make the move from one extreme (Communism) to another (Capitalism).
The EUMM team led us to the building where the bear had been seen and we began to assess the situation. The building, a large concrete barn, was locked but we could hear the bear inside trying to get out; the frantic whines adding a sombre tone to the otherwise darkly-comical scene as the old door, and its’ handle, were rattled from within. We definitely had the right building, we just needed to find the owner and get the doors unlocked. Eventually, the Inspectorate tracked the man down and he was summoned to the building to let us in.
he first thing that struck me was the generally amiable nature of the man who had, for all practical purposes, been caught red-handed breaking the law. Through discussions he revealed that he had found the cub wondering around the village and had taken pity on it, using his own resources to house and feed it. As far as he was concerned, he was the bear’s rescuer. From the snippets of translation that I was able to get, the Inspectorate were taking him at his word and were not going to press charges. In a country undergoing a huge and traumatic change, in a village that was clearly suffering economically, and in a part of the country where the very sovereignty of the land was disputed, this seemed like a fair-minded decision.
The second thing that struck me was how the bear, once released form his dark confines, made a bee-line for the very man who had been holding it captive; the warm embrace that ensued seemed to validate the Inspectorate’s decision.
And yet, it was still certain that the cub would not last long in these conditions, however well-intentioned his confinement might be (he was already showing signs of stereotypic behaviour; constantly sucking and gnawing at its’ paws), and we were to press-on with the rescue/confiscation. The bear seemed to have other ideas, however, as he quickly presented us with two problems. First, how to catch a bear that is happily frolicking in the snow (his current state of freedom appearing to finally dawn on him, and second; how to persuade it to enter the not-so-large crate in which he would be transported (he, of course, had no idea that this small box was merely an initial step towards a lifetime of care, attention and relative comfort).
he answer to both these questions, as it turned out and as with so many things in life, was a well-balanced combination of patience, perseverance, gentle cajoling and a little brute-force.
Once the bear was safely secured in his crate, the convoy of land cruisers and jeeps left the village as swiftly as it had arrived, making its’ way back to Tbilisi where the cub (whom, at some point, had been named Misha) would spend a week, or so, in the zoo whilst his transport to Romania was organised.
I never saw little Misha again but subsequent updates from Hauser Bears assure me that he is thriving in his new Romanian home. Meanwhile, for a handful of other, similarly orphaned bears, life continues to be a small, cramped cage and a handful of kitchen scraps and, until Georgia can enforce its’ own laws, until it can provide shelter for the bears, that’s where they’ll stay.