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CNN —
A team of 14 armed officers with camera traps, a thermal imaging drone and a shoot-to-kill order ran through the woods earlier this month in search of a fugitive.
But their target was no serial killer — it was a brown bear that had injured five people as it went on a rampage in a Slovakian town 10 days earlier. Dramatic social media footage showed the animal running through the streets of Liptovský Mikuláš as people fled for safety, prompting authorities to declare a state of emergency.
Authorities in the town said in a Facebook post Wednesday that the bear that carried out the attack had been hunted down and killed. But some critics in Slovakia are questioning whether they got the right bear.
Wild brown bear populations across Europe have bounced back from the brink of extinction, and animal conservationists are thrilled. But a spate of attacks on humans have led to increasing calls to drop the protections enjoyed by the species. Some countries are arguing that law lies too far in the bears’ favor at the expense of human lives.
The incident in Liptovský Mikuláš came just days after another bear encounter ended in the death of a 31-year-old Belarusian tourist, who fell while trying to run away from the animal in Slovakia’s Low Tatras mountains, according to local media.
Several European Union (EU) countries who are in favor of watering down bear protections are now taking their fight to the bloc’s headquarters in Brussels.
On Monday, delegations from Romania, Slovakia and Finland presented a proposal to the EU Environment Council, asking for the protection status of some brown bear populations to be downgraded.
Current EU law prohibits the killing of wild bears except in very limited circumstances, such as when the animal has killed or maimed a human. Breaching this legislation could lead to hefty fines being imposed on non-compliant countries.
How to deal with bear attacks have been on the political agenda of some of the EU’s 27 member countries for years. But the veto power of countries with more prominent conservation agendas — or those that don’t have bear populations — means it could be a while before bears are fair game for hunters once again.
Beehive-looting bears
Romania, Slovakia and Finland are pushing for certain bear populations — those with “favourable conservation status” — to be downgraded from “strictly protected” to “protected,” according to an information note sent to all delegations of the EU’s Environment Council after the recent attacks in Slovakia.
Under both categories of protection there is the same obligation for countries to maintain “favorable” status, according to John Linnell, a senior researcher at the Norwegian Institute for Nature Research who specializes in the conservation of large carnivores.
“What differs is the context in which you are allowed to kill things,” he told CNN. “Under ‘strictly protected,’ you have to have very specific reasons to kill an individual (animal)… If you’re only ‘protected,’ then you don’t have the same obligation to justify why.”
What “favorable” means is also debatable.
Slovakia’s Low Tatras mountains, where a 31-year-old Belarusian tourist died earlier this month after trying to run away from a bear. Dominika Zarzycka/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images
“It’s not a scientific concept,” Linnell said. “It’s not just about numbers — it’s about numbers, habitats, population trends and distribution.”
The delegations supporting the new proposal say that greater flexibility of the rules is needed, partly due to the increase in the EU’s brown bear population since the bloc enacted the Habitats Directive in 1992. From a point of near extinction in many areas, bear numbers in the region are now estimated to sit between 15,000 and 16,000.
The delegations that support the demotion of the brown bear’s status say it will not undermine the “overarching objective” of the EU’s conservation legislation, and point to the effects the animals are having.
“The strengthened and expanding populations of brown bears have led to a growing impact on rural communities and livestock farming,” the information note says, adding that in Romania alone 240 bear attacks were reported between 2004 and 2021. It also states that interactions between farmers and bears have resulted in millions of euros in financial losses.
But some people argue that there are more humane ways to prevent bear attacks. Robin Rigg, chairman of the Slovak Wildlife Society, told CNN that preventative methods, such as electric fencing, can help deter bears from attractants, such as beehives, fruit trees and livestock.
He said that if a particular bear is causing repeated issues, often known as a “problem individual,” current legislation already allows it to be removed from the population, without the need to change the species’ protection level.
Recent research has found that some animals are more troublesome than others, displaying what experts call “repetitive conflict behaviour.”
Perhaps the most famous example of this phenomenon was in the mid-2000s when a bear called Bruno, also known as Bear JJ1, was found looting beehives and attacking sheep in Germany, following his reintroduction as part of a conservation initiative.
Bear cub breaks into bakery
Several countries present at Monday’s EU Environment Council meeting were sympathetic to the proposal. Italy said it would support the idea, while Hungary said it was ready to do so but stressed the need for a “careful examination” of the issue first.
Spain said that human safety should be prioritized and spoke about the need for preventive measures, while Germany noted that existing rules go far enough.
Slovakia, meanwhile, appealed to the emotions of the delegates. “Every single day we have bears running through our towns. In the morning, parents are afraid to let their children go to school,” their delegate said.
Even with support, the proposal’s progression through EU bureaucracy will be no quick or easy task.
In the end, “countries like Ireland, Malta and Cyprus, who will never have a bear, will effectively have the veto,” Linnell said, adding that there’s also no guarantee that the wider public will agree with the politicians on this issue, even in countries with bears.
That played out in real time last year when a bear in Italy, initially set to be killed for fatally mauling a 26-year-old woman, was given a reprieve after several wildlife agencies intervened.
In another example, also in Italy, police opened an investigation after a man shot a female bear that had wandered onto his property. Her cub had become an internet sensation for roaming the streets, once even breaking into a bakery. He claimed that he shot the bear out of fear but didn’t want to kill it.
Outside Europe, not all countries are quite so forgiving: In Japan, officials have offered bear trappers the equivalent of $33 in exchange for each animal captured following a record number of attacks last year.
Some countries are genuinely struggling to manage the success of their conservation, Linnell said, adding that saving a species from extinction is just the beginning.
“Living with the success of that conservation is a much harder question,” he said. “Some species are going to improve, others are going to decline, and we need to react to it and be adaptive. That is my real hope.”

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