feature 07 May 13

Captive Brown Bears Gain Fresh Start in Kosovo

NGO wants to relocate animals living at restaurants and small zoos, but some owners aren’t sold on the idea.

By Petrit Collaku

Kasandra has had a tough life. The brown bear spent her first 10 years living in a small cage at the Gjeraqina restaurant near Suhareka.

When the Four Paws organisation found Kasandra in March, she was underfed. These days, she is struggling to adjust to her new life at a new bear refuge about 20 kilometres outside Prishtina, near Lake Badovc.

“She is very stressed because she lived in very small space as a cub for very long time,” said Afrim Mahmuti, head of Four Paws in Kosovo.

Four Paws, or Vier Pfoten, was established in Austria in 1988. The animal rights organisation operates across Europe, in South Africa and the United States, and lobbies governments to change laws for the wellbeing of animals.

Kasandra is the first resident of what Four Paws is calling The Forest of Bears, situated on a 15.6 hectare plot given by the municipality of Prishtina.

Four Paws, in collaboration with the Ministry of the Environment, plans to bring 14 other bears to the refuge that currently live at restaurants and small zoos throughout Kosovo, some in appalling conditions.

Mahmuti said the bears will require reconditioning before they can be released into the reserve.

“Today, these bears don’t know how to live free in nature since they are used to living in cages,” Mahmuti said.

“The project plans a program for their engagement, by starting with games, hiding food and other things.”

Kasandra still lives in a confined space in the refuge but Mahmuti said she will be introduced to an open space soon.

The refuge will have a caretaker, a veterinarian and other employees from surrounding villages to help out.

“People are sceptical about this, but this is for the best of the country because we protect the endangered species,” said Mahmuti.

Four Paws has been working on the project since early 2012, as has so far spent 200,000 euro on the refuge. The organisation foresees spending another 400,000 euro on a second phase of the plan.

The organization runs similar projects also in Austria, Bulgaria and Germany, and is starting others in Albania and Serbia.

The idea for the refuge came about in 2011, when Austrian peacekeepers soldiers encountered Kasandra in a small cage at the Gjeraqina restaurant in the Duhel village, about 10 kilometers from Suhareka.

They took photographs, which then appeared in the Austrian media and sparked outrage.

“She was in a desperate condition,” said Rifat Morina, an official in the Ministry of the Environment who is working with the refuge.

Morina said the ministry had kept track of endangered animals, including brown bears, living at small zoos in restaurants since 2005.

In Prishtina, the Freskia restaurant in Germia Park has two bears, while the small zoo at the Te Ariu restaurant has five. There are also bears at establishments in Prizren, Mitrovica, Peja and Rugova.

The 2010 Law on the Preservation of Nature in 2010 designated brown bears a protected species. Brown bears are found through the Balkan region, though it is not known how many remain in Kosovo.

Bear owners skeptical:

Some bear owners don’t want to give up their animals.

The Shqiponja mini-zoo in Prizren has refused to give up its two bears.

“We do not trust this shelter,” said Osman Goranci, the manager of the zoo.

The zoo operates as an NGO and says it draws thousands of visitors each year. In addition to the bears, the zoo has more than 140 other animals.

The zoo has no need of a license because Kosovo doesn’t have any laws that oblige zoos to obtain one.

“We have sent many requests for a license,” Goranci said.

Goranci said KFOR soldiers brought the bear cubs to the zoo in 2003. Hunters had killed the mother and sold the cubs. The soldiers confiscated the cubs.

Naim Muja, owner of “Te Ariu” in Prishtina, which has five bears, is also sceptical of the bear refuge.

He said the Ministry of the Environment should pay up if it wants his bears.

“We raised them ourselves for many years. We should be compensated for that,” Muja said.

Muja said he is also concerned about the conditions of the refuge, and suggested the bears might endanger nearby villages by scavenging for food.

The refuge has an electrified fence, backed up by a generator.

The owner of Freskia, in Prishtina’s Germia Park, has resigned himself to losing his two bears.

“All that’s left is for them to take them. But I won’t give them up without documentation,” Kastrati said.

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