Now snipers set their sights on Jurka, mother of Bruno

It should have been a conservation fairy tale. But angry farmers say endangered brown bears released in the Alps are ravaging livestock
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The Independent Online

The shooting of Bruno, the young, honey-loving brown bear who made front-page news last month, caused enough anguish for wildlife lovers. Now, less than four weeks after the death of Germany's most famous ursine rebel, his mother is also facing the sniper's rifle.

This tale of three bears should have been the stuff of conservation fairy tales: a female bear comes from a faraway place to rescue her species. She meets a daddy bear, has baby bears and they all live happily ever after in their natural habitat. Instead, the trials, tribulations and random sheep-eating of Bruno and his mother, Jurka, has turned into a present-day allegory: a tale of the problems encountered when large animals are allowed to roam in places where modern man has grown unaccustomed to them.

It all started so well when Jurka, an eight-year-old brown bear, was transplanted from her native Slovenia to Trentino in the northern Italian Alps in 2001. Soon, she met Jose, a handsome, if solitary type, also from Slovenia, who had been released there the previous year. In 2004, they had two male cubs, JJI (aka Bruno) and JJII. The bear protection team that released them, Life Ursus, was thrilled.

But problems lay ahead. Although there are only 200,000 brown bears left in the world, opponents of "capture and re-release" schemes, including sheep farmers who fear for their livestock, claim bears cause greater losses to livelihood than the authorities admit and that the Slovenian grizzly is particularly aggressive.

Family JJ was already dysfunctional. Jose, who has fathered several of the Trentino cubs, left. Even though a bear's diet is normally only 20 per cent meat, Jurka became a true carnivore. She taught her sons that the world was full of unguarded chickens and how to kill them. When bear wardens fired rubber bullets, the family learned never to return to the scene of the crime.

Animal rights activists called Bruno's killing on 25 June a "brutal murder". During his seven- week odyssey through the Alps, he became a cult figure - cocking a snook at the authorities, outwitting a crack team of Finnish elk-hounds and snacking on sheep and goats, pet rabbits and the odd guinea pig.

Apparently fearless of humans, Bruno broke into a beehive in the lakeside resort of Kochel, stuffed himself with honey, wandered down the main street at midnight and sat in front of the local police station, burping. He hadn't harmed a human soul, but the authorities dubbed him a "problem bear", capable, they said, of ruining livelihoods and attacking residents if left to roam.

Now that label has now been attached to Bruno's mum, too. When Italian, Austrian and German environment experts met nine days ago to discuss the fiasco of the big brown bear hunt, Sandra Altherr, a biologist at conservation group Pro Wildlife, told The Independent on Sunday that "a member of the Bavarian Environment Ministry casually let out that killing Jurka was also being considered".

Many believe a shoot-to-kill policy for endangered species is pointless. "It's a question of learning to live alongside these animals that were in their natural habitat long before we were," said Victor Watkins of the UK-based World Society for the Protection of Animals and founder of the bear protection programme, Libearty.

That co-existence, however, involves resolving "bear-human conflict". Libearty has already developed "bear-proof" rubbish bins in Romania, and taught Turkish honey farmers how to protect their hives with low-wattage electric fences.

Supporters of schemes to reintroduce wolves and bearsto Britain agree. "Not only are they part of our heritage, they are a test for human morality and tolerance," says the Wolf Trust.

Jurka and her cubs, conservation experts believe, will probably live as long as they remain on Italian soil. "The Italians have said they are committed to re-tagging her," said Sandra Altherr.

But time could be running out. "We have been trying to catch Jurka and fit her with a transmitter," said Claudio Groff, head of Life Ursus. "If she is not caught by the autumn, we will have to make some kind of decision."

That doesn't sound like good news for Jurka.

BEAR LIFE

The European brown bear (Ursus arctos) can grow to 9ft long depending on its sex. Males weigh from 130-250kg and females 90-150kg.

European bears can be found in forest areas, river valleys and meadows. The highest populations are found in northern and eastern Europe.

They are considered canivorous, but their diet also consists of berries, fungi, grasses, bulbs and seeds.

Adults mate between May and July, producing up to four cubs, which remain with their mother until the age of three or four.

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