A brown bear was found dead in the Catalan Pyrenees region of Spain on April 9th of this year. Local authorities discovered the body of the bear, named Cachou, after his tracking device showed no movement for days. The necropsy results posit that another bear killed Cachou and then pushed him off a cliff—a fantastical account swiftly challenged by multiple conservation groups. What happened next is becoming an increasingly familiar tale in which tradition and tourism are seemingly valued over wildlife protection. As with many other human-wildlife conflicts, this story involves the usual suspects: livestock farmers, environmental organizations, and a regional government caught in between.
Given his many local human detractors, Cachou’s death was likely no accident. Animal agriculture-affiliated groups have long been pressuring the Catalan government to remove bears from the area, and Cachou’s proclivity for attacking livestock made him a prominent target. Suspecting that Cachou was deliberately poisoned, non-governmental organizations including World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Spain, the League for the Defense of Natural Heritage, and the Catalan Institution for the Study and Conservation of the Natural Environment (IPCENA) have expressed skepticism regarding the necropsy report’s findings; collectively they are requesting a more in-depth investigation. According to a WWF representative, the report’s inadequacy and premature release “feeds the climate of mistrust” surrounding the circumstances of Cachou’s death.
The modern-day presence of bears in the Pyrenees mountain range and its surrounding areas, spanning across Spain, France, and Andorra, is a human-orchestrated effort. Cachou’s recent death occurred 25 years after wild bears were first reintroduced to the Pyrenees as a protected species; they are native to the region but were hunted in the 1950s to near-global extinction. In 1996, the regional governments reintroduced two Slovenian female bears, followed one year later by a male named Pyros (after whom the area’s bear reintroduction project, Pyroslife, is named). Today, around 50 bears freely roam the Pyrenees and survive without the need for human interventions. While most don’t disturb the local human population, the few bears who do indirectly interfere with humans, threatening their livelihoods by attacking their livestock, are those who attract the most public attention. Scientifically speaking, the brown bear’s reintroduction to the Pyrenees has been a success, but certain groups that represent livestock farmers—wielding heavy political influence—characterize the program as a threat to the local economy.
The bears’ reintroduction to the Pyrenees, since it began, has been widely politicized due to how it conflicts with the interests of livestock farmers. The French government’s failure to educate the public about the program’s ecological importance, coupled with the area’s high number of bear attacks on the livestock of farmers—who have consistently demanded the program’s halt and garnered public sympathy in the process—may help to explain the program’s opposition on the French side of the Pyrenees. On the Catalan side, the program’s initial social acceptance rapidly diminished when the government introduced Cachou’s predecessor, a bear named Goiat.
Relocated to the Pyrenees from Slovenia in 2016, Goiat is widely seen as a major problem for both livestock farmers and the Catalan government. From 2017 through 2019, Goiat killed many sheep, cows, goats, and horses, sparking a wave of protests against government inaction to stop the attacks. The Catalan government responded by developing an intervention protocol that allows wildlife officers to kill or hold captive bears who are considered extremely problematic and for whom milder preliminary measures prove ineffective. Goiat is undeterred by alarm guns meant to frighten him and fungicide-coated livestock carrion meant to discourage him from attacking, yet no further actions have yet been taken. The social reaction to these non-lethal measures—considered excessive by some environmentalist organizations and insufficient by many livestock farmers—is seeming to dissuade the Catalan government from treating Goiat more harshly. The controversial measures, coupled with Cachou’s mysterious killing, are combining to create a politically tense atmosphere.
The intervention measures designed for Goiat also failed to deter Cachou when he began attacking farmed animals. Cachou’s and Goiat’s attacks, considered together, have disabused the public of the notion that the threat to livestock is isolated to just one problematic bear. The collective actions of Cachou and Goiat have greatly decreased the local population’s initial acceptance of the bear reintroduction program. Anti-bear demonstrations recently began proliferating in both Spain and France—and soon thereafter Cachou was found dead. Environmentalists who believe that Cachou was murdered are now demanding that the Catalan government implement a comprehensive strategy to protect Goiat, who allegedly continues to attack livestock.
The Catalan government is attempting to reduce political opposition to bear reintroduction by a somewhat unusual approach, by combining attack prevention methods with compensation to farmers for lost livestock. A law passed in 1985 already granted economic remuneration, at above-market rates, to farmers who lose livestock animals to wildlife attacks; the government in 2007 updated this law to explicitly include brown bear attacks. The government now also provides farmers with shepherds. Along with herding dogs, the shepherds protect farmed animals against all predators, day and night throughout the summer season. Shepherds, in keeping with custom, guard livestock while leading them from pasture to pasture; with help from their specially-trained dogs, they effectively deter predators like bears. Not all livestock farmers have accepted the offer of a shepherd, as doing so may require cooperating with other farmers to merge their respective flocks—shepherds manage larger and denser herds than many of those owned by individual farmers. Other farmers welcome the support of shepherds and perceive them as beneficial to their bottom lines.
The Catalan government is attempting to both bolster the perceived success of the attack prevention program and increase local tolerance for the reintroduced bears. By reintroducing shepherds to modern farms, the government is positioning its livestock attack prevention scheme as a cultural revitalization—it boasts of restoring, in less than two decades, the area’s historical shepherding tradition. Government-sponsored initiatives characterize the brown bear and the shepherd both as not only culturally significant, but also economically beneficial. In 2017, the Catalan tourism board unveiled a plan to promote as a tourist attraction the regional presence of brown bears and shepherds, aiming to provide visitors with authentic “rurality” experiences. For tourists, who are largely oblivious to the ongoing regional conflicts, brown bears and shepherds idyllically symbolize “wild” yet “rural” pastoral landscapes—oversimplified perceptions that do little to alleviate local discontent.
Pursuing political stability, the Catalan government persists in bargaining the bears’ presence. The government routinely proposes concessions like substituting one bear with another from a different population, in effect characterizing bears like Cachou and Goiat as replaceable members of the bear population rather than as protected individuals. The moral and political shortcomings of the Catalan government’s approach to coexistence between bears and human-owned livestock are obvious to many conservationists. The translocation of individual bears only creates new ethical problems; even if a bear is rightfully moved to a sanctuary or other suitable location, he or she may experience stress-induced health impacts as a result of the relocation. Meanwhile, livestock are prey animals whom humans deliberately breed in large numbers—knowing that they are vulnerable to predation—and who are fated to premature slaughter under almost every circumstance. Most of the human actors involved in this conflict seem to completely neglect the perspectives of, and any moral consideration for, the animals themselves—an oversight that renders any “solution” incomplete at best and unethical at worst.
Conservationists remain concerned for the safety of Goiat, and a comprehensive judicial enquiry investigating Cachou’s death is ongoing under a secrecy order. Sadly, in June, another bear was found dead in the French Pyrenees—this time shot by an unknown perpetrator in what IPCENA condemns as a “cowardly and clearly criminal act against wildlife.” The tragic endings of Cachou and his latest contemporary are just another chapter in the mountain range’s history of conflict between humans and wildlife—a conflict that encompasses mass species extinction and attempted rewildings of other species such as bearded vultures and wild goats. To bridge the ideological gaps between wildlife activists and other concerned constituencies in the Pyrenees and around the world, the perspectives of both animals as individuals and humans with legitimate needs must be acknowledged. Recognizing the rightful presence of nonhuman animals of all species—even those whose interests conflict directly with our own—is a first step toward truly inclusive conservation.
Guillem Rubio is a Ph.D. scholar at the University of Edinburgh. His research interests lie at the intersection of human-animal studies, political ecology, and geographies of identity. He has previously worked at the Centre for Contemporary Culture of Barcelona and earned his MPhil in Development, Environment, and Cultural Change at the Centre for the Development and the Environment in Oslo.