- Scientists tracked 16 adult brown bears using GPS receivers around the city of Sarıkamış in Turkey, and observed that six of them migrated seasonally.
- Between the months of September and November each year, the bears moved from Sarıkamış Forest, a Scots pine forest with few nuts or fruits in the understory, to rich, oak forests located far away.
- But many wild bears are turning to city garbage dumps, instead of trekking long distances for food, the study found, increasing incidences of human-bear conflict.
Turkey’s brown bears migrate long distances in search of food, a new study has found.
This is the first time that migration has been observed in brown bears, co-author Çağan Şekercioğlu of the University of Utah, told Mongabay. “We looked through the literature extensively and could not find any evidence of this seen before in brown bears.”
Şekercioğlu and his team tagged 16 adult brown bears around the city of Sarıkamış, which lies close to the Sarıkamış Forest Allahuekber Mountains National Park (SAMNP), and followed their movements using GPS receivers.
Six of the bears migrated seasonally, the team found.
Between the months of September and November each year, the bears moved from Sarıkamış Forest, a Scots pine forest with few nuts or fruits in the understory, to rich, oak forests located far away. They would stock up on food, then return to Sarıkamış before hibernation, the team observed. These migrations lasted between 23 and 72 days during which the bears covered between 62 to 155 miles, according to the study published in the Journal of Zoology.
“Other bear species do migrate, most notably polar bears. But no one had ever seen migration in brown bears before,” co-author Mark Chynoweth, also from the University of Utah, said in a statement.
The bears’ GPS data revealed an additional surprise: city food was altering the lifestyle of Turkey’s migratory wild bears. Instead of trudging through forests for food, some brown bears were turning to the city’s garbage dumps for their energy supplies. Of the 16 tagged bears, ten bears frequently visited an unfenced dump on the outskirts of the city of Sarıkamış at nights, the team found, foraging on food scraps littered at the dump.
These “dump” bears also behaved differently.
“Dump bears were very tolerant of other bears, other animals, people and vehicles,” Şekercioğlu said. “In one night, I saw up to 32 bears together in the dump and others have seen up to 43 together. The most amazing sight was watching brown bears, wolves, wild boars and dogs feeding on the garbage side by side and also not running away from cars’ headlights. Whereas wild bears mostly run away right away.”
This change in the bears’ behavior could spell trouble, both for the animals and for the people living nearby. Şekercioğlu has seen local people take selfies with the dump bears, for example. This lack of fear in bears and people can also increase poaching, he said.
“In October 2011, a huge male we saw at 1 AM was killed sometime that night by a poacher and we found it at 8 AM,” Şekercioğlu said. “It was over 300 kg and was the biggest bear ever recorded in Turkey.”
But the closing of the garbage dump could also have undesirable outcomes.
“Unfortunately, once the garbage dump closes, as it is planned, I am afraid that the bears will enter the city and the villages, especially if their garbage is not put in bear-proof containers,” Şekercioğlu said. “We have been trying to convince the government and Sarikamis municipality that they must switch to bear-proof containers before closing the dump. Otherwise, there will be much more human-bear conflict and the government is already looking for excuses to open the brown bears to hunting.”
Reducing conflict will be a challenge. Only a tiny portion of the Sarıkamış forest (about 19 square miles) is actually protected, while the rest is heavily logged, grazed upon, and fragmented, forcing the bears to venture deeper into the cities.
However, the team is hopeful. The study found, for example, that the bears’ migratory path coincides with a wildlife corridor currently in the process of being reforested. This is especially important because the bears’ long distance movements suggest that the bears living in the SAMNP could be potentially connected with the larger bear population of the Black Sea mountains in northern Turkey and Georgia, the researchers say.
“We hope that this corridor, by providing more forest and increasing forest connectivity, will encourage more bears to move or migrate to the wet Black Sea or Caucasus forests,” Şekercioğlu said. “It is pretty hard for garbage bears to give up garbage.”
- Cozzi G., et al (2016) Anthropogenic food resources foster the coexistence of distinct life history strategies: year-round sedentary and migratory brown bears. Journal of Zoology. DOI: 10.1111/jzo.12365