An endangered subspecies of the Eurasian brown bear stalks the mountains and ancient woodlands of Asturias, Spain. Once in grave danger of disappearing, the population is now recovering, thanks to the work of dedicated conservationists. The brown bear has always been an important animal in Spanish culture. As such, it features heavily in folklore, history, and heraldry, and is notably the symbol of the country’s capital city, Madrid.
Though the bears primarily eat plants such as acorns, wild cherries, madronos, and fungi and prey on wildlife, they have a bit of a sweet tooth, and as such occasionally raid beehives. Honey is an important product of the local economy, and the destruction of the hives and honeycombs frustrate local beekeepers. On rare occasions, bears may also kill livestock, angering farmers whose livelihoods are negatively impacted.
In the past, rural communities responded by organizing hunts for the bears. Tragically, as a result of overhunting and persecution, the bear population declined to near extinction levels by the 1970s and the animals were only found in the northern part of Spain. But because of the efforts of conservationists, the species was given legal protection, allowing this last population some respite to recover.
Conservation groups have established a means of reducing bear-induced damage to rural livelihoods. Electrically fenced enclosures are erected around beehives, and farmers and shepherds are given mastiff dogs, which keep the bears at bay.
Another important tool of bear conservation has been the development of ecotourism excursions to observe these animals from an unobtrusive distance. By taking an eco-tour to see the bears, visitors to Asturias play an important role in changing perceptions of the animal by supporting the local economy.