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The Strange Mystery of the Alien Bears of Bulgaria

New genetic analysis suggests that a deranged Romanian dictator, who relished bear hunting, flew them there.
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A brown bear in the Kormisosh enclosure in the Rhodope mountain region of Bulgaria. (Photo: Aleksandar Dutsov/Balkani Wildlife Society)

A brown bear in the Kormisosh enclosure in the Rhodope mountain region of Bulgaria. (Photo: Aleksandar Dutsov/Balkani Wildlife Society)

Somewhere in the bucolic forests of Bulgaria's Rhodope mountains, several brown bears (Ursus arctos) are wandering around with genetic material that looks very different from the DNA of the rest of the regional population. Instead, the interlopers' forensics actually mirror the genotypes of bear populations in Romania's Carpathian mountain range, which is hundreds of miles and many geographic obstacles away.

Bears are known to traverse vast distances, but a migration is an especially improbable explanation for their presence in this case, according to a group of European wildlife researchers who recently analyzed hundreds of samples of bear feces, hair, and tissue from Romania and Bulgaria. In a new study published in Conservation Genetics, the scientists argue that although there are arguments to be made about "a potential wildlife corridor between" the two countries, some segments of the route have seen "no evidence [of] recent bear presence." And the disparate genetic profiles do not point to mating.

In fact, the seven genetic samples and the locations of their discovery actually point to a much wilder theory: one of political intrigue and "human-mediated translocations." But what sort of human transports bears, you say? The researchers suggest that their movement has something to do with Romania's deranged former dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, a Communist who fiercely ruled the country from the late 1960s to 1989, when he was deposed and executed by his own army. His insatiable thirst for bear blood has been quite well-documented. According to a feature that appeared in The Atlantic in 2003, the man was obsessed with the sport:

Beginning in the late 1960s Ceausescu made himself the hunter in chief of Romanian forests as well as the commander in chief of the military. He arrogated hundreds of hunting areas—all the best of them, as far as large game was concerned—to his personal use. Forest managers at the district level, and the hunting wardens who worked for them, and the gamekeepers who reported to the wardens, came to realize that any estimable animal emerging within their purview was an animal the Conducator might want to kill. They recognized that pandering to his bloodlust, to his lazy greed for trophies, was good professional politics. One district competed against another for his visits, offering big bears and rack-heavy stags as easy targets for his expensive imported rifles. 

Estimates vary, but the Conducator probably shot somewhere between several hundred and more than 1,000 brown bears during his lifetime. But what does a Romanian autocrat's preoccupation with rifling down the beasts before he died in the 1980s have anything to do with the Romanian bears living in Bulgaria today?

Though there are no extant documents to memorialize a transfer, rumors and memories among foresters and game wardens indicate that, during the 1970s and '80s, Ceausescu ordered Carpathian bears to be flown by military plane to certain "enclosures" in Bulgaria, where there weren't as many of the beasts available for hunting. Some of the structures (one is pictured above) actually still exist, according to the scientists, and several of the Romanian genotypes were found near these locations.

But why exactly would a military despot go handing out his precious bears?

In an email, Carsten Nowak, a co-author of the paper and a wildlife geneticist at Senckenberg Research Institute and Natural History Museum Frankfurt, explained the potential logic:

Carpathian bears are considered among the largest bears in Europe; the former Bulgarian leader, Todor Zhivko, obviously wanted to kind of follow up on Ceausescu's hunting "success", but there were (and still are) less bears in Bulgaria and [they] tend to be smaller. I guess Ceausescu provided the bears as a gift, but I guess no one knows the exact reasons.

Co-author Csaba Domokos, a bear expert at a wildlife protection organization based in Romania, suggested that the gesture was geared toward reinforcing alliances and had actually been attempted more than once. "On the hearsay level, supposedly Romania also tried to do the same to Sweden, but the airplane that contained the bears was turned around from a Swedish airport," he wrote in an email.

Despite the air of mystery, certain patterns led the scientists to conclude that the dictator's supposed deliveries, and not a long migration, were the most sensible explanation for the presence of the oddball bears:

First, three of the six successfully sexed animals [were] females, which are known to be less prone to long-distance dispersal. Second, all migrant genotypes were not found close to the potential migration corridor in the western part of the Southern Carpathians and the Stara Planina, but six of them occurred in the Rhodopes, which would require to pass across a second corridor between Stara Planina and the Rhodopes. These facts, as well as the finding of four of the seven Carpathian genotypes within a few kilometers of the two known bear enclosures that were used to keep the bears after translocation provides clear evidence in favor of the translocation hypothesis.

So there you have it. Though the scientists have not disproved the possibility of a natural migration (in fact, they encourage further study), they remain confident in their analysis. The strange findings, they conclude, emphasize "the importance of considering past human impacts when interpreting genetic patterns in wild populations."