A national park ranger employed by the Kosovo government has kept a brown bear cub in his basement for the last two months, according to Prishtina Bear Sanctuary, and the environment ministry has ignored demands to rescue the bear.
International animal welfare organization Four Paws, the founder of the Prishtina Bear Sanctuary, told BIRN on Tuesday that a national park ranger employed by the Ministry of Environment and Spatial Planning has been unlawfully keeping a brown bear in his basement since at least February.
The ranger, who works in the Sharr national park but whose identity has not been disclosed, has allegedly kept the months-old bear in a restaurant that he owns in “shocking conditions” in a “dirty and dark cellar,” said Four Paws representatives.
Four Paws received a video of the bear cub in the ranger’s garden from a member of the public on February 26.
Despite appeals from Four Paws, the ranger has ignored demands to release it back to the wild or hand the cub over to the Bear Sanctuary for protection.
According to Taulant Hoxha, Four Paws’ spokesperson, the Ministry of Environment and Spatial Planning, MESP, were alerted that the bear was being kept in captivity months ago when the organization offered to take the bear to the sanctuary.
“The government has so far ignored all offers and refuses to intervene,” said Hoxha. “The ministry [MESP] insisted that the bear be kept [with the ranger] with the intention to reunite it with his mother, but so far they haven’t even tried.”
“In a shocking turn of events, a Four Paws team member discovered that the cub is still being kept by the National Park ranger in the basement of a restaurant,” he continued.
Keeping bears privately, which used to be a popular restaurant attraction, has been illegal in Kosovo since 2010. According to MESP, the government did nothing until 2013 to stop bears being used as tourist attractions, because the bears were domesticated in captivity and could not be returned safely to Kosovo’s national parks.
The Prishtina Bear Sanctuary was opened in 2013 in response to this problem. Currently, the bear sanctuary holds 19 bears within its 16 hectares of land, offering the natural space, food and water without putting domesticated bears in danger in the wild.
“In all the cases, these bears were kept in very small spaces, just a few square meters,” said Hoxha. “They were badly fed and also tortured. When they were rescued by us, these bears had stereotypical behaviors and high level of stress because of the conditions where they were kept.
The bulk of the bears came to the sanctuary in 2013 as part of the first Four Paws initiative to rescue Kosovo’s restaurant bears, many suffering from debilitating mental health issues as a result of their prolonged captivity.
However, three of the bears at the sanctuary, all siblings, were rescued from captivity in two separate houses in Peja in March 2014 at only six weeks old.
Afrim Mahmuti, who manages Four Paws’ Bear Sanctuary in Prishtina, is worried about the cub’s welfare as it grows up in a basement.
“The cub has little chance to move and rarely sees daylight. This form of keeping is horrific animal cruelty. We informed the responsible authorities immediately, but they still refuse to intervene,” said Mahmuti.
One expert from Four Paws, Carsten Herwig, condemned the MESP for failing to either release the bear back into the wild or hand it over to the Bear Sanctuary, which is the only facility in Kosovo legally permitted to look after brown bears.
“It is shocking that the government does not abide by its own laws and has placed the orphaned bear in the obviously incompetent hands of its National Park staff. Animal welfare is clearly being trampled on here,” said Herwig.
“The terrible and inappropriate living conditions of the bear cub will lead to serious behavioral problems. The bear will also not remain this small forever. Sooner or later he will be a real danger for the owner and the restaurant visitors,” he continued.
It was the NATO peacekeeping force in Kosovo, KFOR, that intervened on behalf of Four Paws in May 2013 to remove the bears from their cages across Kosovo and Albania.
Prizren restaurateur and private zoo owner, Salih Shehu, said to Reuters in 2013 that his two orphaned bears were gifted to him by US soldiers that were part of the NATO peacekeeping forces just after the war, the very people who then led the charge to rescue them.
Shehu and many others gave up their bears willingly, and since 2014, there has not been a single reported case of bears being kept in captivity in Kosovo, until now.
At the time the Bear Sanctuary was first opened, the Ministry of Environment and Spatial planning said that there were less than 100 brown bears estimated to be living in Kosovo’s national parks.
While wildlife experts have said that endangered wildlife populations in Kosovo are on the rise, illegal hunting in national parks across the country remain a huge threat to their existence.
Recent reports have suggested that the illegal hunting of brown bears resulted in numerous incidents of retaliation by bears in villages across the country.
On April 27, a farmer living near Prizren reported that a bear killed 13 of his sheep in what he believed to be an act of revenge for the death of her three cubs at the hands of hunters from Prizren not long before.
On Sunday, the Kosovo Environmental Protection Agency announced that they have established a commission to deal with the potential threat of the bear to citizens, and sent members of the Kosovo Security Force, KSF to evaluate the situation. KSF officials have suggested relocating the bear away from the village.
Only two days later, on April 29, a bear killed 70 sheep on a farm in the municipality of Lipjan.
On Tuesday, Herwig appealed once again to the Ministry of Environment and Spatial planning to work with Four Paws to ensure the bear cub’s wellbeing.
“Every day the bear has to spend in the dark and filthy basement is one day too many,” he said. “We hope that the Kosovar government will come to its senses and finally hand over the bear to us.”
07 May 2019 - 15:53
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