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Why Romania's new environment minister could be bad news for Europe's biggest brown bear population
By Stephen McGrath • last updated: 30/12/2020 - 19:00
The appointment of Romania’s new environment minister, Barna Tanczos, has angered environmentalists due to past comments he made about the country becoming “the zoo of Europe”.
Campaigners and environmentalists were quick to recall Tanczos' comments made in 2015 that Romania — home to Europe’s biggest brown bear population — should cull more than 4,000 bears.
“We cannot turn Romania into the zoo of Europe,” Tanczos said in a press conference in 2015. He also said that “The bear population is growing, it has already exceeded 10,000 specimens in Romania.”
Romania’s official bear population is 6,000 — more than a third of Europe’s overall population — but experts say that there are no accurate counts of the country’s bears.
“We have no realistic, trustworthy estimate of the population size, obtained with scientifically sound research methodologies,” bear expert Csaba Domokos of the nature conservation NGO Milvus Group, told Euronews.
Bears in Romania can be a hotly debated topic; last year there was a spate of deadly attacks on people killed by the large carnivores.
“Those opposed to bear hunting frequently talk about 2,000 bears, whereas those in favour of hunting talk of a population of over 10,000 bears — especially since bear trophy hunting was banned back in 2016,” explains Domokos.
Trophy hunting of large carnivores — including bears and wolves — was banned in Romania in 2016. While environmentalists worldwide applauded the move, it angered local hunting groups who could make thousands of euros for a trophy bear hunt.
“Various interest groups joggle with different numbers best suited to their goals,” said Domokos.
Before the 44-year-old Tanczos, an economist by training and a senator since 2012, was officially sworn in last week when a coalition government was formed following elections earlier this month, a petition against his proposal was launched that garnered several hundred signatures.
Agent Green, an environmental NGO, said after his appointment: “The Ministry of Environment has ended up in the hands of a hunter who dislikes bears.”
As many European Union countries implement rewilding programmes, including Romania, there are now concerns over potential hunting quotas materialising following the appointment of Tanczos.
“[Tanczos'] statements show not only that he has no idea about the critical importance of this species for the ecosystem — but he makes himself part of the problem,” Gabriel Paun of Agent Green, told Euronews.
“Romania is not a zoo — Romania is the one country in Europe that has for ages been the best place for bears,” Paun added.
Last year, Romania’s Senate adopted a legislative proposal that would remove bears from a list of species prohibited from hunting during specific periods of the year, for five years.
Tanczos said at the time: “By reducing human intervention in recent years, the bear population has virtually gotten out of control,” and went on to say that Romania should “Return to a bear population optimisation programme.”
“As long as we have bears there will be conflicts between people and the species, regardless of the bear population size,” says Domokos.
Bears do come into contact with humans but they are infrequent events that occur mostly in rural areas. In Harghita County in central Romania, where Tanczos is from, Domokos says that “Politicians have a tradition of using the bear topic in a populist way in their political speech.”
Tanczos' attitude toward bears may have incensed many, but the new minister will have many environmental issues to deal with, such as widespread illegal-logging, air pollution, ineffective waste-management, and climate change.
In a statement shortly after he was sworn in, Tanczos wrote on Facebook: “Air quality cannot be improved by the environmental ministry, but by people’s behaviour and the way they live.”
Romania is currently dealing with an infringement procedure by the European Commission for failing to comply with its commitments in waste, natural habitats, and water and air quality issues.
“The statement came at a very bad time,” says Paun. “On Christmas Eve, northern Bucharest recorded air pollution that was higher than the average of the most polluted country in the world, Bangladesh.”
But Tanczos did meet with Bucharest’s mayor this week to discuss various issues. “We agreed that we will expand the air quality measurements as well as the purchase of equipment,” Tanczos wrote on Facebook after the meeting.
The new minister has also vowed to introduce a long-awaited satellite timber traceability system by 1st February to combat illegal-logging, a system that campaigners consider key to putting an end to the country’s long battle against the “wood mafia.”
“I believe that once implemented, the new [system] will become our main weapon in the battle against illegal forest cuts,” the minister said.
There will be a multitude of issues to tackle during Tanczos' term, but the brown bear topic may be the most sensitive of them all, and it may require building bridges with the NGO community.
“Bear damages themselves can be handled through adequate prevention measures and compensation, not by hunting a significant percentage of the bear population,” says Domokos.
Euronews contacted Tanczos to respond to this article but he had not replied by the time of publication.
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