Not many amongst the thousands of tourists that head for Spain each year will be aware that the country has a bear population, albeit a small one. Hunted almost to the point of extinction, the Cantabrian Brown Bear is now protected, but its numbers have dwindled to around one hundred and sixty which live in two colonies whose boundaries are separated by a mere thirty kilometres. The larger group of around one hundred and twenty bears lives on the borders of Asturias, Galicia and Leon whilst thirty or forty live around the borders of Cantabria. Today, the maximum fine for killing a bear is three hundred thousand Euros, although the hunting ban did not come into force until 1973.
This animal, having been restrained by the geography of the region, has a slightly different genetic make-up than other brown bears and is recognised as a sub-species. It stands around one metre high and has a length of two metres. At one hundred and eighty kilos, it is the smallest member of the bear family. A mainly vegetarian diet of berries, roots and plants, supplemented by insects, eggs and honey and carrion, sustain this rare creature. It is at its heaviest in autumn, in readiness for the winter hibernation period. With the outbreak of BSE, the European Union ordered removal of carcasses from the countryside, and since the Cantabrian Brown Bear relies heavily on carrion during spring, this was a blow for the colonies. Prior to this ruling, seventeen thousand dead animals were left in the Spanish countryside each year. Whilst vultures and other carrion eaters were saved by the erection of cordoned-off feeding areas, nothing was done for the bears or other mammals. As a result of this, beekeepers are finding that their hives are being destroyed by hungry bears.
One of the surprising things about the Cantabrian Brown Bear is the size of its offspring at birth. Weighing in at only three hundred and fifty grams, the newborn is very small indeed when taking into account the size of its mother and the nine months gestation period. Mostly, two cubs form a litter, but the infant mortality rate is extremely high due to diseases, illegal hunting and the actions of adult male bears, which quite often kill the cubs in order to bring the female into season once again, which under normal circumstances wouldn’t happen until three years after giving birth. If a cub survives, it will stay with its mother for around two years.
Unlike its more aggressive cousins the Grizzly and Black Bear, the Cantabrian Brown would avoid confrontation with humans if at all possible, but this has not stopped the occasional shooting, trapping or poisoning of the bears, whether intentional or not. Other threats come in the shape of man-made structures such as highways or railways. But despite these unfortunate occurrences, many people are actively involved with the preservation of the bears. The general consensus that uniting the two colonies would bring about a stronger gene pool, has led to moves to bring about this situation by creating a protected corridor of land between the two areas.
In 2005, reports indicated the presence of Cantabrian Brown Bears on the Portuguese border, so hopefully the seven thousand square kilometres presently occupied by the bears will increase, along with the population which once covered the whole of the Iberian Peninsula. The Brown Bear is said to have originated in Asia and spread across Europe and North America, the Cantabrian Brown being a subspecies. The nearest Relative of the Cantabrian Brown is a small population of Brown Bears in the south of Sweden. The last reproductive female in the Pyrenees was shot by a hunter in 2004. Brown Bears from Slovenia are now being re-introduced into the Pyrenees. A project of camera photo trapping is at present being employed in the colonies, alongside education programmes aimed at children and in particular hunters, who hold the future of the bears in their hands. On the other hand, plans are being drawn up to build a ski resort in the San Gloria pass area of the bear’s habitat, a project that is understandably being met with fierce opposition. Whatever happens, the vast majority of us hope that the bears will thrive and re-populate the mountains.