Feature: The Pyrenean Brown Bear

In 2004 in the Vallée d'Aspe, the last native brown bear left in France was shot by a boar-hunter, supposedly in self-defence. The demise of the female bear, known as Cannelle to conservationists, marked the extinction of a species that a century ago was still a relatively common sight in the Pyrenees. France was in uproar; the then-President Chirac declared it 'a great loss for French and European biodiversity'.

The species has since been reintroduced using bears imported from Slovenia. They have bred successfully, and it's thought that between 39 and 43 brown bears now roam across the French side of the mountains. Sadly, several have been killed in recent years, including one that fell from a cliff and another that was hit by a car between Argelès-Gazost and Lourdes.

The plight of brown bears in the Pyrenees has become an important touchstone for French conservationists, but it remains a deeply controversial issue, especially for local shepherds and farmers, who see the bears as dangerous predators that pose an unwelcome threat to their flocks and livelihoods. The issue reached a flash point in 2017 when a bear attacked a flock of sheep near Couflens. In a panic, the entire flock of 209 sheep fled over a cliff near the Spanish border and perished. Another 250 died in other bear incidents during the summer.

Despite the outcry by farmers on both sides of the border, the French environment minister Nicolas Hulot announced in 2018 that two more females would be introduced in the Béarn. The move was critical to help boost the faltering bear population – down to just two males – in the western part of the Pyrenees. Meanwhile, even with the new additions, the prospect for the long-term survival of the Pyrenean brown bear remains in a precarious state.