Six rules to avoid accidents with a bear

Original article published in in bulgarian

After a bear attacked a tourist in Stara Planina (Balkan Mountain) last week we take the opportunity to remind you how to avoid dangerous encounters with wildlife and how to behave if you come across a bear in the woods. Certain behaviour can get you off with a mere sniff and it can help you to avoid an attack which sometimes has tragic, even fatal consequences.

The attack in Central Balkan Mountain

In fact on this occasion the bear was not being aggressive during the so called ‘attack’. For an interview for Dnevnik Newspaper Kostadin Valchev from Balkani Wildlife Society said that it is more appropriate to say that the tourist and the wild animal were ‘dangerously close’. Valchev has years of experience in projects aimed at the decrease of damage done by bears and the prevention of bear-related incidents. He also witnessed the incident in Kutela Village near Smolyan where a bear attacked and killed a 65-years-old man.

The present incident occurred on an unmarked path in the central part of the Balkan Mountain, in the vicinity of Triglav Lodge. The tourist wishes to remain anonymous; he was walking alone, in silence. Suddenly a bear appeared very close by; unconscientiously he had broken the so called ‘critical distance’ (the safety distance with bears is 20 metres (65 ft). Surprised, the bear reared on its hind legs. The man thought that it was preparing to attack and decided it was safest to pretend being dead – he lay on the ground on his belly and covered the back of his head.

His hasty movements provoked the bear’s interest. The wild animal approached him, pushed and probed a few times with its paw, trying to turn him over. At the moment when it turned to go, the man, scared to death, jumped on his feet and rushed towards the lodge.

Шест стъпки срещу трагичен сблъсък с мечка

The tourist has injuries on the head – a 5 cm (2 in.) wound with a few stitches, as well as scratches from rocks on his eye and nose. The wounds are not deep and are relatively mild for a bear attack. Evidently the more serious injuries resulted from the man running for his life, Mr. Valchev explains.

In the BWS expert’s opinion this incident from a week ago cannot be compared with the tragic event from two years ago – this time the wild animal displayed no signs of aggression. ‘A bear can crush the backbone of a bull with one blow of its paw, and that is much sturdier than a man’s. And it can crash a man’s head in its jaws. This man has only a few scratches. The bear wanted to turn him over because he was lying on his belly.’

Six steps to avoid tragic incidents with bears

1. It is recommended that hikers follow the touristic route marking and use the existing paths; bears prefer to avoid human company and usually stay away from the more popular touristic sites and routes.

If you lose the path and have to move through a wilder section of the mountain, do so noisily, so that you announce your presence. Talking, singing, clapping your hands, or even coughing are ways to do so. You can also bring a small bell for such occasions. If a bear hears you, it will either run away, or it will growl to let you know you are trespassing and you should turn back.

2. Despite its popularity, the belief that if one pretends being dead and lies down on the ground on their belly, covering the back of their head, this practice is not very efficient. Even if the bear rears on its hind legs, it is just communicating, and demonstrating power.

A rearing bear is highly unlikely to attack unless provoked, as forest rangers with extensive experience confirm.

After it rears, the bear would retreat in most of the cases; for it to do so, remain calm, and do not run away or try to lie down on the ground. Lying down is a radical measure applied if the bear has already attacked or runs towards you (and is no more than 2 metres (6-7 ft.) away).

3. If you are closer than the ‘critical distance’ make only slow moves and talk in a low voicemonotonouslyAbrupt noises such as gunshots and shouts can provoke dominant males to attack in order to protect their territory.

4. If you come across a bearlook it in the eyes. Wait patiently for the animal to retreat, or slowly retreat yourself, without taking your eyes of its, careful not to trip and fall down because the fall would most probably provoke an attack.

5. It is advised to carry a pepper spray and spray the animal in the muzzleAlcohol has the same effect.

6. When camping in areas with bears, do not keep food in the tent where you sleep. It is also advisable not to throw away food near paths, chalets or lodges.

Bear biology

In Bulgaria brown bears can be seen in Rila, Pirin, Rhodope, Balkan and Vitosha Mountains. Their usual habitat is characterized with an abundance of forest fruits – different types of berries, walnuts and hazelnuts which compose a large part of their diet. Bears are omnivorous. Once they taste meat, they can easily grow accustomed to it and will start attacking wild and domestic animals. When hunting, they stalk their prey.

The bears in Bulgaria usually attack people only when provoked. Due to the density of human populations in South Europe they are used to human presence and are not too aggressive in contrast to their likes in Siberia or Alaska.

Despite their stocky figures bears can be quite fast. When hunting they can run with an average of 40 km/h (24 mi/h). Generally they avoid contact with humans and keep away from popular places, for example paths and lodges.

Possible and probable scenarios

Bear-related incidents are welcomed by some hunters. They take the opportunity to apply for a culling license for the bear with the excuse that it is a nuisance bear. Then they usually shoot the biggest bear without any proof which bear in particular was culpable for the attack, and without an investigation whether or not it was a hunting accident, or self-defense.

Another wide-spread practice involves rich hunters paying for a license, going at a hide near a bear feeding platform, and shooting the animal at close range, says Andrey Ralev from Balkani WS.