I was 18 years old and in a dusty little jeep when I saw my first wild bear. It was grab-a-blanket kind of cold, as Indian sal forests are on wintry mornings; but Ranthambhore – better known for its Bengal tigers – infused the mood with a tropical vibe. Golden land speckled with trees collapsed into a valley beside us, and on the further ridge a sloth bear waddled by, on some errand known only to itself.
I don’t know how many bears I’ve seen since – hundreds, maybe thousands. Black bears and grizzlies dominated my days in western Canada. They leave their tracks, they smash their trees, and they try to live amidst people who only grudgingly tolerate them.
This huge male grizzly was in Jasper, Alberta. We’re always looking for a symbol for Wilderness, it seems. Bears are the spirit of mountain and taiga. There is no wilderness without large carnivores, but it doesn’t follow that large carnivores only live in wilderness.
People have now taken over practically all the Earth. If we cannot work out how to conserve wolves and bears in human-dominated landscapes, we will lose them everywhere. No national park is big enough – and some places have plenty of bears without having parks at all…
9th July 2016
There is hope for Europe’s large carnivores, maybe; it depends how you weave this fragile thread of human psychology. It all began this morning – I was standing, Newton-like, under the apple tree on the edge of our orchard-camp, awaiting today’s group. We are plunging into the unknown, where no large mammal survey team has gone before.
Choosing a new transect is an exciting business in a forest where any given track might spit you into a monstrous boggy bramble patch. The Hiking Pole gets a taste of bushwhacking.
But we strike gold.
This is the footprint of a fairly small bear, living and breathing in a working landscape. Full of people, full of bears. Of course, a track is an invitation to take a plaster cast, like we did back in Richis.
There’s no realistic prospect of actually meeting a bear within these rolling forests. They hear us and scatter, leaving the trees as silent witnesses.
So, come evening, we try something else.
Time drifts on. Clouds build into a grey matrix; rain spits, and stops again. I’m joining two university students with A. on a wildlife search tonight. He arrives smartly in a little dark jeep. He’s about forty, with a shaved head and thickset features – and he knows his stuff. We have only been driving for a few minutes when I ask, almost ironically, whether the striped feline sitting in the grass is a domestic cat. It has to be.
It’s a forest wildcat, one of the rarest and most elusive animals in Europe. It resembles a tabby because it’s related to the ancestor of our pet cats, but genetically is a very different kettle of fish. Scotland calls them Highland Tigers; they’re extinct in England. Untameable, almost mythological, this is the cat that hunted Europe’s forests long before people came to name them.
Romania has one of the most robust wildcat populations still surviving. They are considerably bigger than pet cats, but also be distinguished by their neck stripes, dorsal stripe and, most of all, that thick banded tail.
Onward, past a crumbling village with brightly painted houses defying rubbish-strewn streets and bricks fallen the spire of a fortified church. Thin children and tiny puppies watch – it feels like India.
A. goes offroad. It seems reasonable. You walk across meadows, you drive across meadows…except I’m not sure I would attempt these slippery grassy hills even on foot. We slide. We roar. We climb. We descend. A. describes my reaction to his driving as ‘interesting’.
We bounce through knee-high grass, yellow and purple flowers within touching distance, wheels churning as we ascend improbably high. The topography is fascinating, deep valleys slicing into the hills like the whorls of a lettuce. We are on a podium, maybe – four human figures entirely encircled by rounded wood-topped hills. The sky laces into an ever more complex tangle of white and grey, and lightning leaps behind it like a small child trying to get a view.
Terrible weather for bears. Clouds break loose and drift beneath the horizon line. Thunder and lightning batter the jeep. A. passes the time by showing us pictures of his Hungarian vizsla dogs, which he uses for truffle hunting. He says the maximum he has made is 180 euro, but the big Italian restaurants sell his truffles for over 1000 euro. He is not happy about it.
Another valley, and the rain is easing. I scan the grass with binoculars – certainly a bear-coloured mound. It lifts its head, and mounds don’t have heads, or long furry ears. My first glimpse of a European brown bear is very short but puts happy context on all the tracks of the last three weeks.
Back in camp, everyone hears about the wildcat immediately, and I’m asked if I was pleased with the drive.
Yes, because I want Europe to retain its wild carnivores. And because maybe there is still hope.