The former Romanian Communist Party leader Nicolae Ceausescu, legend has it, was so keen on shooting brown bears that he had them transported into the country from other areas. He reportedly shot 1,000 of them in his lifetime.
The brown bear (Ursus arctos) is in short supply across Europe and mostly extinct in the western part of the continent. They remain in existence in the eastern part of the continent including Russia, the Carpathians and the Balkan Peninsula. They also, for some unknown reason, existed in the Bulgarian mountain range. But how they got there was unknown until now.
A genetic study of brown bears in Bulgarian mountain has now revealed the bears were most likely brought there by air transport. Scientists at Bulgarian and Romanian NGOs and the Frankfurt Zoological Society Scientists of the Senckenberg Conservation Genetics Section in Frankfurt, Germany now believe that the bears were sent there by Ceausescu and have published their findings in Conservation Genetics.
The scientists studied scat, hair and tissues samples from the species across Bulgarian bear habitats and traced them back, via DNA. What they discovered were several individual profiles in three regions in the main mountainous range of the country and they differed considerably from all other bear profiles. Samples from the Carpathian mountains in Romania matched bears in Bulgaria.
These regions, however, lie several hundred kilometers apart from each other and the generally high genetic difference between the populations does not suggest high rates of exchange. Although bears are good long-distance dispersers and could theoretically make it from Romania to Bulgaria by themselves, the scientists were skeptic.
Intensive investigation and regional study finally brought a more reasonable explanation: during the era of socialism some Eastern European heads of government were passionate bear hunters. DNA evidence show it’s most likely that the bears were transported in from other populations elsewhere leading us to wonder: how on earth did they get bears, the heaviest land mammal around, on to an airplane.
Photo credit: Brown bear in Kormisosh enclosure © Aleksandar Dutsov, Balkani Wildlife Society.