Kosovo: The Bear Essentials

I really hope someone is going to enter me in a charades competition when I get home.  My rendition of bear sanctuary had everyone in stitches at the Pristina bus station.

Well..sometimes if google translate isn’t hitting the mark and no one speaks English and your limited grasp of the language doesn’t cover the subject matter (and no, bear sanctuary was not one of the key phrases of Albanian that I’d learnt) then you just have to put all thoughts of preserving your dignity in front of a large group of strangers aside and plough on through with whatever skills nature gave you.  And my skills (as evidenced by me being awarded a job in South Africa based on my impression of a chicken)  clearly lie in the ability to cross linguistic boundaries with the aid of faultless Marcel Marceau-worthy mimes, especially those involving animals. Actually it is genetic.  My father schooled me in the dark arts of non-verbal communications in foreign lands quite early.  At the age of 10 we were whisked around the glories of continental Europe in a campervan.  Having drunk our fill of goat’s milk and disposed of the rest of our accidental purchases by leaving them in front of other campervans in the dead of night, we were anxious not to repeat our error.  And so it was that my father approached the shop assistant in the (Italian) supermarket and, without missing a beat, launched into “un litro di latte…moooooo” complete with fingers as horns.  Go ahead and laugh if you will (I did) (the shop assistant on the other hand, looked as you would expect she might being faced with an escapee from the local loony bin), but the fact remains that we were were at last able to eat our corn flakes without dry retching.  And I got to visit my bear sanctuary.

This next part of the story is not quite so jolly.  For, as friendly and hospitable as are my Kosovar hosts, unfortunately a small percentage have contributed to the problem which has necessitated the creation of the sanctuary.  There are 15 bears currently resident, which is an initiative of the international animal welfare charity FOUR PAWS and set up to house the rescued ‘restaurant bears’, once keeping the animals became illegal in Kosovo (actually several years after it had become illegal…the government being extremely slow to act on the matter).  Bears were kept in unspeakable conditions in cages at restaurants to ‘attract customers’.  I cannot imagine the type of customer that is attracted to a place like that but, ironically, the bus takes you past one of the restaurants in question and it looked pretty closed up so hopefully it has gone out of business and all its former customers have died of food poisoning.  Or maybe they are all now choosing to dine at The NAZI restaurant in Pristina – I am sure there is a story behind that name but equally as sure that I don’t want to know it!  Unfortunately for two of the bears, the former owners decided it was better to kill their charges rather than hand them over to the authorities and they were murdered and their body parts sold for chinese medicine just before they were to be liberated.

From the village where the bus drops you off it is about a 3km walk past a shimmering lake, poppy strewn fields and, finally, forest. The piece of woodland has been given to FOUR PAWS to operate the sanctuary for as long as it is needed.  All bears are neutered so that no more bears are born in captivity and hopefully people get a brain and a conscience and stop the stupid and immoral act of removing bear cubs from their mothers to sell into slavery.  The bears start in smaller enclosures till they get the idea that they are free and no longer need to be in a cage and so they can learn to be bears again.  Once they are OK to do this, the bears move from the smaller pens near the entrance to much larger areas of forest where, other than receiving their food everyday and having people take photos of them they can pretty much do as wild bears do on the other side of the fence.  Sadly they will never be returned to the wild as they are too accustomed to humans.  Three month-old cubs were brought there as soon as they were liberated from the stupid humans who had stolen them, in the hope of rehabilitating them for release back into the wild.  Even though they were housed in an isolated area, were not put on display and had the absolute minimum of human contact, their habituation was still too great and when they were released they kept heading straight for human settlement.  So the three little bears will live out their lives in the sanctuary.  The really ironic part about it is that now they have been given a big area of forest to run around in, they are longing to be back in their little enclosure again!  While I was there they came up to the fence and cried and cried wanting to be with the keepers and the other bears.

The bears are all in stellar condition, nothing like the heart wrenching photos on display of their previous life, and generally are very happy and thriving.  Only one bear was exhibiting some signs of stress and they work with each bear until they get over these initial problems with adapting to their new surrounds.  The saddest thing to see was one beautiful big male who has lost one eye and has virtually no sight in the other.  Having seen little boys baiting dogs here thinking they are being brave when actually they are just chicken shit little cowards, I hate to think how his eyes were damaged. so he hangs out in an area next to the keepers so they can keep a watch on him.

It was wonderful to see the bears jumping in their pools, playing and interacting – doing some mock charges at each other and generally…well… being bears.  The real highlight came after sitting patiently at the area farthest from the entrance where a pair called Ero and Mira were housed in a large enclosure of shrubs/meadow with wildflowers, a pool and their ‘bear cave’.  I had to wait a while but, eventually, as the heat of the afternoon waned, the couple broke cover from the forest and started walking around.  They nosed and pawed at the ground along the way, looking for insects, and then went and had a little swim in their pool before emerging and shaking off the excess water.  They had obviously decided by this stage that I was no sort of threat and I was delighted when they came and sat with me, just a few feet away, albeit with a sturdy fence between us.  They seemed just as curious about me as I was about them and it is a testament to the care they receive here that, despite their maltreatment in the past, they enjoy human company.  Well, it turns out that something else entirely was on the mind of Mr Ero.  And his name might just give you a hint!  Even though the bears have been neutered, it seems that this pair just LOVE each other.  When his first advances didn’t work, he was seen off by Mira in no uncertain terms with a very loud warning that made me glad I chose to wear the brown underpants that morning!  But he kept trying until finally Mira led him off to a more private spot where, after a love bite and a bit of nuzzling, they did what comes naturally.  It was such a privilege to witness it (yes I spied on them through the bamboo screen they were hiding behind!) and really wonderful to know that these bears are finally getting a life much closer to the carefree existence they should have had.

Lots of gratuitous bear pictures below and you can see a nice documentary piece about them (in German but don’t let that stop you) here, or you can check out their Facebook page here.  I am still having an argument with Trip Advisor while trying to get them a listing.

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How to get there: Ask to be let off any Gjilan-bound bus by the Delfina gas station at the entrance to Mramor village, then follow the unsurfaced road back past the lakeside, and then follow the track around to the right. It’s a 3km walk, and the gorgeous countryside and lake make a great spot for a picnic afterwards.  Or combine your visit with a visit to the Gracanica Monastery which is on the way.  If the 3km walk is a problem you could negotiate a taxi from Gracanica.  Note there are no taxis in Mramor.  Last bus heads back to Pristina about 7pm.

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