It started out as just another ordinary day at the office but, when I opened an email from a UK-based bear welfare NGO, Hauser Bears, things took an unusual turn.
The email was a request for help following a contact from a EUMM monitor here in Georgia. She was concerned about an abandoned bear cub spotted in a small village near the disputed administrative boundary between the Georgian Republic and South Ossetia.
I responded to the mail with an offer of any support I could provide, which I felt sure would be limited. From that point things seemed to move very fast; an unusual experience for someone used to the slowly-grinding wheels of conservation.
The main problem in Georgia is that, even though there is a law protecting wild bears from being killed or captured, there are still between 50 and 100 bears being held in captivity around the country. They are usually kept in cramped cages and fed a diet of scraps and leftovers in both public and private establishments ranging from restaurants and petrol stations to private homes and zoos. Unfortunately, with no established rescue centre for housing any confiscated animals, the authorities simply cannot enforce the law.
So, how could we rescue this bear cub if there was no one to take it in? Amazingly, and through the tremendous efforts of Hauser bears, by the end of the week there was a place secured for it in a bear sanctuary idyllically located in the alpine forests of Romania.
Shortly after that, the renowned wildlife documentary filmmaker, Fergus Beeley, arrived in Georgia to capture the whole thing on film.
With the help of Bejan Lorkapidze, NACRES, we arranged for the Environmental Protection Inspectorate to take the lead in the bear confiscation and, on a cold wintry morning, a fresh layer of snow on the potholed Georgian roads we, the EPI the EUMM and workers from Tbilisi zoo all met in Gori to make the final plans. One complication was that the EUMM need to maintain relations with the communities along their patrol routes. Being openly associated with what had become the confiscation of an illegally kept wild animal was not, then, ideal. They agreed to escort us to the village and then hold back as the actual confiscation took place. Once decided, everyone jumped into their respective vehicles (all SUVs, of course) and headed off in convoy for Aribisi.
It transpired that the bear had been moved from its cage into a room inside the local flour-mill. The consideration that the bears “keepers” were showing it (bringing it in from the cold) showed us that these were people who merely wanted to help. However, finding the owner of the mill proved a little tricky and we spent some time on the wrong side of the door as we heard the sole occupant, a small brown bear, scratching away and, on occasion, actually managing to turn the handle of the locked door.
Eventually, the mill caretaker arrived, unlocked the door and one by one, we filed into the mill to be greeted by a very friendly but obviously distressed bear cub.
Several minutes of patting and stroking ensued as we collectively tried to calm the bear down and, of course, allow the cameraman to get some good footage.
We then allowed the bear to leave the building so that he could get some fresh air and have a roll around in the snow before we attempted to coax him into the crate for transport.
This proved none-too easy, of course, and after a few unsuccessful attempts to gently push him in we had to resort to tipping the box on its end and lowering the terrified cub into it. Its plaintive wailings will stay with me for a while, I’m sure.
Once he was safely inside and loaded onto the back of the car, we could consider the job done. A long, cold day had ended with the successful and relatively trouble-free confiscation of the bear. All that remained was to console the visibly upset caregiver (we assured him that we would let him know when the bear was safely in his new home) and for the EPI to get their paperwork signed.
Now Misha, as the villagers had come to know him, is safely ensconced at Tbilisi zoo while the director works to get the proper paperwork filled in and makes final arrangements for his flight “home” to Romania we he can finally return to doing what he does best; being a bear.