I meant to start roaming the woodlands this year. But, just recently, approaching the woods has somehow become less safe.
Woodlands in Transylvania cover hundreds of kilometres housing the Europe’s largest community of brown bears. The forest is their home, where they live at the top of the food chain, and have reproduced extensively occupying the woods of the Carpathian Mountains.
Bear and man cohabitation dates back a long time and bears, like other animals, do not attack man if not out of fear. They smell us from afar and take alternative routes. Bears have a mostly vegetarian diet, they live out of fruit, ferries, pinecones, mushrooms, insects, and some small mammal before hibernating.
Throughout the last year, though, a certain number of bears have started to gain more and more familiarity with the human environment, and to get more and more frequently closer to villages, in order to search for food in trash bins and houses, and to attack farmed animals, sometimes harming even humans. This situation is favouring fear and panic among the locals. Something has changed in places man has always shared with this animal.
It is said that many bears have been moved there from other places, and now the capacity of the territory has been exceeded. It is also believed that, since a constantly increasing number of tourists have started to feed bears in order to meet with them, those have got used to the human scent and don’t fear men anymore. Above all, the extensive (and, sometimes, illegal) deforestation carried out in Romania, is modifying their habitat. More and more woods are being cut for the sake of the international low-cost wood market, therefore reducing the areas they can live and breed in. Moreover, the noise keeps bears off some territories and disturb their hibernation.
The idea of going through the woods was then frustrated by the fear of not being in a safe place. And we city girls, Joana, Sunčica and I, have neither the knowhow nor the experience to feel safe. We move through ignorance and uncertainty. We have hence started to explore an approaching space, and ask for information to the people we meet. We gather tales of meetings and sightings, suggestions and warnings.
Most people are afraid, and have warmly suggested not to wander in the woods or nearby areas, in the early mornings and evenings above all, when bears are more likely to come out of the bushes to roam the clearings. Others, who regularly go to the woods, despite being afraid themselves, are also used to the chance of a meeting, an ever-existing danger which has now become more frequent.
Throughout this exploration, we have been in the woods three times, and we have chosen, as the location for our artistic action, a border area, where the forest wanes toward the river and is delimited by some fields.
With Cristina, a local woman, we found an expedient: approach calmly, but making yourself heard. Stop at the edge of the forest, sit down, and chat for a while.
“The other day a bear entered a house, eat the honey from a glass jar which it had opened, and left it empty on the table.”. (my uncle)
“Don’t go alone to the forest or near it. This year some bears are getting closer to the houses and they do not fear man. If you come across them, they could get afraid and attack you!”. (restaurant waitress – neighbour)
“Yes, there are bears that reach the village. Do not go inside the woods. They called for me the other day because a she-bear with two cubs had broken into a farmyard to eat chickens or something and, while fleeing, one of the cubs had ended up trapped inside.” (He shows a video) “See? The mother comes back to get him, look at how big she is, 2.5 metres standing, but she manages to jump over the fence. We shot fireworks, you see, to scare her away. Then we opened the roost door and let the puppy out.” (Irinel, policeman)
“Some nights ago, I saw the bear from afar, some 50 metres. I got scared and slowly walked away!” (Stefan, herdsman)
“We went for a stroll at the Urlătoarea waterfall, and that’s where we found a footprint.” (Maria Coltofean)
“What? You fear bears? Haven’t seen any, yet!” (Iosif)
“Bears are at the top of the food chain, they have no predators. Apart from man. Since, in order to protect them, hunting them has been forbidden, they have reproduced too much. In the Intorsura Buzauilui territory, which could easily host fifteen, there are around sixty bears. Needless to say, they are eating the entire forest up. They say in the woods you don’t get to meet many other animals anymore. Therefore, they have started getting close to houses to eat fruit, but also sheep and chickens. And the people are afraid. The only way out is trying to change the law to be able to hunt them again.” (Silviu Popa, deputy mayor)
“I saw him last week. He got out of the forest to eat ants’ nests, which he loves. But he didn’t get too close to the house.” (Vasile, village elder)
“Yes, saw him over there some months ago, in May. Near that tree. I shouted a bit and off he went. I saw another one where I live, in Bailesti, on the other side of the hill. A female with two cubs. She fled and the cubs hid up two trees. Then she came back to get them.” (Valer, herdsman)
“If you see them from a distance and they hear you, they run away. The problem is when you bump into them unnoticed. They get scared and attack you. They don’t attack man otherwise.”
“Two bodies have been found not very far from here, in the forest.”
“A man was attacked because he had stopped to take a picture of the bear rather than escaping.”
“Just the day after you were here, I met the bear! I was taking the cows out of the forest and got close to those trees, next to the creek, where a cub was standing on his feet. I heard his mother calling for him from the other side of the creek, but I did not see her. I called my dogs back and quickly went away.” (Valer, herdsman)
“Those who live at the edge of the towns are the most endangered ones.”
“They say it went out to eat pizza last night!”