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A Cantabrian brown bear encounter in the Valley of Aguayo

With brief ramblings on population spread, and a longer rant on the vexed and under-reported subject of bear-human conflict, with a 15th century Spanish account of a bear attack.

Posted by admin on Thursday August 5th 2010. One comment

The slopes of the Embalse de Alsa coming down from the woods of Vallejo Rucándano All photos © Mr Baldie. More.

In the previous post I named two of the problems facing rural walkers in Spain as a lack of refreshments and motorway building. Judging by the numbers of young horses and cattle loose on the slopes of Otero running down into the Embalse de Alsa near San Miguel de Aguayo in Cantabria, the first problem is unlikely to affect the brown bear we heard roaring early on the morning of July 24th in the beech forest between the summit of Otero and Vallejo Rucándano. The second however will surely have an impact: as the map over at Aves del norte de Burgos shows, the AP-69 Dos Mares motorway will tear right through the middle of this zone, just as soon as government funds are available for its construction.

I've lived quite a lot of my life in the countryside, and spent some formative years in the vicinity of a brutally-run slaughterhouse, so I'm quite certain that the sound that chilled our bones wasn't that of an injured cow or enraged bull, and anyone else who has heard bears before will confirm that it is not something one easily forgets. Nevertheless, I did at first question my ears, because Cantabrian brown bears very rarely make it this far east--the map over at Fundación Oso Pardo shows an eastern population of 30 bears concentrated in eastern León and western Palencia, with offshoots in Campoo de Suso and Liébana. Recent sightings of another bear in Valderredible on the Ebro on the other side of the reservoir may suggest the beginnings of an eastward trend.

One of the interesting things about the article is its propagation of the myth of conflict-free human-bear coexistence. This seems to me to be driven by often cuddly-animal ecologist and rural tourism propaganda (the FOP does a pretty good job, however), and it ignores the evidence from for example Eastern Europe, the Balkans and Asia Minor. Jerina et al, Modeling the brown bear population in Slovenia, report similar naivety during the early phase of bear management there, and other papers (eg Ambarlı & Bilgin Human–brown bear conflicts in Artvin, northeastern Turkey) report considerable resentment by unprepared farmers and villagers of bear attacks on livestock, beehives and orchards, as well as a slow trickle of fatal attacks on humans by brown bears. This doesn't perhaps justify the killing of brown bears in for example the Pyrenees by farmers as well as hunters, but it does help explain it and why it is unlikely to disappear.

The potential for bears encountering humans is currently pretty small--the countryside is generally empty, and humans rarely leave the protection of cars or buildings, and bears don't seem to have taken to dumpster diving to the same extent as in Canada--but pre-20th century Spanish literature provides the occasional glimpse of ursine terror. My favourite is in the late-15th century Las sergas de Esplandián by Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo, which, except for Maneli's subsequent miraculous recovery, provides a pretty good account of a bear attack:

Mucho placer hubieron aquellos caballeros en se ver, por cualquier manera que fuesen, salidos en tierra; y como la barca á la orilla llegase, salieron fuera, y atándola por la cadena á un árbol, dejando en ella el uno de sus escuderos, acordaron de saber qué remedio allí se hallaría; y comenzaron de entrar por la isla, llevando los yelmos en sus cabezas y los escudos á los cuellos. Mas no anduvieron mucho, que en un valle hallaron una fuente debajo de unos altos y hermosos árboles, donde quitados sus yelmos, se lavaron y bebieron del agua, que dulce y sabrosa les pareció. El escudero que con ellos iba, que era del rey de Dacia, que Argento se llamaba, les dijo: «Buenos señores, yo, que vengo sin armas, si lo tenéis por bien, quiero saber qué hay en esta isla, porque, según lo que hallare, así tomaréis el acuerdo. — Bien será, dijeron ellos, pero sea de manera que no vos perdamos. — Asi lo haré, dijo él, que si desde aquella cumbre no viere lo que busco, tornarme he para vosotros.» Entonces se fué por entre las matas, y siendo una pieza dellos alejado, vido contra si venir un oso muy grande á maravilla, de que hubo gran temor; y dando muy grandes voces que lo socorriesen, se subió muy presto en un árbol; mas el oso lo siguió hasta ser al pié del árbol. Los caballeros, que á la fuente quedaron, como las voces de Argento oyeron, fueron á mas correr hácia allá, con tanta priesa, que los yelmos no pudieron tomar, y se quedaron cabe la fuente; y llegando al escudero, viéronle estar en el árbol, y el oso que subía por lo tomar; mas ellos dieron muy grandes voces porque lo dejase, á las cuales el oso volviendo el rostro, vido los caballeros que contra él iban, descendió cuanto mas pudo, y se volvió para ellos levantado en los piés traseros. Maneli, como ríe mas edad y mas recio que el Rey fuese, iba delante, poniendo el escudo encima de la cabeza, y la espada en la mano fué para él, y dióle un gran golpe en la cabeza, que le derribó la una oreja con parte de las quijadas; mas el oso le tomó entre sus fuertes brazos y trabo con los dientes en el escudo tan fuertemente, que todos pasaron de la otra parte; así que, Maneli fue tan embarazado de los brazos, del oso que consigo apretado le tenia, que no se pudo valer ni hacer mas, y parecióle que todos los huesos del cuerpo le quebraban. Mas á esta hora llegó el rey de Dacia, y hirió con su espada al oso en el un brazo de tal golpe, que se lo cortó todo á cercen, junto á la mano, de manera que luego cayó en tierra. El oso dió un gran bramido, y soltando el caballero, comenzó de huir en tres piés, y el Rey en pos dél corriendo por lo herir; y no lo pudiendo alcanzar, tornóse donde Maneli estaba asaz quebrantado de la batalla del oso; y como llegó á él, preguntóle cómo le iba. «Mal me va, dijo él; que aquella mala bestia endiablada me ha quebrantado todo mi cuerpo.»

The bear might have got him anyway, but Wikipedia explains one basic error in Maneli's approach:

Running away or climbing a tree can activate the bear's hunting instincts and lead to it perceiving the human as prey. If a bear does charge, persons are advised to hold their ground, as most bear charges are bluffs. Finally, if a bear does attack, the usual advice is to curl into a fetal position so as to shield vital organs and appear non-threatening. If this is not effective in stopping the attack, the only option left is to fight the bear in any way you can.

The adventures of Esplandián is a work of chivalry, so it doesn't mention that the best defence is to travel with a slower-moving companion.

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