Many carnivore populations persist outside national parks and facilitating coexistence between humans and carnivores is a socially desired goal and a major conservation challenge. Nevertheless, despite increased conservation efforts many carnivore populations continue to decline, often due to conflicts with humans. Thus, a key to successful carnivore conservation is to better understand human-carnivore coexistence dynamics. To this end, a useful approach could be to learn from landscapes in which humans and carnivores have coexisted for long periods of time.
In Eastern Europe, large carnivores and humans have co-inhabited multiple-use landscapes for centuries. This is in stark contrast with Western Europe where hunting has extirpated carnivores from most of their former range. Furthermore, the recent comeback of carnivores in Western Europe faces strong opposition from local people. To gain a better understanding on human-carnivore coexistence, we aimed to assess how humans and bears coexist in southern Transylvania, Romania. Romania sustains a large stable population of the brown bear, most of which live in the Carpathian mountains. However, they also occur in the foothills which harbor hundreds of villages characterized by semi-subsistence agriculture.
We used a two-pronged approach combining ecological and social data to study coexistence between humans and the brown bear in Transylvania. We first surveyed 550 km of walking transects for bear signs (proportion of destroyed anthills) to assess spatial patterns of bear activity. Second, we used questionnaires to examine human-bear conflicts in the region and related it to the spatial distribution of bear activity.
We found that humans and bears coexist relatively peacefully despite occasional conflicts. Coexistence appeared to be facilitated by (1) the availability of large forest blocks that are connected to the source population of bears in the Carpathian Mountains; (2) the use of traditional livestock management to minimize damage from bears; and (3) some tolerance among shepherds to occasional conflict with bears. In contrast, coexistence was not facilitated by avoidance of human settlements by bears and financial incentives.
We show that human-bear coexistence is possible even without direct financial incentives. Continuous coexistence with large carnivores appears to foster the development of management tools and attitudes that effectively reduce conflicts. Nevertheless, this shared history of relationships between humans and bears has been eroded in many regions worldwide. Thus, a key challenge for settings with a broken history of human-carnivore co-occurrence is to reinstate both practices and attitudes that facilitate coexistence.
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