A big brown bear
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Young Carpathian bear

At the bear watching

Brown Bears in Europe

We were in Romania in the Southern Carpathians - the southern part of the Carpathian mountain range, which stretches in a bow shape from the Czech Republic in the west to Romania in the south-east - on a bear-tracking holiday. Helping us was Udo, a German who has worked as a guide in many countries and helped set up the bear project with the aim of carrying out a study of the population in the area.
Nobody knows for sure how many bears live in Romania, but current estimates suggest about 6000. Thanks to enlightened protection policies in the last years and the creation of Piatra Craiului National Park, the bears here have survived the hunting that decimated other populations in Europe.
A few days earlier we had landed in Bucharest, Romania, and driven 150 km to the familiar small hotel in Magura, district Brasov - a central point for animals watching in the Carpathian Mountains, quite close to the Dracula Castle in Bran.
At breakfast, the talk soon strayed to what to do if a bear comes running towards you, a fate that a few years earlier had befallen a local man who narrowly survived an attack by a female defending her cub. "Don't worry, there hasn't been a fatal bear attack for 100 years," says Udo, keen to dispel our concerns that we were about to become the main course at a bears' picnic. "If a brown bear does charge at you, tell it a story - speak nice and calmly, and walk away slowly. If it still comes for you, throw down your rucksack to distract it - but do not run."
Sound advice when you consider that a fully-grown male bear can move at up to 60km/h, weighs 300-350kg and is about 3 m tall when standing. As we headed off to the mountains for an evening in a rangers' hut, I hoped bears weren't too keen on celebrating centenaries.
The advantage of having local experienced people as guides soon became apparent. Not only were we allowed to walk in areas of the national park otherwise closed to the public and stay in remote park staff huts, the guides also had an uncanny ability to spot wildlife among the trees, rocks and bushes that scatter the mountainside.
On this trip, we were in the bears' territory, following them on their terms, and it was all the more exciting for that. "This is such a sensory experience," said Udo, as we walked through the forest. "The feel of the rain on your skin, the birdsong, the anticipation that at any time we might come across a bear." He was right; there was something almost primeval about creeping silently through these ancient forests and meadows.
The holiday soon settled into a gentle rhythm. We got up early in the mornings to drive past the steep, avalanche-prone slopes that are good places to see bears grazing in early summer (although they are most visible in September when they are gorging on berries before hibernation). We spotted an eagle, and a red deer. After breakfast, we took packed lunches and walked through buttercups, bellflowers, yellow mountain saxifrage, gentians and forget-me-nots, stopping now and again to scan the cliffs and mountainsides for wildlife. In the forest, Udo pointed out a nesting hole made by a three-toed woodpecker, bear footprints in the mud, and trees where bears had scratched and bitten the bark to mark their territories.