Eurasian brown bears are the most commonly found bears in the Balkans. I’ve even had a run in with one in Romania (see here). While Romania has the largest population of brown bears, they are still found in Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro and Serbia.
Unfortunately, the Balkans have a terrible history of bear cruelty. Bears were (and still are) put in cages outside restaurants for the entertainment of customers. Ever heard of dancing bears? Cubs are forced on to glowing sheets of hot metal, so they move from paw to paw to avoid the pain, giving the effect that they are dancing. They repeatedly do this as music plays so the pain is ingrained into their minds and the music still triggers this response, even when there is no metal sheet.
Tomi, an Albanian bear, was kept in a tiny cage outside a restaurant north of Albania’s capital Tirana. Captured using a tranquilliser gun and taken from his home in the open woodlands he became a tourist attraction. Tomi survived on crisps and sweets thrown at him by customers and his captors regularly forgot to give him water. Confined and locked in a tiny cell 24/7, he began to display terrible mental and physical problems – including, biting his own limbs and spasms throughout his body. An article highlighting Tomi’s story is here.
This is one of the bears rescued and given sanctuary in Kosovo at the Bear Sanctuary Pristina, who work with campaign group FOUR PAWS to save these animals from lives trapped in horrendous conditions.
The Bear Sanctuary
How to get there
The Bear Sanctuary is located in Novo Selo by the small town of Mramor, a 20 minute drive outside Pristina’s city centre. The easiest way to get there is to drive. A taxi from the centre of Pristina to the Bear Sanctuary costs €12, but there are no taxis at the Bear Sanctuary. You can either call a taxi (but you’ll need to speak Albanian) or ask the taxi driver taking you to wait but they’ll charge you. Alternatively you can get the bus and walk.
On public transport
To reach the sanctuary you have to get a bus heading to Gjilan from Pristina’s main bus station. There’s no public transport from the centre of Pristina to the main bus station so you can either walk for 25 minutes or take a taxi for €3 (they will try and charge you €5 but negotiate for €3).
I couldn’t find a timetable for buses leaving this station so I just turned up. You need to walk along and look at the dashboards of the bus and there will be a sign saying their destination. The buses to Gjilan are regular.
When you get on the bus tell the driver to drop you off near Mramor, at the far side of the lake. The bus goes along the M-25.2. The map below shows where to get off the bus – at the large blue dot.
The driver probably won’t speak English so show him a picture like the one below of the junction. Most people in Pristina still aren’t aware of where the Bear Sanctuary is, so it won’t help saying it.
I found buses in the Balkan countries, especially Kosovo, to be very easy-going about letting people off at random points.
When the conductor comes round, show him the picture or just say “Mramor”. It costs €2 for a ticket.
When you get to the junction for Mramor the bus will pull in next to a gas station. You need to walk back along the lake but on the other side. There’s no sidewalk so you will have to walk in the road. It’s a 3 Km walk and it’s pretty boring.
Walk to the sanctuary
You’ll walk past some of these signs for the sanctuary.
I don’t endorse this but hitchhiking is very common in the Balkans and if you wanted to try and get a ride up to the sanctuary the chances are high. Several cars pulled up to offer me a lift.
There’s a nice lake with many families fishing. It’s a shame about all the rubbish left behind.
Entry to the sanctuary is €1.50. The path to walk is obvious and they ask you not to feed or shout at the bears.
Even though it was a hot day I saw many bears outside and they seemed unfazed by my presence.
Meet the Bears
While there are 13 bears I only saw 7. These are the photos I took of each bear.
Ero and Mira
Ero – Born in 1999 in region of Sharri, rescued in June 2013
The first bear I met was Ero. He’s the biggest bear at the sanctuary, standing at 2.10 metres. He was more interested in looking for food (they eat grass, fruit, insects, roots and bulbs of plants) than in me but he came right up to the fence. As he’s so big, I was happy to have the fence between us.
Mira – Born in 1999 in region of Sharri, rescued in June 2013. She is Ero’s mate and they live together.
She is the biggest female bear weighing up to 200 kg. I tried to get a selfie with Mira but she wasn’t interested.
Rina and family
Rina – born in 2003 in region of Sharri, rescued May 2013
She is a badass bear who isn’t fazed by much. Rina overcame many obstacles and is now living a happy life at the sanctuary with her mate Ari. She was happy to take a selfie with me.
Here is a video I took of them drinking and Rina licking the smaller one’s ears clean. It’s amazing to see nature in action.
Today in Kosovo I met some bears 🐻 The Bear Sanctuary in Prishtina is doing great work rescuing bears from awful conditions. Privately-owned bears had to vegetate in small cages outside restaurants for the purpose of attracting customers. Now these bears have a 16-hectare woodland to roam around in and live their bear lives. . . . #bear #bears #nature #kosovo #prishtina #ig_kosovo #ig_prishtina #instabear #ig_bear #ig_bears #savethebears #sanctuary #bearsanctuary #bearsanctuaryprishtina #nature #animals #iloveanimals #travel #travelling
Vini and Kassandra
Vini – Born in 2005 in Deçan, rescued in May 2013
He came from living in a tiny cage to the outdoors at the bear sanctuary. It took time for him to adjust to his new surroundings but now he is now in good health. I saw him strutting his stuff in the shade and he had a beautiful dark brown fur coat.
Kassandra – Born in 2002 in Suhareka, rescued in March 2013
Kassandra was the first bear rescued by FOUR PAWS in Kosovo. She was completely abandoned and left in a cage of a closed restaurant. Her grey fur turned to blonde as her health was restored. She’s a fan of sweet fruit and likes to relax by her pool. I caught her having a good scratch against a branch. She then went off to drink some water and ignored Vini.
Problems reintroducing bears into the wild
I’ve always been sceptical about keeping animals in contained areas and not in the wild. But with many animals it is not always possible to set them free into the wild. Especially if they have spent most of their life in captivity. Unfortunately these bears have been so badly abused that they can’t just “go in the forest”.
Also, some are too used to humans and there’s the possibility they will go into populated areas and not fear poachers, risking recapture. This is why so much work is required to rehabilitate them.
Returning to Pristina
There aren’t any taxis at the Bear Sanctuary but you can return down the road to where you got off the bus and catch the returning bus to Pristina on the other side of the road. Further up the road from the petrol station there is a bay the bus can pull into but you need to wave it down.
If you would like more information on Bear Sanctuary Pristina or to donate to this great cause then visit their website: http://www.four-paws.org.uk/projects/bears/prishtina-sanctuary/
I will be writing more posts on Kosovo but this is the number one thing to do there (IMO). It was a great experience to see all these bears being looking after. Each bear had its own personality traits and was keen to come up to the fence and say “hi” to me.