Bear lovers discover nature of their beast The cuddly

Click to follow
From high in the French Pyrenees comes news this week that a brown mountain bear attacked a flock of sheep near the small settlement of Prat- Bonrepaux and killed six lambs. So what, a phlegmatic French townsman would say, such things happen from time to time; that's how nature is.

Unfortunately, however, the bear was not just any bear. She was Mellba, one of two small brown bears recently introduced into the region in the hope of saving the endangered Pyrennean bear, and the slaughter of the lambs threatens to revive a controversy that has rumbled beneath the surface since the project was mooted.

In 1991 four districts in the central French Pyrenees joined forces to promote economic development through tourism. Their thoughts turned to bears, partly in the light of concern that a France-Spain road tunnel then being discussed could kill off the last of the Pyrennean bears. There were thought to be only eight left.

In 1993, the French environment ministry agreed to support a bear-reintroduction projectand Brussels agreed to provide 75 per cent of the funding. The task of finding and reintroducing the bears was entrusted to a French organisation called Artus and Slovenian bears were selected as being genetically the closest to the Pyrennean bears.

This spring a team of zoologists went to Slovenia to trap their first bear. Its transfer, from trap to special container to van, was avidly followed by French television viewers, as was the release of the animal - about six years old and now named Ziva - near Melles.

Three weeks later, a second, younger bear - Mellba - was released at a different spot. Both have electronic tags so that their every move can be monitored. A third bear, the first male, is due to join then in the coming weeks.

So far, however, what has been discovered has not been particularly satisfactory for anyone. Ziva set off for Spain, where she has since spent much of her time. Mellba, while remaining mostly in France, has combined elusiveness (which could make attracting the hoped-for wildlife tourists difficult) with a regrettable taste for lambs. She killed her first two weeks ago. Now, it is six in one night.

Certain precautions were taken at the outset to allay fears about the project, the main one being a generous compensation scheme for farmers that works out at about 1,400 francs (pounds 180) per lamb, more than double the market price.

The loss of so many lambs so soon, however, has been an embarrassment for conservationists. The Artus group's local representative, Patrick Beauchet, said that it was important "not to dramatise the situation". "If the worst comes to the worst, she might be withdrawn."

Local people are said to be putting a brave face on Mellba's indiscretions, hoping that the bears will eventually bring in the tourists - and extra income. They also feel nostalgic about the bears they lost in the Eighties. "The Pyrenees without bears would be like Africa without elephants," the mayor of Melles was quoted as saying. Another resident drew a comparison between bear-sighting possibilities and the likelihood of seeing the Virgin Mary at the nearby shrine of Lourdes: "People go to Lourdes without necessarily seeing the Virgin," she said gnomically.

On the Spanish side, farmers have reportedly threatened to use their guns the moment the bears cause any trouble.