It’s the end of March. The high mountains of the Black Sea region are still covered with snow. The sun warms up a little bit more every day. Nature is waking up. Among those waking up is the largest terrestrial mammal of Turkey: Ursus arctos. The brown bear, as you can see from the photo. Hibernation has come to an end. Being only a few months old the cubs are ready to explore a new world. They probably will not be aware but throughout the summer they will always take the leading role in stories told around where they live.
But this is not just the story of bears. There are other roles as well. Now spring in the Black Sea region, the northern part of Turkey. The months of April and May are a period when flowers and fresh grass are most abundant and brooks run most vigorously. This is among the richest geographical regions of Turkey in flora. One of those who take advantage of this abundance and the fresh grass of the season is this brown bear that resides in the township of Şavşat in Artvin. Meanwhile Artvin is a province in Turkey.
It has lost almost 40% of its body weight during hibernation so it is very important that if feeds well and restores its strength during this period. Brown bears may be seen in every region of Turkey but the places in which they are most densely populated are the Western and Eastern Black Sea regions. They are the only species of bears living in Turkey and one of the eight bear species of the world. Their number in Turkey is estimated to be around 3000. Living in another part of Şavşat life is not easy for a bear. It has an important responsibility.
Bears don’t eat, drink or defecate during hibernation but they do give birth to their cubs in this period during the coldest time of winter. It is difficult to believe that the cubs are born weighing only half a kilogram. In three months they can reach a weight of 15 kilograms. Bears that have newly littered leave their winter ten later than the male bears. This way, the cubs become strong enough to keep up with their mother.
A cliff not so far from them. It is almost impossible to notice the chamois lying here. Camouflage is the most effective defense. Being a species spending most of its time on steep cliffs the chamois is not an easy prey but it may still fall prey to brown bears. That is why it is always on the alert. The mother bear is cautious too. Her home range may overlap with those of other bears. Every bear has a certain area to live. Male bears need larger areas than the females do. Although they live on their own a number of bears may share the same region. The mother bear has to protect her young cubs both from other bears and from humans at the same time.
They spend time in secluded and hard-to-reach places during the day. Cubs will stay with their mother for two or three years and will learn from her the ways to survive. Encounters are inevitable at places where brown bears and humans share the same living space. Not only the inner parts of forests but also fields, orchards, and roads are possible encounter locations. Actually, both men and bears dread one another. Both parties are quite careful about avoiding each other whenever possible. Sudden encounters are the most dangerous ones. But not always. Inhabitants of the Black Sea region know bears quite well.
A villager said, “I was the caretaker of this plateau and I had a good horse to get around the plateau. When I came down to the base, the horse looked right and I saw a bear there. It was such beautiful bear I said, “You are beautiful. You have cubs and I pity them. I was going to shoot you but I won’t.” It said something like “Ehh”. I told her to take her cubs away. She said “Ehhh”. and the cubs came down. She didn’t get too far. She walked like 20-30 meters. She was moaning, waving and thanking me, and laughing. I liked her a lot, I told her she was beautiful. It was a yellow bear but it was so beautiful.”
There are various studies conducted to determine the bear traffic around human settlements. One of them is the “Human-bear Conflict Project” conducted by the Nature Association since 2006. Anyway. Another bear family living in Şavşat, they keep away from humans for the time being. The mother bear is busy feeding. Brown bears feed mostly on plants and sometimes on meat. The food they consume during spring is mostly made up of plants.
The period when the bond between the mother and her cubs is strongest is the first two seasons in the cubs’ life: Spring and summer. During this period, the family moves together all the time. The cubs are dependent on the mother for feeding and protection. They are safe for the time being but to continue to feed they have to go to lower regions where grass is fresh and the weather is warmer. The mother bear has to be very careful. Because neighbors she would rather avoid live in places where she goes to look for good.
The aim of the locals from the villages of Şavşat does not differ too much from that of the mother bear. Feeding and sustaining their lives. In general, they only get enough yield to feed themselves. It is important to set aside food for winter. Now it is time to work in the field for long hours throughout the summer. The maintenance of the fields, mostly cultivated with corn and beans requires great effort and hard work.
As a greater part of the young generation has moved to big cities, the elderly also do this demanding job that needs muscle power. The places they pace throughout the day will not be left alone during the night. The paths of bears and humans keep crossing in the Black Sea region. Most of the time, days belong to humans and nights belong to bears. Same places, at different hours. Beginning of June and summer comes to Şavşat. The Black Sea region is rainy in all seasons. It is the region that receives the most amount of precipitation in Turkey.
It owes its lush forests and foliage to that. Various fruits grow here. The beans and corns that were planted will grow in a few months. That’s when the complaints about bears in the Black Sea region will really increase. The cub does not mind too much about the rain. There’s something else it is really interested in. Curiosity and playing are signs of a developed brain. Actually, it is a strategy of survival. It is one of the most important factors in the success of bears as a species. Whatever its age is, every bear is curious about things it does not know.
Although their eyesight is not very strong they are able to explore their environment better due to their keen sense of hearing and smelling. Bears are fast learning, smart animals.
In Turkey, a grownup brown bear weighs about 70 to 250 kilograms. The weight of brown bears living in Alaska may go up to 700 kilograms. Male bears are generally bigger and heavier than females. This mother bear is quite big as well but the cubs are still very young. That’s why the conduct of the mother bear is extremely tender and careful. Otherwise, she may hurt them. Although a bear family looks adorable they’re actually the bears that humans must keep away from the most. The mother bear treats her cubs fondly but she may not be as tolerant towards others. If she thinks that her cubs are in danger, it is enough for her to attack.
Bears that can climb trees, swim and run at a speed of 50-60 km per hour can easily injure or even kill a human being with a single bite or a blow with the claw. All kinds of stories about bear attacks told with the same excitement of years ago roam around the Black Sea region. Bears give birth to 4 cubs at most but mostly 2 or 3 cubs in one litter. The entire responsibility of raising the cubs belongs to the mother. Male and female brown bears get together during the mating season that takes places between May and July. Brown bears are polygamous. Each of these cubs many have a different father. The mother bear will not mate and she will keep away from male bears until the cubs become two and a half years old at most.
Bears have no natural enemies other than human beings. They can live for up to 25-30 years in nature. However, the first years are very important for them. Almost half of the cubs die before they are a year old due to reasons like hunger, sickness, accidents and attacks from other bears or predators. Meanwhile, complaints about bears are gradually increasing as fruits have ripened and crops have matured. Reaching a height close to 2.5 meters when they stand on their hind legs bears know no boundaries.
There are numerous complaints related to bears. The number of incidents that have been officially recorded and referred to in the press between 2000 and 2009 is more than 400. And 50% of them are related to damages to orchards and cultivated lands 25% are related to beehives, and 15% are related to domestic animal herds.
In Turkey, hunting brown bears is prohibited. Bears have been under protection since 2003. Although it is claimed that bear population has grown due to the hunting ban, there are no scientific data to verify that. However, as the complaints related to bears have augmented particularly in the Black Sea region, six male brown bears were shot by an official permit in 2007. Later, the hunting ban continued. In the past, locals used to hunt bears for their hide, their fat and because they thought that bears caused damage to people.
Although only a small amount, illegal hunting still continues today, and bear claws remaining from past hunts are hung over doors for good luck.
The natural habitat of brown bears is not human settlements. It is the forest. And their neighbors are not humans, but other wild animals. One of them is the roe deer that comes to this small pond deep in the forest. Animals do not come here just to quench their thirst. Jay, Great spotted woodpecker, and a honey buzzard which migrates to Turkey for the summer.
Bullfinch, and a ringed water snake not far from it. This species of snakes generally lives next to brooks and lakes and is able to pretend to be dead to defend itself. This diversity at the waterhole, which is used by many animals can only be seen in a healthy forest. There are still forest like this in the Black Sea region. However, attention is needed for their protection.
The squirrel is another species that contributes to this richness. Ensuring that hard-shelled fruits are scattered within the forest squirrels have an average life span of 7 years. Nonpoisonous water snake, its length reaches almost 1.5 meters. And the goshawk, the largest member of the hawk family, they all share a common habitat with brown bears in the forest. Bears have to live and search for food in larger areas with respect to these species.
But the bears’ life is not like it used to be. Their habitat has gradually narrowed as forests have been destroyed. Wild fruit trees were chopped down and their natural food sources have got less and less. When they were forced to compete with other bears for the limited sources life became harder particularly for young bears or bears with cubs.
Did bears leave the forest, or did humans invade the forest? The Black Sea region owns 25% of all forests in Turkey and the densest forest areas of the country. But the biggest rural population is in this region as well. As the land is rugged, agricultural fields are limited and settlements are scattered. Human activities like animal husbandry can also spread over wide areas. Even extensive immigration to big cities and the decrease in the region’s population does not stop this human spread.
The Nature Association team said, “Problems with bears are experienced all around the world where humans and bears co-exist. That is, these problems are not unique to Turkey, or only to city of Artvin and city of Rize. They are experienced everywhere and there are solutions. What we do is to adopt those solutions and implement the relevant ones to Turkey in Artvin and Rize.
This way, we try to convince people by showing them the results and extend the use of these solutions. When a bear caused damage is experienced in any area, the first thing to do is to see whether necessary precautions to stop bear damages were taken in the area. When you take the necessary precautions in the area, for instance, if the problem is to protect beehives, it is possible to do it with elevated platforms or an electric fence system. It is not right to look for other solutions before implementing these methods.”
Bears feel pain but do not get injured with the electric current which is given by the solar power system so they learn to keep away from the fence after a short time. Locals have their own precautions as well. But some of these seem to undermine the intelligence and strength of bears. CDs tied up on ropes shine like eyes in the night and seem to be an effective precaution. Beehives that are placed on the forest base and only protected by scarecrows are easy prey for bears. But there are more creative methods as well.
The villagers said, “After enclosing the beehives with wire and hanging rocks and bottles on it, I installed an alarm on the wall of the house. When it comes around, the alarm goes on every 15 minutes. When it hears the alarm, it does not come back for at least half an hour.
So it runs off from the sound of the alarm and it does not come back for a while.“, “We started to use this method to protect the cherry tree. We bought brand-new sheet iron from the market and wrapped it around the tree. Some people wrap old sheet irons around them. The bear cannot wrap its claws around it, so it can’t climb. That’s how we protect.“, “We nailed those plans on the tree and put the beehives there so that bears could not climb the tree. After we took that precaution they didn’t climb much.”
Actually, the origin of these effective measures date back to very old times. In the past, beehives were placed on high branches of trees where bears would not be able to climb easily. The traditional beehives that are extremely valuable due to their 100% natural honey were also protected with this method.
The method is still implemented today but the number of people undertaking this difficult and dangerous job is going down. The traditional hives, placed in the hollows of high and steep cliffs by climbing with ropes, resemble the remnants of ancient ages. Obviously, there is no way bears can damage these beehives.
Most of the precautions taken are actually for the night time. Wild animals wait for the night time to come close to human settlements. It is easier to hide in the dark. When people retire to their homes, fields and gardens are left for them to enjoy. Night time is the safest period for bears as well. They have to eat, whereas humans have to protect. That is the reason of the endless conflict between bear and man. CDs hanging on the rope now look like eyes. Villagers who have spent the entire summer toiling at the fields do not leave the fate of their efforts to chance.
In time, bears get used to the mechanism that is tied to a small gas tube and that explodes with regular intervals. The mother bear is cautious anyhow. Autumn is the time when bears gain weight the most. They need to consume food that is of high nutritional value and that build up body fat. Like walnuts. They not only know what to eat but also when to eat them. Their body weight may increase by 30 or 40% until winter. A bear family may continue to feed anywhere right next to the humans until morning as long as they’re not disturbed.
And again the Nature Association team said, “We spent the whole day today following the signals coming from Pierced Nose’s collar. When we place the data coming from Pierced Nose on the map we see that it moves in a very narrow space on a single dimension since the month of August. But today during the field study, we realized that the area is almost 80% slanted. Therefore, although the animal moves on a vertical scale we get the impression that it moves in a very narrow area when we follow it on the map. At the moment, we can tell where Pierced Nose exactly is. It spends most of its time on the slope across that hill over there. Actually, it is possible to get the signals of Pierced Nose from here.”
Finishing the field study, the team leaves the area for now. Brown bears and humans who share the same living space with them are left alone again. Brown bears hold an important place in many cultures. There are various names given to them: Spirit of the forest, owner of the earth, keeper of the forest, great traveler, transformed man, four-legged brother, etc. Bears are considered to be half human because they walk on the soles of their feet like humans, nurse their cubs sitting down and eat the same food with humans.
As the legend goes, bears are animals that chat with each other like humans, they walk around wondering and have a curing power as they know all the healing herbs. But in a changing world, their position is becoming different as well. Brown bears may not be able to keep up with the changes created by humans.
But humans have the ability to find solutions to sustain a life at peace with brown bears. Methods are already there. All that is needed is to implement them. As winter begins, brown bears slowly move to areas where the winter dens are. Old stories about them will continue to be told during winter. Until new ones will be added next spring.