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MARKOVEC (Slovenia), August 6 (AFP) - When he used to go hunting, Miha Mlakar would dream of killing a bear. But today the 33-year-old from Slovenia makes his living watching the animals, peacefully, in their natural forest environment.

The turnaround to shooting bears with a camera, not a rifle, puts Mlakar, who runs bear observation tours, in step with wider efforts in the small Alpine nation to promote the coexistence of humans and bears.

Once on the verge of extinction, Slovenia’s brown bear population is booming, with the number roaming the sprawling forests having doubled in the last decade to around 1,000.

As a result, encounters with bears have increased - not that it seems to unduly worry everyone.

“If you run into a bear, you have to step back... (But) there is no danger. The bear also prefers to move away,” Ljubo Popovic, a 67-year-old pensioner who lives in the village of Banja Loka in the southern Kocevje region, told AFP.

Lying an hour to the west, near Markovec village, Mlakar has built 20 hides in a remote patch of forest reachable only by off-road vehicle and takes visitors, including foreign tourists, to observe the bears.

“I cannot imagine this forest without bears. Bears make the forest wild and pristine, natural, like it was a few hundred or thousand years ago... I feel a connection with bears,” he tells AFP.

Slovenian bears are even sought after abroad.

Between 1996 and 2006, eight Slovenian bears were released in the French Pyrenees, and France currently has a population of about 40 bears, whose presence divides opinion in regions where they live.

In Slovenia, more than 60 per cent of respondents in a 2016 survey carried out in areas where bears live said they were in favour of the bears’ presence, even if many also said they would like to see the numbers regulated.

“We have an average of one to three cases of physical contact between bears and humans per year,” Rok Cerne, of the Slovenia Forest Service in charge of wildlife, told AFP.

“Fortunately, we haven’t registered any serious incident over the last years,” he added, stressing they were “very active in preventive measures”.

PARIS, March 28 (AFP) — Female brown bears have learned to protect themselves from being shot by spending more time caring for their young as they adapt to legislation banning the hunting of mothers with cubs.

The finding, published Tuesday in the journal Nature Communications, was made by a team of international researchers who spent 22 years studying data on the reproductive strategy and survival of Scandinavian brown bears.

“Man is now an evolutionary force in the lives of the bears,” said Professor Jon Swenson from the Norwegian University of Life Sciences (NMBU).

In Sweden, Scandinavian brown bears — Ursus arctos — are heavily hunted and anyone can hunt without having a specific licence, but bears in family groups are protected by law.

“A single female in Sweden is four times more likely to be shot as one with a cub,” said Swenson, one of the authors of the study who has spent more than 30 years working with one of the world’s longest-running research projects on bears.

Over the scope of the study, the researchers found that some female bears began to adapt their mothering tactics in order to increase their survival chances — the ursine equivalent of a human shield.

In that time, some mother bears extended the period of care from 18 months to 2.5 years.

“Generally, the cubs have followed their mother for a year and a half,” said Swenson, with the researchers finding no evidence of the longer care period before 1995.

‘A hunter-induced change’

But over the past two decades that has changed with more cubs now staying with their mothers for an additional year, thereby increasing the survival chances for both the mother and her offspring.

“As long as a female has cubs, she is safe. This hunting pressure has resulted in a change in the proportion of females that keep their cubs for 1.5 years in relation to those that keep them for 2.5 years,” the study found.

Between 2005 and 2015, the number of females keeping their cubs with them for an extra year rose from 7 per cent to 36 per cent.

Speaking to AFP, Swenson said that although hunting had also impacted on other species, few showed such a marked change as the bears.

“This seems to be the first study that strongly suggests a hunter-induced change in the frequency of maternal-care strategies,” he said.

“There are examples of hunting systems where females with young are protected, either by legislation or hunter preference, but few species show such a variation in the length of the maternal bond as bears,” he told AFP.

Impact on breeding

Bears are not the only species for which human practices have forced a change in evolution, the study’s lead author Joanie van de Walle told AFP.

“In our lab, we have documented a decrease in horn length of bighorn sheep at Ram Mountain, Alberta, over time due to trophy hunting that targets individuals with the largest horns,” she said, referring to a species of sheep known as Ovis canadensis.

“Rams with smaller horns are not targeted and thus survive and reproduce better.”

Among the bears, the extended caring period acted to slow down their life cycle, reducing their breeding possibilities as the females do not breed until their offspring are weaned.

Although shorter periods of maternal care provide more reproductive opportunities, the research found that this cost was offset by the higher survival rate among both the mothers and their cubs.

“This is especially true in areas of high hunting pressure. There, the females that keep their cubs the extra year have the greatest advantage,” Swenson said.

In Sweden, the hunting season starts in late August and runs to mid-October. Between 2010 and 2014, hunters there shot about 300 bears per year.

In the 1930s, there were only about 130 brown bears in Sweden but following the implementation of a range of protective measures, the population recovered rapidly and by 2013 it stood at around 2,800.