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EcoRubric 15:25 27 Jan 2021

Rehabilitation for bears: how Red Book species is saved in Zakarpattia

In Ukraine, there are only 200 brown bears left in the wild. The bears living in captivity are often kept in brutal conditions. We'll explain how a special center helps these animals.

When we talk about a rehabilitation center, we immediately think of people suffering from drug addiction or mental disorders. But have you ever heard of an animal rehab center? It's not uncommon for European countries; such establishments began to appear there in the early 90s when veterinarians started to work on standards for animals' recovery from injuries and operations.

There are also rehabilitation centers for animals in Ukraine, but only a few actually live up to their name and more centers resemble ordinary zoos built to entertain people, and not to restore animal health. But not so long ago, Rubryka visited one of the centers, which is actually a rehabilitation center. It is located in Zakarpattia, in the Synevyr National Natural Park.

Реабілітація для ведмедів: як на Закарпатті рятують червонокнижний вид

The rehabilitation center opened at the initiative of the Ministry of Ecology in 2011, and since then, the clubfooted who've suffered from abuse have come here. Getting to the rehabilitation center is not easy because you literally need to go around all the Carpathians. But in Synevyrska Poliana, any resident can explain where the local landmark is. Along the road, with a mountain river rustling on the one side and tall spruces rising straight into the sky, small streams falling from moss-covered stones with waterfalls on the other, there are bears carved from wood in the Hutsul style, this place's distinctive symbol.

Реабілітація для ведмедів: як на Закарпатті рятують червонокнижний вид

After 100 meters from the entrance, you see a green grid. It looks unreliable: a huge predator can easily bite through thin metal rods. However, bears are in no hurry to break out into the wild. The animals are so accustomed to living with people that although the reserve's area is only 12 hectares, virtually all of them stay in the part visible to people. The first bear we see came closest to the grid. It goes back and forth in one place, walking on tracks trampled in solid ground, not paying any attention to the few visitors.

Nearby, there's an administrative building created in an authentic style. Next to it, we see cages, a little larger than those where circus bears are kept during transportation. Their rods look more impressive than the enclosure's grid. The width of metal rods is comparable to a woman's wrist. There's one bear in each cage; even to onlookers, it appears how unhappy the animals are. One of the bears stares dully at the three men working nearby. Even behind the fence, it's scared; when people disappear from its sight, it begins to step from paw to paw, swinging from side to side. The repetition of the same actions is called stereotypy. Stereotypy occurs in animals because of a prolonged stay in confined spaces. Even getting into wide spaces, like a spacious enclosure the first bear stays, the habit remains.

Реабілітація для ведмедів: як на Закарпатті рятують червонокнижний вид

A sample cage displayed on the rehabilitation center territory to show the conditions the bears that arrived at the center had lived in

We pay attention to the men scurrying around. One of them gives instructions in a businesslike manner, and from his imperious tone, it becomes clear that he's the center's director, Yaroslav Bundziak. The fact that our publication was interested in the rehabilitation center flattered him, and he gladly told us about the center:

"Now 32 bears live here," says the director. "We understand they cannot survive in the wild. They can't find food, don't know how it is. They have to live in semi-wild conditions where we feed and protect them from humans and other predators. Nearly all animals don't even hibernate, because they never did, although this year, four have already gone to sleep," he says.

From cruelty to good hands

Yaroslav explained why some bears are in cages: upon arrival, they are quarantined there. They get used to new conditions, see other animals behind the rods, watch how they behave. Upon arrival, the animals undergo a sanitary and veterinary examination, since almost all of them were kept in terrible conditions: they lived in extremely cramped cages, sometimes in complete darkness. That's how the bear Kuzma was treated, who entered the center in 2015 at the age of 25. The 210-kilo male used to perform in the circus and starred in films, and when he got old, he was simply closed in a dark room, which made the animal completely blind.

Реабілітація для ведмедів: як на Закарпатті рятують червонокнижний вид

Each bear's story is displayed on the stand installed on the center's territory. Reading them, you're horrified how cruelly the former owners treated the clubfooted. For instance, the bear Benia from a traveling circus came to the center with dystrophy: when an average weight is 400-480 kilograms, a 10-year-old male weighed only 270. The owners not only starved him but also tamed him: they put Benia on a hot stove so that he moved his paws and thus learned to dance. Some bears were handed over to the center voluntarily when they were at the "retirement" age; some had to be taken from soulless owners and poachers. Fortunately, they all successfully adapted to the center. The bears are looked after by veterinarians, and their daily diet includes 10-12 kilograms of fruits, vegetables, fish, honey, and flour products: about 13 thousand kilocalories per day.

Реабілітація для ведмедів: як на Закарпатті рятують червонокнижний вид

We see how new grids are already being installed higher on the hill; equipment is sitting nearby. Now the center is expanding; Yaroslav Bundziak explains that because of the lack of territory, they don't take new bears yet. It's getting too crowded for the predators. Gradually, the center becomes larger; they've added 5 hectares to it, but work is progressing slowly because of irregular funding.

Why is it important?

Unfortunately, the state doesn't prioritize the preservation of endangered species. According to WWF, there are only 200 brown bears in the wild in Ukraine. Nearly all of them live in the Carpathians, and a few bears are in Polissya. Some creatures are illegally kept by private owners. In the period before World War II, there were over 2,000 bears in the Ukrainian Carpathians. But then the predators were declared agricultural pests and were literally poisoned: in the valleys, they used to leave a horse carcass stuffed with sodium cyanide; the bears came to it, ate the meat, and died. Bears became objects of hunting, and their home, the Carpathian forests, was desertified, cutting down trees and turning fabulous forests into bare peaks. It went on for 50 years, and now the brown bear is included in the Red Book of Ukraine with the "endangered species" status. Therefore, you need to be especially careful when handling bears. This concerns each of us, because now, when the borders are closed, the main "center" of recreation in Ukraine is the Carpathians, the habitat of many Red Book species, including brown bears.

There are several rules to follow while in the forest. They'll help you avoid meeting predators and not harm yourself or the bears.

🐻 Bears have very good hearing. They can distinguish human speech at a distance of 300 meters and the sound of a camera click within a radius of 50 meters. But they won't attack a person and most likely will bypass you. Therefore, when walking in the forest, you need to make moderate noise, move in groups, or take a bell with you if you're going into the forest alone.

🐻 Do not, under any circumstances, approach the cubs; most likely, there'll be a bear nearby.

🐻 When setting up camping in the forest, light a fire and store food as far from the tent as possible. It's best to cook food 150-200 meters away from the tent, as the smell attracts bears. It's also necessary to wash the dishes as far from the camp as possible, and you should bury the remains of rotting food in the ground.

🐻 If a bear has noticed you, or you've noticed the bear, you need to assess the situation and stay calm:

  • If the bear is far from you, at a distance of 150-200 meters, turn to face him and slowly step back until you disappear from his vision. Leaving an object on the ground, like a hat, can distract it for a while.
  • If the bear is too close, rushes at you, or stands on its hind legs, don't run away. Raise your arms to appear larger and talk to it so the animal can identify you as a person. When it loses interest, start walking back slowly, not turning your back on it and leaving your things along the way.
  • In case of an attack by a bear, lie down on your stomach and cover your neck with your hands; try not to let the animal turn you over on your back.

Реабілітація для ведмедів: як на Закарпатті рятують червонокнижний вид

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