Bulgaria is among the European countries with very large population of brown bears(Ursus arctos). Hunting of the protected species is prohibited, which is the reason why its numbers have increased in recent years, turning the brown bear into... a tourist attraction.
Bulgarian tourists are not particularly impressed by the huge beast, perceived in this country rather as a pest that sometimes comes down to the settlements in search of food and topples over garbage bins.
On the other hand, foreign nature lovers are ready to travel thousands of kilometers and spend hours, in the forest - in silence, barely breathing - to catch a glimpse of a bear from afar, to enjoy the emotion and to photograph the beast.
About 70 animals have been counted in the forests near the Rhodope town of Devin, says Vladimir Peykov from the Devin branch of the Bulgarian Hunting & Angling Union, which has been organizing "bear tours" for foreign photo hunters for years. Peykov and his colleagues have built four wildlife observation hides in the vicinities of Devin and the picturesque village of Yagodina. "The brown bear is a nocturnal animal. As big and scary as it is, it is afraid of humans and comes out after dark. That is why the sightings are at night. So we set off from Devin or Yagodina late in the afternoon," Peykov says.
"It takes about 20-30 minutes ride by 4X4 jeep, followed by a 10-minute hike to the shelter. We get inside and we wait. Usually by 10 p.m. the bears appear about 40 yards away, lured by the food we have left them - grains of wheat or corn, etc. The shelters are soundproof, dugout-type structures dug into the ground. Inside, they are equipped with a chemical toilet, because after all, people have to stay there for a long time, and one step out in the open can ruin the whole setup."
The organizers advise hikers to move silently, to closely observe their guide's instructions and not leave any food in the shelters. Peykov recalls that some time ago tourists forgot a sack of apples in one of the shelters. When they returned a few days later, the roof was broken and there was no trace of the apples.
English, French and Belgians are among the most avid bear photohunters in Bulgaria. "The price of one such tour is 150 BGN (75 EUR) for 4 people - that's how many people can fit in the jeeps with which we take them to the shelters," Peikov explains. Spring, when adult bears roam larger territories in search of a breeding partner, is the best season for bear viewing.
Bears are timid and they avoid people. It does happen, though very rarely, that a bear suddenly appears on a forest trail. But stay calm! The bear is not an aggressive animal, and if you don't challenge it, you'll come out unscathed from an eye-to-eye encounter, experienced forest hikers say.
Peikov and his colleagues organize photohunting of other animals, too:
"Other attractions are bird watching. We photohunt grouse. The hazel grouse is also a rare species, interesting to watch. I'm talking about foreign twitchers who don't find these species in their country. There is the spotted nutcracker, and the three-toed woodpecker, which is a rare species. They also come to photograph the golden eagle. We have several dams with waterfowl, we even have black storks" - says Peikov. And adds that he and his colleagues accompany those who wish to photograph red deer, roe deer, wild boar, wild goats, fallow deer and other animals that inhabit Bulgarian mountains and forests.
The trend is that foreigners who come to Bulgaria to observe and photograph wild animals and birds are much more numerous than hunters who come to shoot game.
Much to the delight of those who love the animal world and are committed to its conservation!