The Lord of the Mountain and its den
The road spirals along the steep slopes, dense with beeches and oaks at one moment, then pines and fir trees at another. Here and there mountain lodges with sooty red bricks lay scattered around, their small hollow-roofed constructions all wrapped in greenery and lichens. Now and then verdigris-covered domes of churches soar up, the usual nock of crows hovering above their golden cross, softly gleaming in the crystal-clear morning air. One could also add to the scenery some bee-hives, perched high on concrete platforms, away from the reach of hungry bears. Then, suddenly, from behind some sparse birches, a bushy fur ball with two good-natured brown eyes and amiable small round ears peeps out. It is Mariana the bear.
This was the welcome greeting to journalists and foreign participants in the “The lord of the mountain” eco-track tour, organized by the State Tourism Agency and PAN Parks Foundation on the occasion of the “European wild nature days” jubilee international conference. The Dancing bears Park is the biggest in Europe, spanning over 120 000 sq.m. in southern Rila Mountain, some 11km away from the town of Belitza. It can be reached by car or on foot along a wonderful eco-track. The park is built according to latest scientific standards and with advice from international experts, studying the behavior of bears and more precisely brown bears, such as those found in Bulgaria. The center offers its inhabitants thick forests, slopes to roam about, small glades to bask in the sun, a number of artificial lakes in different sizes to cool off, plus some dens. This is how the “Four paws” Foundation, with the support of Briggite Bardot’s Foundation and the Austrian VIER PFOTEN, has created an environment that comes very close to bears’ natural habitat. Here the animals display their inborn traits, suppressed throughout the years when they used to be “dancing bears”.
In Bulgaria the brown bear has been a protected animal species since 1998. Some people, however, continue to earn a living by making these bears dance in public. The cubs are separated from their mother at the age of 7 months and then put to austere training so as to become dancing bears later on.
In 2007 the park welcomed the last three bears which were known to be “dancing” at fairs and other festivities. Illegally, there might still be, however, other bears living in captivity. People from the foundation hope that should such cases occur, citizens will inform them about this inhuman animal treatment which actually cannot remain hidden for long since bear owners profit only by making the animals perform in public.
The park is arranged in two levels, has two information centers, and its two parts are linked by a 30m-long bridge where park inhabitants can cross. These two areas are further divided in seven sections between which there are 11 doors. Park fence is 3 300m long and 3.2m high. There are 105 night-watch lamps, 12 artificial caves and a number of dens.
Since dancing bears cannot go back to their natural way of life simply because they don’t know what it is like, once released they are accommodated in parks of this kind where they can be taken care of. When set free, bears actually spend much of their time searching for food and park personnel makes sure they get it. Food is hidden over the park’s territory so that animals can find it themselves, as they would do in a real natural habitat. “Four paws” foundation staff points out that all bears brought to the center are experiencing for the first time their famous winter sleep. For this purpose bears use the artificial dens or they dig their own ones in the forest.
The second informational center, situated on level two, has a terrace from which visitors can observe the bears. In the future some lectures and seminars are envisaged to take place here. There is also a medical unit to the info center where vets take care of park inhabitants’ health. Last year the park hosted some French specialists who solved existing dental problems with all 24 bears.
The eco-track leading to the center starts at the Semkovo resort, situated above the town of Razlog. The track then winds up the counter-slopes towards Valcha Poliana where the resort’s last ski lifts and tracks are, then goes down to the Stankova River, turns right and continues towards the village of Gorno Yavorovo, finally arriving at the Center for re-adaptation of dancing bears. It takes four hours to walk the eco-track from start to end. The route takes you through coniferous forests spotted with the yellow and red patches of broad-leaved trees in autumn. Along the track there are several alcoves and hearths, suitable for barbecue. Our organizers had also included in the tour some local cuisine specialties.
Bulgaria is among the few countries in Europe where bears can still be found out in the nature. This attracts many tourists who love bear-watching. Photo safari and animal-watching are now the most dynamically developing types of tourism in Bulgaria. This is precisely the philosophy of PAN Parks Foundation – to preserve nature by developing sustainable tourism in it – an idea that Bulgaria not only supports but already puts to practice.