By Kevin Heath
A DNA study of brown bears in Eastern Europe has revealed that Ceausescu’s Romania is the source of brown bear populations in some eastern European countries. While no documentary evidence remains of the export of bears it is thought that Ceausescu may have exported them to cement friendships with other nations.
The study wanted to find out why the genes of brown bears in Bulgaria and elsewhere did not fit the normal gene profile of the local bear populations. The researchers discovered that the origin of the ‘genotype’ was the Carpathian mountains in Romania. Local folklore also told of bears being crated up and transported from the region in large military aircraft.
The study was undertaken by researchers at Senckenberg Research Institute and Natural History Museum and partners of Bulgarian and Romanian NGOs and the Frankfurt Zoological Society. The paper has been published in the journal Conservation Genetics.
The researchers wanted to discover more about the larger populations of the European brown bear, an endangered species, in the Carpathians, the Balkan Peninsula and in Russia. In western Europe the brown bear is largely extinct.
“Unfortunately, we lack considerable knowledge about these few remaining viable bear populations, including basic data such as population size and connectivity“, says Dr. Carsten Nowak, wildlife geneticist at Senckenberg.
To remedy this lack of information the researchers analysed DNA from scats, hairs and tissue samples from habitats across Bulgaria.
During the analysis, however, PhD student Christiane Frosch revealed an unusual pattern: several individual profiles collected in three regions in the main mountain regions of the country, the Stara Planina Mountains and the Rhodopes, differed considerably from all the other bear profiles. Questions were raised over how these ‘rogue’ bears came to be there.
Samples from the Carpathian mountains in Romania provided from bear conservationists of the local Milvus Group perfectly matched the unusual Bulgarian DNA profiles. These regions, however, lie several hundred kilometers apart from each other and the generally high genetic difference between the populations does not suggest high rates of exchange.
Although bears are good long-distance dispersers and could theoretically make it from Romania to Bulgaria by themselves, the scientists were skeptic. “We cannot exclude the possibility of natural migration, but geographic locations of the revealed samples and several other patterns make this scenario unlikely“, says Nowak.
The most likely way of the bears getting to where they are now is through human transport. During the era of socialism some Eastern European heads of government were passionate bear hunters. It is reported that the Romanian dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu (1918-1989), shot more than 1000 bears in his lifetime. The constant success of his bear hunting activities was guaranteed by numerous assistant hunters and game wardens, and by activities that targeted the boosting of the Romanian bear population, including raising bears in captivity.
To cement relationships with other countries Ceausescu is also thought to have offered bears as gifts to boost local populations. In Romania and Bulgaria people report that the large Carpathian bears were brought to Bulgarian enclosures in military planes and released in order to spice up the less impressive local bear population. At least one of the places where translocated bears where kept, the Kormisosh enclosure in the Rhodopes, still exist, as local investigations revealed. Indeed, several of the “alien” bear genotypes were found in the vicinity of this enclosure.
It should be noted that despite of intensive investigation, the researchers found no written documents about the case. Their study, now online in the journal “Conservation Genetics” is the first written document to certify it