Want to go bear-spotting? You don't need to travel far to see these magnificent creatures - Romania, in fact, says Mark Carwardine
A bear-watching weekend in Romania may seem about as likely as wine tasting in Mongolia, but Romania is home to several thousand brown bears – nearly half the entire European population outside Russia.
My base for the weekend was Zărneşti, a small rural town in the Carpathian Mountains, right in the heart of bear country. The area boasts one of the greatest expanses of unbroken forest in Europe and is teeming with wildlife: not just bears, but wolves, lynx, wild boar, pine martens and many other species.
We crept inside a smart wooden hide and peered through the narrow window. Out in the clearing hung a dead horse. Every couple of weeks the rangers buy the bears a horse – one that has died of old age or illness – to feed from. Their meal is rounded off with a trough filled with glucose concentrate.
We settled down and waited. There is something curiously soporific about seeing a dead horse swaying gently in the breeze. Soon enough, we were doing involuntary shifts, intermittently sleeping and waking with a start.
Then a brown nose appeared between two bushes. It was sniffing the air. The nose inched forwards and suddenly a huge brown bear was standing right in front of us. It ambled straight past the dead horse and stood on its hind legs by the trough.
Then a much smaller bear, probably no more than 18 months old, ventured into the clearing. It was a little nervous at first, but gradually gained confidence and waited in line for the older animal to finish. For more than 40 minutes we watched the bears feeding and snarling at one another, before they went back into the forest.
It was time for us to leave, too. As we picked our way back to the car the ranger told us about the last time he’d been here with a group of bear watchers. They had stumbled upon a mother and her two cubs down the dark track. One woman had been so frightened she ran past in a panic, pushed the guard into the nettles, dived into the car and locked all the doors. The others were left mingling with the bears, pleading with the gibbering wreck hiding under the back seat to let them in. This time, rather disappointingly, we made it to the car unscathed.
For further info on this trip, contact Wildlife Worldwide