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Are photo-op bears becoming too tame?

Using food to attract wild bears to be photographed by tourists could be making them dependent on humans.

Två björnungar leker på en grön äng. Karhu, karhunpennut
Bear cubs playing. Image: Mostphotos

There are concerns in Finland about how wildlife photography tourism may be affecting the behaviour of wild bears, with public safety officials saying that that current practices do pose some risks.

Hiding in a hunting blind and putting out food to attract animals is one of the most common ways of observing wild brown bears in their natural habitat. Yle reporter Raili Löyttyniemi describes the thrill of a bear-watching experience a few years ago at Kuhmo in the Kainuu region.

"The moment was absolutely breathtaking. A bear was munching its food only a couple of metres away from me. I could hear it snorting, see a cloud of mosquitoes buzzing around it. I could almost touch its rain-soaked fur," says Löyttyniemi.

Story continues after photo.

Istuva karhu, katsoo kohti. Suomaisema.
A bear photographed in the wild by Raili Löyttyniemi. Image: Raili Löyttyniemi / Yle

There are several companies in Finland that offer clients this kind of wildlife experience.

Ilpo Kojola, a research professor at the Natural Resources Institute Finland, says he would like to see more formal research on how this kind of tourism is impacting wild bears. Some, it has been seen, are becoming too used to the presence of humans.

"Some bears have become very familiar with humans. When people are in blinds, they are not invisible, rather they can be seen at close range. Bears get used to these situations and hang around waiting for food," Professor Kojola explains.

The Finnish Safety and Chemicals Agency Tukes looked into the matter last autumn, inspecting nine of the estimated 25 to 30 service providers in the country. The agency issued a statement saying that photography blinds that allow tourists to get close to large carnivores pose a particular risk to local residents, seasonal visitors, hikers and others enjoying the outdoors.

Tukes said it is concerned about the safety of hikers and local residents in the vicinity of photography blinds where tourism operators leave food out to attract predators.

Tukes' inspections of wildlife photography services focused on the operators' safety management policies from the perspective of consumer safety. Tukes’s inspectors also visited the operators’ photography blinds in person and interviewed representatives of the businesses.

All the inspected operators were able to present safety documentation that complied with the Finnish Consumer Safety Act. In a few cases, the inspectors had to ask an operator to revise their policy.

Story continues after photo.

Två björnar i skogen.
Mother bears are very protective of their young. Image: Mostphotos

According to the agency, tourists are mostly at risk when they arrive at the site and when they leave it. Almost all the guides who take tourists to photography blinds are highly experienced and knowledgeable about the dangers. Many also have first-aid training. Based on the inspections, tourists are given plenty of information in advance, and the guides are generally always either present or at least easily reachable.

There have been a few close calls involving individuals who are not part of a group. For example, Tukes's inspectors reported hearing stories about bear hunting and dog training in the vicinity of photography blinds.

The behaviour of some individual bears has probably been affected.

"Bears are extremely intelligent animals and intelligent animals are individuals," Kojola points out.

He notes that bears seem friendly when seen at these photography sites, but there has been no research on how these same individuals act elsewhere.

Story continues after photo.

Karhukolmikko lepää mättäällä.
Wildlife photography services can bring bears together who would otherwise avoid each other. Image: Yle, Kimmo Ohtonen

Two reasons bears approach dwellings

When wolves are sighted close to human habitations, it always aroused concern and debate. Bears also sometimes come close to dwellings. According to Ilpo Kojola, these are almost always young individuals or females with cubs.

Young males, in particular, sometimes wander away from the forests in which they were born and raised and stray into residential areas, even into larger cities. Often hungry, they will eat whatever food they may be able to find.

Mother bears with cubs may approach residential areas for a different reason. They are often seeking refuge from adult males who may kill their young.

"The females have such a strong instinct to protect their cubs that they will take the risk of using humans as a shield," says Kojola.

Gradually spreading

Brown bears are found throughout Finland, but are most common in eastern border areas, and in a narrow corridor extending from the southeast into North Ostrobothnia.

The bear population in the country has expanded by a factor of five since the late 1970s to approximately 2,000 today. And, the population is gradually spreading.

Story continues after photo.

En brunbjörn står i en mörk skog och tittar mot kameran.
There are around 2,000 brown bears in Finland. Image: Mostphotos

There is also a lot of movement back and forth across Finland's border with Russia. According to Professor Kojola, there are some 3,000 bears in the wilds of Russian Karelia, and many bears head there from Finland to get away from humans during the autumn hunting season and stay for winter hibernation.

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