Albania’s Caged Bears Enjoy Freer Life in Kosovo

Bears once held in grim captivity in Albania are adapting to a new life in a sanctuary in Kosovo, encouraging many in Albania to create their own safe haven.

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After being tormented in a cage for two years, forlorn brown bear Tomi left Albania and found a new, better home in Kosovo one month ago.

The five-year-old bear who had been kept in captivity in dismal conditions to “entertain” visitors to a restaurant in the north of Tirana has now been rehoused at a sanctuary near Lake Badovc, 21 kilometres from Pristina.

Once described in the international media as the saddest bear in the world, Tomi on Thursday was enjoying playing and catching apples in a green open area of the so-called Animal Forest of Pristina.

“Like no other bear in the centre, Tomi has enjoyed his new home since the first day, always playing and looking content,” Fitore Berisha, a guide in the centre, told BIRN.

Afrim Mahmuti, representative of Four Paws organisation and director of the Pristina animal sanctuary, told BIRN that Tomi and two other bears brought from Albania, called Xhina and Pashuk, were still in the rehabilitation phase.

“They have experienced misery and now their physical and mental health is slowly improving. The three Albanian bears have been kept in critical conditions and isolation for years, so the process is going to be a long ride,” Mahmuti said.

Pashuku, who before coming to Pristina needed a surgical operation to remove an iron chain stuck inside his neck, also seems to be enjoying his new life.

On the other hand, Xhina, another “restaurant bear” from Albania, still seems frightened and nervous. She runs inside her den every time humans approach. The park caretakers hope that she will overcome her anxiety one day.

Three Albanians bears are among 16 rehomed in Kosovo, a country that seems to have had some success when it comes to its bear sanctuary.

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Work on the centre in Pristina started in 2012, after news broke of the grim phenomenon of captured bears being used to entertain people for profit.

The international organisation, Four Paws, entered into negotiations with the government of Kosovo while a foundation was created to manage the centre.

The Pristina Municipality donated free use of 16 hectares for 10 years, while supporting it also by building a nearby road that will bring visitors to the centre.

In its four years of existence, the centre has gathered 19 bears formerly held in captivity, from three to 17 years in age, while employing 16 mainly young people from the Pristina area as staff.

Animal Forest of Pristina Director Mahmuti said the park has become an important tourist destination for Kosovo. During the first nine months of this year alone, around 30,000 people bought tickets to visit it.

“We are not only taking care of the bears but are also organising training with children and young people on how they can protect nature and wild animals. With the help of volunteers from all over Europe, we are helping different campaigns to protect the environment in Kosovo,” he said.

But having the main focus on bears, Mahmuti said they consider it a major success that during 2015 and 2016 no new cases of bears kept in cages in Kosovo were reported.

Albania Learns From Neighbour’s Experience

Albania has a more problematic situation over bears kept in captivity. Around 50 bears are still stuck in various cages all over the country.

“One in six of all Albanian bears is in captivity and this is a very disturbing situation,” Megi Hafizi, from Animal Rescue Albania, ARSA, said.

A delegation from the Albanian Ministry of Environment, the Tirana Municipality and organisations protecting animals and the environment met in Pristina on Thursday to learn lessons on how a similar sanctuary can be set up in Tirana.

In April, the Ministry asked organisations in the region and in Europe to help it set up a shelter for rescued bears.

Some 18 bears were rescued or are in process of being rescued during 2016. The ministry was helped by Four Paws and by local organisations in this task.

But the process of sending bears abroad is costly and creating a sanctuary in Albania is essential if Albania wants to rescue all the bears now stuck in captivity.

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The Albanian Ministry of Environment, Four Paws and Tirana Municipality are now in the process of building a centre. Mt Dajti near Tirana is considered the best location.

“We have identified an area of 17 hectares on Mt Dajti, which is considered a strategic position for creating a centre like that,” Artenisa Peculaj, a specialist from the national agency for protected areas, said.

What is missing is money. Based on the Kosovo experience, more than one million euros will be needed to start a bear sanctuary and the high annual cost is calculated to run to several hundred thousand euros.

The Pristina sanctuary spent 160,000 euros during 2015 on bear food and maintenance alone.

Albanian institutions are hoping to gather enough donations for the creation of this centre, as financing it from the state budget is not an option.

Originally reported by BalkanInsight.

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