In northwest Spain, conservation efforts pay off as bears thrive - GulfToday

In northwest Spain, conservation efforts pay off as bears thrive

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A female brown bear with two one and a half year old cubs pictured at the Somiedo Natural Park.

Daylight is only just breaking over Spain's Cantabrian Mountains and already a dozen enthusiasts are up and about in the hope of spotting a brown bear.

Shy creatures which feature on the list of Spain's endangered species, Cantabrian brown bears have been growing in number in this mountainous northwestern region after almost disappearing.

Fernando Garitagoita has rented a house in La Peral, a hamlet in the Somiedo nature reserve in the Asturias region, to be first in line in the morning to film them with his telephoto lens.

On holiday with his family, the house is just metres from a hill where dozens of passionate bear watchers set up camp every day, equipped with powerful telescopes and expensive photography equipment.

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A brown bear is seen at the Somiedo Natural Park in northern Spain.

Regaining ground

In the 1980s, it was very rare to see a bear in the Cantabrian Mountains, a range stretching more than 400 kilometres (around 250 miles) along Spain's northern coast, from the Pyrenees in the east to Portugal's northernmost tip in the west.

Not only was their habitat under threat from the construction of roads and other infrastructure but the bears were still seen as dangerous pests, with their numbers reduced by both illegal hunting and people leaving out poisoned bait.

Down to just 60 or 70 in number, they became critically endangered, says Guillermo Palomero, president of the Fundacion Oso Pardo (Brown Bear Foundation), an NGO founded in 1992 to promote the peaceful co-existence of humans and bears.

But following a dedicated campaign by conservationists, the population has grown steadily and the area now counts between 330 and 350 brown bears, among them more than 40 females who produce cubs every year.

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Enthusiasts look out for brown bears at the Somiedo Natural Park, northern Spain.

Involving the public

The spectacular recovery is the result of efforts to protect the environment as well as to educate people about the importance of bear populations, says Palomero.

The entire mountain range is today a protected conservation zone, and a project to connect the area's two main populations has seen the creation of "bear corridors" that enable those living in the west to safely reconnect with those in the east.

Bears as tourist magnet

The bears have become a magnet for tourists in the Somiedo nature reserve, says local mayor Belarmino Fernandez.

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Horses are pictured at the Somiedo Natural Park, northern Spain.

When he first became mayor 25 years ago, the area didn't attract any tourism, he says.

Today, however, this community of 1,300 people boasts 90 tourist shops and hotels that count around 1,400 beds.

Nor has the bears' presence on the reserve prevented livestock farming.

There are now 8,000 head of cattle in Somiedo, compared with 5,000 when the park was established in 1988, says Fernandez.

Agence France-Presse