It’s five hours that we are looking out of these small windows, trying to spot every little movement around us. We are motionless, stationed in this wooden photo-hide in the heart of the Lož forest, in Slovenia: careful not to move, not to speak or to make any kind of noise. For five hours we have been hoping to see a bear appearing in the bushes nearby, but nothing happened. We decide to put our gear back in the backpacks, incredibly sad and disheartened.
Heavy rain falls incessantly and it's almost dark: we don't want to give up, but the afternoon has been endless and tense, with our senses always alert. Throughout the day, every protuberance, every shade on a rock, every bird flying among the fronds seemed to us an approaching bear: the hope turned into a kind of vision every time, every time disappointing our expectations.
Yesterday we had an introductory meeting at the Tourist Information Centre (TIC) in Lož, a small town 50 km south of Ljubljana, 80 east of Trieste, 15 from the border with Croatia. They explained to us how to behave in bear country and they briefed us about the brown bears, that are not sharp-sighted animals but have an exceptional sense of smell and hearing. This means no perfumes and no creams: unrecognised smells, like unusual noises, would keep bears away from the watching places.
This part of southern Slovenia, the Inner Carniola, is significantly populated by brown bears. This year (2019) they are approximately 900, concentrated in a rather small territory: the highest density of brown bears in Europe. These bears are predominantly vegetarian, and when they eat meat they generally feed on carrions: it is not so frequent for them to kill to survive. They are honey and fruit lovers and the local farmers have to protect their orchards and their beehives with electrified fences. The same precaution is taken by the local breeders, as also the livestock might be at risk. The bear is a shy and charismatic animal. It is not only an extremely strong mammal, but also very fast despite its size, its sturdy built and its apparent clumsiness.
The inhabitants of the Inner Carniola villages have been living for decades with these wonderful but feared neighbours, whose number is constantly on the rise. The strategies put in place to make cohabitation possible include the set-up of feeding stations where food (typically corn) is left for bears in the middle of the forest. This measure, if carefully managed, seems to discourage their roaming in proximity of the villages - especially in times of food shortage - without undermining their wildness and their ability to get the food independently. These stations can also become bear-watching stations: sightings are obviously never guaranteed and it is always possible that bears don’t show up during the observation time.
When, after five hours of stillness and waiting, we see a bear's head pop up from the slope of the mountain, it’s dusk. We stare at him dumbfounded, we look at each other to be sure we’ve both seen him. We open our mouths as if to scream but without making a sound, we squeeze our hands, burning with adrenaline and joy. Trying to make as little noise as possible, we take out our photo-gear again and start taking pictures. Then we stop: for a while, we just look at the bear in amazed contemplation. We do not know how much time we have, and we allow ourselves the luxury of spying on him from our hide with pounding hearts. He is an adult male. The thick fur, that the rain darkens and makes shine, the voracious jaws, the enormous paws, the perennially listening ears: a divine animal.
Ten minutes later, when he turns his back to us and continues on his way through the forest, we leave the hide where we have been motionless for endless hours and go back to the car along the muddy path, under the incessant rain.
We return to the Guest House of Jure, who entertains us with the fascinating stories of his land, of the hunters of dormice, badgers, birds of prey and long winters, while cooking polenta and mushrooms in honour of the land we come from. We drink his home-made plum liqueur and the infusion he makes with the forest herbs, sweetened with the neighbour's honey.
The fact that the bears have chosen this land of great beekeepers to live and reproduce so happily is not a coincidence. The warmth of the room and of our host makes us forget the damp, cold long day in the forest. We feel blessed.
Jure also shows us the ethnographic museum he is setting up next to the guest house: a collection of precious objects and stories that deserves a visit, because it’s full of the small treasures of a land that does not want to lose its roots.
The day after we leave for Ljubljana, where we meet the university researchers with whom we have been in contact for years to follow the fantastic achievements of their conservation and responsible tourism projects. At the university, we are taken into a room where there is a giant map of Europe, on which there are shown the paths that the radio-collared bears and the lynxes have made in the last few months.
The amount of miles they have walked in search of new lands, of mates and food is incredible. The researchers update us on the lynx project, and tell us how the transfers from Romania are stepping further: a total of 10 lynxes will be introduced on the Dinaric Alps and hopefully they will help to avoid the extinction of this species in the region.
Will lynxes be the reason why we will travel to Slovenia next time?
LOŽ TOURIST INFORMATION CENTER
A key place to start your journey in the fantastic world of European brown bears. You will be briefed about the bears, the local culture, the best code of conduct and the tours you can choose among.
TIC Lož - Brown Bear Visitor Centre
Cesta 19. oktobra 49
1386 Stari trg pri Ložu
Tel .: +386 (0) 81 602 853
Email: [email protected]
Bear-watching experience and wildlife photography tours, 24 huts located in 8 different areas in the forests of Lož. Miha, the owner of Slovenian Bears, also has a guest house and offers all-inclusive packages.
Miha Mlakar, Mlakar Markovec d.o.o.
Markovec 15a, 1386 Stari Trg pri Ložu
Tel .: +386 (0) 41 582 081
Email: [email protected]
Guest House in the heart of the forest, with its Ethnographic Museum
Dolenje Poljane 3, 1386 Stari trg pri Ložu (Slovenia)
Tel .: +386 (0) 41 810 596
Email: [email protected]
GPS: 45.683160, 14.539468