• The wolf and the bear: two iconic animals with disparate reputations in Spain
  • Serra do Courel, Spain, May 26 (efe-epa).- The wolf and the Cantabrian brown bear are perhaps two of Spain's most symbolic animals; and yet, the emotions they stir in the communities they affect could hardly be more opposing.

    Luis Fernández knows this well.

    He is the Spanish Brown Bear Foundation's (FOP) most veteran ranger, with 22 years of experience to his name, who now finds himself stationed in the Sierra do Courel, an area in the east of Spain's northwestern region of Galicia where, with the help of the European Union's Life project, the FOP is making way for the bear, which is tentatively returning to the area after a century's absence.

    "It's very different to the wolf," he told EFE in an interview set to the backdrop of the Courel's natural environment of craggy outcrops and woodland. "Because although a bear stirs suspicion in the community, living alongside it is easy as it does not infringe on hunting practices, nor does it attack livestock."

    "What it likes is honey," he went on, adding that where there is a lack of natural resources in a region, the bear will attack the beehives without mercy.

    This poses a particular problem in the Courel, where beekeeping is a local tradition, but one of Luis' jobs is to work with the community to alleviate the disturbances that naturally result from the return of the bear.

    Hope lies with a simple mechanism: the electric fence, in this case one with a short, high voltage jolt that creates an almost impenetrable circle around the apiaries of the Courel; several sneaky individuals have nonetheless managed to defy the system.

    According to Luis, the bears making their way into the valleys of the Courel tend to be smaller, juvenile males exploring from their more habitual stomping grounds in the Cantabrian mountains to the northeast, where isolated populations in the western and eastern reaches of the range are more established.

    Having been once widespread across Spain and indeed almost all of Europe, the FOP estimates there are now 200 bears in the western Cantabrian Mountains and around 40 in the east.

    The apparition of several individuals in the Courel, an area designated on the EU's Natura 2000 list of protected sites, means there is an overspill from the healthy western population.

    The suitability of the Courel's natural habitat is undeniable: dramatic outcrops that give way to river valleys coated in lush mixed woodland greet the exploring males.

    "If we leave the bear alone and we treat it with respect, it has the potential to thrive here, with food available all year round," Luis said.

    "And human presence here, which is, unfortunately, limited _ only four grandpas in a village and no new children being born _ somehow plays in the bear's favor," he went on.

    When Luis first set foot in the Courel there were a few indications of the bear's presence, perhaps a couple of bear attacks on hives each year, but since then, and particularly from 2013 onwards, such incidents have gradually been on the rise.

    But the bear has not bred in this territory for 150 years, meaning that none of the residents can remember sharing their land with this animal.

    For this reason, many locals have asked whether the return of the Cantabrian brown bear is something positive or if it will attack livestock or if it poses a threat to human life.

    The FOP and its partners at the local government in Galicia and the Galician Association for Territorial Custody, therefore not only work to prepare and maintain the habitat in the Courel but also endeavor to smooth over any possible conflicts between the animal and the local residents.

    This is where the electric fence comes in, it is used in conjunction with a program to renovate ancient slate circles called alvarizas that once protected beehives from bears at a time when the bear was common in the Courel.

    Conflict resolution meetings, activity and learning days are also made available to the local populace with the aim of shining a positive light on their new ursine neighbor.

    "No one would have predicted that in 20 years, the bear would return from the brink to enter into a state of genuine resurgence," Luis said.

    "This is undoubtedly satisfying," he continued, "considering that at the end of the 1980s, the bear's numbers were at a severe low. But I won't rest until they are out of danger."

    By Cristina Yuste