Bears Return to Switzerland: On the Trail of Bruno's Brothers

By Tom Armitage in Zurich

While Germany follows the antics of polar bear cub Knut, Switzerland has been visited in recent weeks by two brown bears, sibblings of Bruno, an ursine renegade who roamed the Bavarian alps in 2006. But the Swiss are taking extra precautions after a close encounter between a bear and a child caused alarm in 2005.

Swiss television captured footage of one of a roaming bear believed to be the brother of Bruno, the brown bear shot and killed in Germany one year ago. The footage was broadcast on July 16 on the "10 vor 10" program.
Schweizer Fernsehen

Swiss television captured footage of one of a roaming bear believed to be the brother of Bruno, the brown bear shot and killed in Germany one year ago. The footage was broadcast on July 16 on the "10 vor 10" program.

Two brown bears thought to be Bruno’s siblings have been spotted on the prowl in eastern Switzerland. The bears are both thought to be young males from the same family as Bruno or JJ1, who was shot after a rampage through Bavaria last summer. A Swiss TV crew for the news program "10 vor 10" captured one of the elusive animals on film this week as it roamed around the Swiss Alps near the Flüela Pass in the southeastern corner of the country.

"We can’t be sure which one it was as the paths of these two bears got crossed so many times," Georg Brosi, head of the cantonal hunting and fisheries department in the region of Graubünden, told SPIEGEL ONLINE.

One of the bears has been identified by traces of fur as JJ3 -- a male bear born last year to the same parents as Bruno. The other bear is believed to be MJ4 -- also a young male and a half brother to Bruno and JJ3.

The last native Swiss bear was killed in 1904, some 60 years after the brown bear population in Germany was wiped out. The recent visitors all come from the same nature reserve in Italy, where a European Union-funded project has helped to reintroduce the animals.

A Diet of Mutton and Honey

Since they arrived in Switzerland in mid-June, the mischievous pair has terrorized flocks of sheep left untended by Swiss farmers on the high Alpine pastures over the summer.

"These two bears have killed about 30 sheep so far," Brosi said. They have also developed a taste for mountain honey after raiding hilltop beehives.

While Swiss hunters and farmers have called on the animals to be killed, Brosi said the two were safe for now.

"At the moment they are just doing what is natural," he said.

Bruno had a similar appetite and was accused of raiding farms and small-pens for sheep and chickens. Bavaria’s environment minister said Bruno was a "risk" because he showed no fear towards humans.

The midnight feeding forays got to be too much for the pragmatic Bavarians and an unknown hunter shot and killed the animal last June after the state government issued the order to cull the renegade bear. Animal lovers were outraged and authorities in Italy asked for the return of the animal’s carcass. Bavarian officials rejected the request.

Bruno’s visit highlighted the work of the Italy-based, EU-funded project "Ursus," created in 1996 to protect the local brown bear population and repopulate the German-Austrian-Italian border region with bears. Bruno's parents, Joze and Jurka, were two of several bears relocated to the region from Slovenia to kick-start the program.

No Teddy Bear

Conservationists in Switzerland welcome the return of the bears to their natural habitat but are keen to warn visitors to the Alps of the dangers the bears present.

The first bear to return to the country was JJ2 or Lumpaz, who created a tourist frenzy in the southern Engadine region of Switzerland when it strayed over the Italian border in 2005. Lumpaz means "rascal" in the local Rhaeto-Romansch dialect.

"There was virtually no free bed to be had in the region as the return of the bear had been so hyped," said Mark Ehrsam of conservation group Pro Natura.

Unfortunately, some of Lumpaz’s stalkers proved a little bit too keen.

"The problem with this bear was that it was not afraid of humans and therefore there was a fairly high likelihood of bumping in to him in the mountains," he said.

A video posted on the Internet of a woman and a child gleefully running towards a bear on a mountain path prompted concern that bear fans were behaving irresponsibly.

"The bear just wandered off but it could have been very different," Ehrsam said.

Pro Natura is distributing leaflets and advising tourists and hikers to keep well away from this year’s visitors, should anyone encounter the bears on their travels.

"We all had teddy bears as children and people often underestimate the dangers," he said. "Someone who is behaving incorrectly is not only putting themselves at risk but the bear as well. Because if something happens, people are going to blame the bear."

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