An innocent study of brown bear populations in Bulgaria has found that the country’s former communist leader was not one to look a gift bear in the mouth. The research revived undocumented and almost forgotten rumors that the regime imported bears for sport hunting during the 1970s and 1980s. The study shows the importance of considering human history when using genetics to study the migration of large carnivores, which, historically, heads of state have given as gifts.
Though the transport was kept secret, foresters and game wardens in Bulgaria have long known that Nicolae Ceauşescu, the leader of the Romanian Communist Party and an avid bear hunter, airlifted bears to Bulgaria. He gave the animals as a gift to his comrade and fellow hunting enthusiast, Bulgarian President Todor Zhivkov.
Despite its history of hunting, Bulgaria has one of the last large populations of the endangered brown bear in Europe. But scientists know little about their numbers and distribution. Carsten Nowak, a wildlife geneticist at the Senckenberg Research Institute in Gelnhausen, Germany, and his colleagues were investigating this brown bear population when they found some strange results. They analyzed the DNA profiles from hair, scat, and tissue samples collected in Bulgaria and found seven individuals—from three different mountainous regions—that had genetic patterns unlike the rest.
At first, they thought the animals had migrated from surrounding countries, so they collected samples from the Carpathian Mountains in Romania, where a separate brown bear population lives. Scientists have speculated that a wildlife corridor runs from Bulgaria through eastern Serbia to Romania, but there is no hard evidence that bears use this corridor. When the analysis came back, “it was clear that these Bulgarian bears matched perfectly the Carpathian bears,” Nowak says. They found that 2.8% of the Bulgarian bears had Carpathian DNA profiles. A few days passed before he and his colleagues in Bulgaria and Romania realized that Ceauşescu’s gift could explain the strange findings , they report online in Conservation Genetics. “If we had no idea of what historically happened, we would have most likely drawn a very, very wrong picture,” he says.
Some of the bears appear to have pure Carpathian heritage, while others seem to be hybrids, Nowak says. Because brown bears could conceivably survive for 30 years in captivity, it is possible that these are the original bears that came from Romania and later escaped or were released. Eleven brown bears still live in Kormisosh, one of two bear enclosures operated by Bulgaria’s state hunting enterprise, though trophy hunting is no longer legal. The researchers could not obtain hair samples from these bears to verify if they had Carpathian origins.
“There is quite strong support for the claim of the authors that animals were translocated,” says Alexandros Karamanlidis, a wildlife conservationist at ARCTUROS/Civil Society for the Protection of Natural Environment and Wildlife in Thessaloniki, Greece, who was not involved in the study. “Knowing how obsessed people like Ceauşescu and Zhivkov were [with] hunting bears,” he says, “it doesn’t seem unrealistic that this might have happened.”
Though they cannot rule out that the bears migrated to Bulgaria naturally, the possibility is unlikely, researchers say. Half of the Carpathian bears found in Bulgaria were female, and although male brown bears may travel hundreds of kilometers from home, females rarely roam so far. Additionally, in two of the three places where the researchers found evidence of Carpathian bears, the animals were located near the government-run enclosures, which are far from the Romanian border. In future work, Nowak plans to investigate the wildlife corridor to see if there is any natural migration occurring between the two bear populations.
“It’s a very sound study showing what genetics can do in a historic context and in aspects of species conservation,” says Alexander Kopatz, a bear researcher at Bioforsk, the Norwegian Institute for Agricultural and Environmental Research in Svanhovd, who was not involved in the research. Bear populations are recovering in some parts of Europe, he says, and it’s encouraging that now “bears are dispersing into several areas where they once were intensively hunted and wiped out.”