Trouble in France's bear country

Observations on wildlife

The French départements of Haute-Garonne, Hautes-Pyrénées and Ariège have for years called themselves the Pays de l'Ours, or Bear Country. From souvenir peddlers to tourist-board officials and from walking guides to restaurateurs, they all make the most of the bear brand. There is, however, un petit problème: there are hardly any bears. The few that inhabit the region pursue isolated lives in forbidding terrain and are rarely seen by locals, let alone tourists. The region has been trading on what is almost a myth.

A few years ago, when the Pyrenean bear population fell to just six animals in a region ten times the size of Greater London, the government was sufficiently embarrassed to step in, importing three brown bears from Slovenia and releasing them into the wild. Now it is stepping up the repopulation programme, but this has thrown up another petit problème: not all residents are keen and, in the manner of French country folk, they are taking things into their own hands.

The tiny village of Arbas, seat of the area's pro-bear association, last month found itself overrun by protesters draped in Tricolour scarves and shouting: "One bear at large, many lives in danger." Stones, bottles and "quantities of blood" were thrown at the town hall and an enormous effigy of a bear was doused in petrol and set alight.

Bear enthusiasts are not amused. Repopulation is good for the region, good for biodiversity and good for tourism, they say, and the protesters are mainly livestock breeders whose livelihoods face far bigger threats than a few wild animals. "Shepherds and farmers," said Arbas's Socialist mayor, François Arcangeli, "are using the reintroduction of the bear as a scapegoat to avoid the real issue, which is a profession in difficulty."

The mayor denounced the protesters as "thugs", but when it emerged that they included Socialist officials he himself was forced to resign.

While the farmers' claims may be exaggerated, their fears are not entirely unfounded. Even the official Bear Country website gives details of efforts under way to dissuade one bear, known as Boutxy, from approaching homes, killing sheep and stealing honey.

Besides the Arbas protest, the anti-bear activists are accused of threatening, insulting and injuring officials involved in the repopulation programme, and of slashing their tyres and stealing and sabotaging their equipment.

And the conflict goes on. In the past fortnight two more brown bears arrived from Slovenia and, as one was being released, demonstrators emerged from the forest with bells, horns and firecrackers. Officials later set both bears loose in a secret location, and three more are on their way.