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Destinations - Into the land of bears

 By the gates of Prishtina, the capital of young Kosovo, the BEAR SANCTUARY Prishtina is a site immersed in nature, where 20 bears, after years of abuse and captivity, have found protection and freedom. This is their story.

FRANCESCA MASOTTI | 15 September 2021

A BEAR SANCTUARY

Hidden among 16 hectares of woods near the village of Mramor, some twenty kilometers from the capital of Kosovo, twenty bears live there undisturbed. They do not like to attract attention: a behaviour that is quite understandable given that they have spent years under the gaze of dozens and dozens of people while being locked up in a cage to put on a show. Up until 2010 in Kosovo, some restaurants were keeping bears in captivity, along with other wild animals, to attract clients. A practice that consisted in capturing animals in the forests of the country and in northern Albania, often tearing them still small from their mothers, chaining them and humiliating them in order to entertain the spectators during their meals. Finally, in 2010 a law came into force prohibiting individuals from owning bears and other animals. In accordance with this reform, the international organization Four Paws proposed to the Kosovo government to create an appropriate space for bears to live free from captivity. This is how the BEAR SANCTUARY Prishtina was born, a project idea from the Austrian organization for the protection of animals “VIER PFOTEN”. This is not a zoo: although for obvious safety reasons there are fences, it is an extensive green area within a forest where the bears live in peace and are protected, cared for, and supervised by the team and volunteers. Due to the abuse suffered during the years of captivity, some of these bears suffer from psychological disorders and behavioural problems that do not allow them to return to live in the wild. Having then, albeit badly, coexisted for many years alongside human beings, they strongly depend on them: if they were left free, not only would they risk not surviving, but also going to inhabited areas and being recaptured, wounded, or killed or causing harm to people, thus becoming risky for themselves and others.

INTO THE WILD

At the BEAR SANCTUARY Prishtina these animals have finally the opportunity to act naturally: the large fences structured with the aim of reproducing the natural environment where they were born - that is the mountain forests of Kosovo and northern Albania - offer them enough space to roam freely and retreat, and all have trees and / or wooden structures on to climb and ponds in which to swim to cool off during the hot summer days. The Sanctuary also allows bears to hibernate in winter, a key moment in their natural annual cycle of activity (although, in fact, bears enter a state of torpor rather than deep hibernation in the cold months).  Walking along the special paths one gets the impression of imagining what the daily life of bears that live freely in the forests is like. Animals, in fact, are not only not put on display (they decide, based on their instincts, if and when to be seen), but also the interactions of veterinarians and guardians are strictly limited to the activities of care and building of trust and they do not include feeding demonstrations, visitor feeding of bears, or any direct contact between bears and humans. The target? Provide conditions that allow bears to express species-specific behaviors both in interactions with each other and with the environment.

 A NEW HOME

One of the specificities of the Sanctuary is that of keeping the animals busy and mentally occupied as if they lived in the wild: after the years spent locked up in cages, bears have repressed many typical aspects of wild animals. Thus, to encourage them to behave naturally, they are stimulated and encouraged to develop their senses: for example, food is hidden from them in certain places and original wooden platforms are applied to invite them to climb with the aim of making them regain confidence in their ability after the trauma suffered. “To better understand the treatment these animals have received, it suffices to look at the example of Kassandra, the first bear saved from the prison and adopted by the BEAR SANCTUARY Prishtina. The owner of the restaurant that kept the bear in captivity for many years, when he learned of the law that came into effect, he abandoned the restaurant and left the bear locked inside a cage in its garden. It often happened that bored kids would go there and throw pebbles, thus injuring the bear, and whenever it happened, the only food was leftovers from passersby. Kassandra had lost part of her skin but after the recovery and the right treatment, it returned resplendent. Our primary duty is to look after the health – not just physical but also mental, of these animals, for the rest of their lives”, explains Afrim Mahmuti who is in charge of the center. The story of Kassandra is one of the twenty stories of these brown bears who live here which along with other anecdotes relating to their character and preferences in terms of food are narrated in the panels that are encountered along the itinerary. The BEAR SANCTUARY Prishtina contains a vegetarian restaurant where visitors can taste dishes made with “0 km ingredients”, a shop, the earnings of which serve to maintain the bears of the Sanctuary, a new path winding inside the forest, an entertainment park with caves, labyrinths, an anthill, nets, bird nests with related information panels, both designed to involve visitors and developed together with the Swiss foundation Swisscontact, which promotes the tourism sector in Kosovo, and also the educational center Thesaret e Natyrës (Nature’s Treasures) where cultural activities are organized for children to explain to them the life of bears and the history of their habitat. This is an important way to conclude the visit to the Sanctuary, to educate future men and women to respect the environment and all the animals that inhabit it.