Swiss show themselves to be bear friendly

This bear, in the Tierpark Dälhölzli zoo in Bern, comes from Helsinki Keystone

Most Swiss favour the natural reintroduction of wild bears into Switzerland, according to a survey by the environmental organisation WWF.

This content was published on April 14, 2009 - 20:52

Once numerous in Switzerland, brown bears have been making a comeback since 2005, wandering in from neighbouring Italy. But the last one, JJ3, was shot after it became dangerous to humans.

"The survey reveals that overall 85 per cent of Swiss want the bear, saying it's an Alpine animal and it belongs here. The same percentage was recorded in the bear-affected Alpine areas," Joanna Schoenenberger, bear expert at WWF, told swissinfo.

The organisation released the results of the survey of 1,012 people in Monday – a year after JJ3, Switzerland's most famous bear, was shot after repeatedly entering populated areas of the southeastern canton of Graubünden.

Many animal and environmental protection groups, including WWF, protested. The animal is now on display at Chur natural history museum.

JJ3, who arrived in the area from Italy, caused problems in 2007, destroying rubbish bins within the Lenzerheide resort and in other villages of the Albula valley. The young bear started to lose its natural fear of humans, even after being shot at with rubber bullets. It was finally killed after it was decided that it posed too great a danger to humans.

Switzerland's "Bear Strategy" maintains that bears and humans can co-exist peacefully but enables regional authorities to act if public safety is threatened. Shooting is only a last resort.

Furry friends

Reinhard Schnidrig, responsible for the wildlife management and forest biodiversity section at the Federal Environment Office, said that he wasn't surprised by the relatively high acceptance for the bear. Previous surveys over the last decade had produced similar results.

"Whenever we ask people, we get around 60 per cent being in favour of wolf, 70 per cent for the lynx and 80 per cent for the bear," he told swissinfo.

Most Alpine areas are now fairly urban in nature, he added. Only a small number of people who live from sheep farming in remote areas and still hunt might have a more negative view, Schnidrig said.

The bear's cuddly, furry image – teddy bears have been popular for more than 100 years - and attractive round face means that the animal is generally well loved. The wolf's yellow eyes and "strange way of looking at people" inspires more negative feelings, added the biologist.

No bear pause

There are currently no bears in Switzerland, but WWF and Schnidrig are convinced that more will come soon. There are currently at least 24 in the Adamello Brenta national park in northern Italy, and several are young males.

"At this time of year, or maybe in May-June, they start going away from their mothers. They are a bit more in puberty and want prove themselves and are curious," explained Schoenenberger.

"They can sometimes become the typical nuisance bears and these are the ones we expect over here this summer."

Switzerland needs to become better equipped to deal with the mammals, she says. This means better protection of herds and beehives in the Alpine regions, as well as better management of rubbish collection, so as not to tempt the animals into populated areas.

For his part, Schnidrig says that the bear is welcome in Switzerland and is protected by both national and international law. The country aims to anticipate their natural return over the border from Italy rather than to reintroduce populations artificially.

Bear-proof bins

Information campaigns are taking place. The Val Müstair region in Graubünden is also getting rid of open rubbish areas and installing bear-proof bins to pre-empt "problem bears".

"We realised last year with JJ3 that once bears start to know they can find food close to human villages it is very hard to change their behaviour again back to this remote or wild living," Schnidrig told swissinfo.

On an international level, Schnidrig said a Swiss proposal to the eight Alpine environmental ministers at a meeting in Evian, France, last month, to have a platform to discuss big predator policies had been accepted.

This common approach is the best way to proceed, argues Schnidrig, adding that existing populations should be protected and satellite regions should be prepared for wandering young males.

Switzerland's last bear was killed in 1904, when they were considered to pose a danger to humans.

"A hundred years ago there was an active policy to get rid of these animals... now it has swung the other way," said Schnidrig.

swissinfo, Isobel Leybold-Johnson

Bears in Switzerland

The last Swiss bear from the country's original population was killed in canton Graubünden in 1904. But the animal has survived in Italy and Slovenia.

Between 1999-2002 ten Slovenian bears were introduced into the Italian national park at Adamello Brenta. In neighbouring Austria several bears have been released into the wild since 1989.

There is no such project in place in Switzerland, which has decided in favour of a natural return of the bear. This first happened in July 2005, with the JJ2 bear, JJ3's brother, coming from the Adamello Brenta colony. Another brother, JJ1, was killed after roaming into Bavaria from Austria in 2006.

The bear has some historical significance. The Swiss capital, Bern, supposedly takes its name from a bear and has the animal as its coat of arms. Traditionally several bears have lived in the city in a bear pit, which will move to a new and bigger location in October 2009.

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