Spain’s only captive Cantabrian brown bears, Paca and Tola, have been Asturias’ favourite sisters for the past decade – but now it is hoped they will become the region’s most famous mothers
IT all began as a tragedy: a female Cantabrian brown bear was shot by a poacher, leaving two young cubs orphaned. Worse still, the illegal hunter made off with the live bear cubs, which were not then seen for months.
Eventually, after a tip-off from a member of the public, the cubs were rescued by Seprona, the nature protection division of the Guardia Civil, with the help of animal protection group Fapas.
Next came the problem of what to do with two semi-tame, semi-wild animals – the bears had been in the company of humans for so long that releasing them into the wild was no longer an option.
First they were named: Tola got hers from the person (Antolín or Tolo for short) who blew the whistle on the poacher while Paca was the name of the wife of the president of Fapas.
Then they needed a home. After a brief stay with Fapas in Llanas, the sisters lived in Barcelona and then in Cuenca while they were waiting for their enclosure to be built. The Fundación Oso de Asturias was to be responsible for the bears’ new home near the village of Proaza in inland Western Asturias.
And what an enclosure it is: the bears are described as living in “semi-liberty” rather than captivity, as their five hectare home – the Cercado Osero – covers an entire hillside of Monte Fernanchín.
They moved into their palatial estate – which was financed by local government the Principado de Asturias – on May 26, 1996 and have been there ever since.
The bears can be found at a stop on the spectacular Senda del Oso, a 20 kilometre cycle path linking the picturesque towns of Trubia and Santa Maria.
An electric fence keeps the siblings inside the Cercado Osero but, according to their keeper, it is harder to keep wild bears out than Paca and Tola in: the story goes that a female bear managed to make her way in once but was chased off by the defensive ursines before she could get near to their food supply.
The sisters are certainly not short of a meal; they forage for their own food on the mountainside, but are fed every day at midday by a keeper.
Feeding time usually draws quite a crowd as it is the only time Paca and Tola are guaranteed to be spotted in their vast hillside retreat.
Eager onlookers watch as the bears devour a mountain of oranges, apples and pears and finish it all off with protein-rich peanuts.
The two sisters have very distinct personalities, Tola – although the largest of the two – is more shy and reserved, while Paca is more confident and dominant. Both characters have captured the imagination of Asturias and have become treasured symbols of the region.
The problem now, however, is that the biological clock of the much-loved bears is ticking away. And with only 160 Cantabrian Brown Bears thought to exist in the wild, time is running out for a successful breeding program to produce Paca and Tola cubs.
“They are already 18 years old,” explained Carlos Zapico, the director of Fundación Oso de Asturias. “And although there are records of females becoming mothers at over 20 years of age, we shouldn’t forget the more years that pass, the lower the probability that Paca and Tola will reproduce.”
But the practicalities of reproduction are complex, Paca and Tola are the only Cantabrian Brown Bears in captivity – hence there is no male suitor of the same sub-species who is accustomed to life in an enclosure.
Artificial insemination from a wild male of the same sub-species (Ursus arctos) is therefore the only option to advance the same genetic line but – and this is where it gets complicated – artificial insemination is rarely successful in bears who have not previously reproduced.
So, the plan is to encourage the bears to first breed naturally with a captive male of the ‘wrong’ sub-species.
The Fundación Oso de Asturias announced in November this “fertility test” will commence in the spring of 2008 when a non-Cantabrian male will be introduced to the sisters’ enclosure.
“We will only know if this experiment has been successful in 2009 after Paca and Tola hibernate” explained Zapico.
“If bear cubs appear we will have proved that they can be mothers and we can continue with the reproduction project.”
In the meantime, Asturias will be watching closely and hoping that some new arrivals will soon be rolling around in the Cercado Osero.
Meanwhile, a restaurant in Asturias is being investigated for serving bear meat on its menu.
Officers from the Guardia Civil raided the un-named restaurant in Oviedo where they found diners could order meat from the brown bear.
It is claimed the restaurant owner, who faces a 600-euro fine, illegally bought the meat from East Europe without the correct documentation.