An unsigned, unmarked and often unbarricaded road clings to the edge of a large pool of water. Cows wander across the potholed tarmac, street dogs aimlessly patrol the footpaths and there’s not a car in sight. Back in the UK this route wouldn’t be on a map, but instead we are a few hundred metres from one of the biggest, and most appealing attractions in Kosovo.
2010 doesn’t seem that long ago, especially when driving around in a mid-2000s Skoda Fabia in a country that only declared its independence in 2008. However, only eight years ago this same country had only just taken the first steps towards making private ownership of bears a criminal offence. Cafes and restaurants used to display them to draw in customers, and during the various Serb-Albanian conflicts that gripped the region in the late 90s, and the changes in governance and law that followed, animal welfare went under the radar.
Nowadays, some of these same bears have acres of lush, private land, and enviable views of unspoilt nature that Kosovo seems to have an abundance of, just outside the capital Prishtina, at the Four Paws Bear Sanctuary.
Spokesperson for the sanctuary, Taulant Hoxha, says, “The sanctuary was built at the end of 2012. At that time there was a study saying that in Kosovo there were 13 animals living in captivity, specifically in cages near restaurants around the country. The sanctuary was built at the beginning for these animals with the aim that in the future it will grow to house even more.”
So what was the catalyst for this extraordinary place in the mountains? On our walk through the wooded, and increasingly steep trails, we catch a glimpse of our first bear. It’s clear to see that whilst now they are healthy, thick furred and well fed, there is clearly some lasting damage. Some pace back and forth, some have visibly crooked noses, once broken, and none are fearful of us as we walk by the fences, taking photographs. In fact, some seem to greet us and enjoy the attention, including Kassandra.
Taulant explains, “The project in Kosovo started because of one bear, Kassandra, who is 16 years old now. She had been living in a cage for 11 years at a restaurant in a village called Duhle. In 2012 the restaurant closed, and she was left alone for over a year without any care food, water or shelter. There was a group of KFOR (Kosovar NATO troops) soldiers that used to take care of her and they wanted to find a solution, so they contacted Four Paws International and asked them to try and help this poor bear.
“Kassandra was a very urgent case, so Four Paws rescued her in March 2013, even though the sanctuary was still in the building process, they created a small space for her until they were finished with the enclosures, so at least she could have a roof, food and water.”
The love for the animals at the sanctuary is clear to see, but recent news of the private zoo just over the border in Albania, and stories of street dogs meeting terrible ends goes to show that whilst attitudes towards animals are changing, there is still some way to go.
Taulant says that whilst in Kosovo, “There is no issue with the bears being kept in Captivity and poor conditions, there are in neighbour countries like Albania, FYR Macedonia and Montenegro. Since 2016 we are working with the bears and other wild animals that are kept in captivity in Albania, but still this problem is not yet solved!”
What happened to those animals? “Unfortunately because of some issues that we are facing as a country with CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora), we are not part of it and not allowed to transport the animals from other countries.” Nonetheless, the sanctuary continues to grow, and “if any bear is kept in poor conditions in Kosovo then we would rescue and bring them to the sanctuary.”
On our walk around we find a dog. A common site in our travels across Kosovo, with street dogs almost everywhere. In this case, “Liza is the dog of the sanctuary. she was also rescued as a puppy from the streets, where we had found her abandoned.
“Unfortunately Kosovo is facing a very big issue with stray dogs, and there is not yet a solution to control the population. There has been some support from the government, but we think that there should be a long term plan. One of the reasons why there are so many stray dogs is because of the war, and that the issue was neglected by the responsible institutions and the situation continues to be complicated and every day there are more stray dogs. Small initiatives by individuals or animal lovers are the only actions towards improving this matter, but more needs to be done.”
Along with wolves and wildcats, bears are one of the animals that still roam wild in Kosovo, and the neighbouring countries as far north as Slovenia.
Taulant says, “There are some cases when the wild animals approach settlements. Last year we were called by people living up in the mountains, where bears were going very close to the houses and sometimes destroying their beehives and grain that they usually save for their livestock. Usually they ask for advice for the best way to keep them away, since they don’t want to harm them, but unfortunately there are rare cases when people would kill these animals, not only because they are approaching their houses, but for fun!”
Despite the abundance of wild bears, Taulant says how the bears in the sanctuary “have spent a very long time living in cages, very close with humans and are used to them, they do not fear them and they are also used to humans taking care of them. This means that they wouldn’t readapt to the wild, they would seek out humans, and therefore all the bears that are living at the sanctuary are going to be living here for the rest of their lives.”
The sanctuary is open to the public for EUR 2 per person maximum, you can find out more on their Facebook page, www.facebook.com/pg/PylliiArinjvePrishtina.
article and photography by Tom McBeth