Where have humans lived and conducted agriculture for centuries, side by side with large carnivores? — Not in too many places, but one of them is the Saxon area of Central Romania.
Time and time again, we’re amazed in the field by what we see. A few days ago, we went with a bear expert from Milvus Romania (www.milvus.ro) to search for some signs of bear activity. And we found plenty, without even looking very hard. The most obvious thing is that in pastures, you can often find disturbed ant mounds. Bears like to eat the ant larvae because they’re a good source of protein. Most of the time, bears just browse and eat vegetable matter, but of course they’re carnivores — so somewhere, they need a good source of protein. In addition to the disturbed ant mounds, we also found scats (with the remains of wild cherries … good choice, Mr Bear! Yum!), and foot prints.
And there’s wolves in our study area, too — in winter you can see their footprints, and if you’re lucky, you might see a wolf at dusk.
What’s truly amazing though is that most of the time, you don’t see these animals at all. When western Europeans appear to panic every time a bear or wolf is seen anywhere near a human settlement, Romanians are used to it. Some people have a lot of respect (or even fear) for these animals, but most of those working the land just live peacefully side by side with these big (and dangerous) carnivores. How can this difference between Eastern and Western Europe be explained?
To start with, of course, it’s all a matter of what you’re used to. But there’s more than that. The traditional land use patterns in Central Romania are such that the villages are in the valleys; then come the fields; then the pastures; and then the forests on the hilltops. The large carnivores mostly stick to ‘their’ part of the landscape: the hilltops. People on the other hand, mostly stick to the valleys and the fields. Shepherds are the people most likely to come across bears and wolves, and of course, they do. But for most people, there’s a healthy level of separation between the land used by the large carnivores, and the land used by them. Accidents, for that reason, or ‘human-wildlife conflicts’ as they’re sometimes called, are relatively rare. They happen. For example, we heard a story of a drunk man trying to kill a bear cub; the cub’s mother in turn attacked the guy and he was killed. But these are rare stories, and they typically involve some kind of human aggression towards the bear (wolves don’t seem to pose a direct threat to humans at all, basically).
What’s interesting is when you start to think about the future now. What will happen if land use patterns change? One of the possible changes, which we’re already observing in some valleys, is that certain sections of grazing land are no longer used as much as in the past. Shrubs take over such ‘abandoned’ land (though it’s rarely fully abandoned). Bears seem to love this land, which gives them shelter, but still has those yummy anthills they like to feed in. And of course, this pattern might bring bears closer to the villages and the people living in them.
What will this mean for conflicts between people and bears in the future? Will there be more conflicts? If so, will people perhaps persecute bears and shoot more?
If they were to shoot more, what would that mean for the ecology of the region? As top predators, bears and wolves are likely to have a major effect on ecosystems. For example, fewer bears and wolves will mean more deer browsing. Higher grazing pressure will mean changes in plant communities and so on. Such links are well documented in other parts of the world, and they’re likely to also exist in Romania.
So where does this leave us? It just goes to show how elegant (though probably not intended) past land use patterns were. The future is unknown … will large carnivores and humans continue to peacefully coexist in the Saxon area?