An endangered bear species is thriving in northern Spain, thanks to local conservation efforts and a tourist economy that supports them.
Not so long ago, the 1990s in fact, it was rare to spot a brown bear in the wild in Spain. Human-wildlife conflict had pushed its native bear, the Cantabrian brown bear to the brink of extinction. Not only was its habitat under threat from deforestation and man-made infrastructures, illegal poaching and hunting had drastically reduced its numbers, as well as poisoned bait and traps laid out by farmers and beekeepers to keep them away from their fruit trees and honey.
At the lowest point, their numbers were down to just 60 or 70. But following a campaign by conservation groups, the population has grown steadily. El Pais reports that they're the only brown bears who have managed to avoid extinction and thrive in Spain without the need to introduce foreign specimens. According to the Wilderness Society the population in the Cantabrian Mountains today is recorded at 350, with an additional 40 in the Pyrenees.
The recovery is the result of efforts to protect the environment as well as to educate people about the importance of bear populations through responsible tourism. The entire mountain range is today a protected conservation zone and in towns across Cantabria and Asturias, there are dedicated centres known as 'Bear Houses,' which promote understanding about the bear's habitat and biology, through immersive programmes and public exhibitions.
Bear-watching has boosted the tourism economy in sleepy towns in the region and has helped conservation groups with their mission. And while it's encouraging to witness this love for the shy animal, bear-watching can have both positive and negative impact on populations. In some instances, bears can be adversely affected by direct disturbance as Mareike Brix from EuroNatur (an environmental organisation directly involved in conservation efforts) tells Lonely Planet.
"Bear watching in the Cantabrian Mountains is actually increasing a lot at the moment which is nice because of the opportunities for ecotourism and the chance for people to observe these amazing animals in the wild," she explains. "On the other hand we are also encountering new challenges because of the many tour operators that do not work in a responsible way. [We] try to limit the disturbance to wildlife to the lowest extent possible."
Brix says her team has recorded several cases where animals, including mothers with cubs, were harassed and approached way beyond their comfort level. It's an incredibly stressful situation for the bears and in the worse case, it can even decrease the survival rate of the young i.e. if the den is frequently disturbed. That's why it's crucial to respect the animals by viewing them from distance (feeding is prohibited) and working with reputable, environmentally-friendly tour operators.
The Cantabrian brown bear is still on Spain's endangered list. In Europe it's listed in the European Mammal Assessment as critically endangered. Local conservationists such as the Cantabrian Brown Bear Research Group and the Fundación Oso Pardo are always looking for volunteers or support. If you do want to go bear-watching in Spain, Somiedo Natural Park and Las Ubiñas la Mesa Natural Park in Asturias are great places to spot them in the wild, and the aforementioned organisations will steer you towards responsible tour operators who can help.