Bear watching in Slovakia with Adventoura Slovakia is the ultimate responsible wildlife adventure! Slovakia has over 700 wild brown bears roaming free in the mountains and I couldn’t pass up the chance to spot a wild bear on a bear tracking trip. Especially when I heard how the adventure tour company adhered to responsible best practices in wildlife tourism.
Bear watching had been on my bucket list before I had even reached Slovakia, ever since I had heard it was actually possible a few months earlier from Erik, the founder of Adventoura Slovakia, an adventure travel tour company based here, and my excitement levels were already at fever pitch before we set off.
My excitement had been building even more since the trip had already been postponed an extra day because of weather, so by the time we picked up our bikes my imagination was running wild at seeing each and every wild bear in the Slovakian wilderness.
There are over 700 Bears present throughout Slovakia but they are concentrated most heavily around the Tatras Mountains in the north western stretch of the Carpathian mountain range, and it was here, in this rugged and beautifully wild stretch of national park, where we set off in the hopes of a big surprise in the woods!
It was an early start, but my normal reticence at being up at an ungodly hour that quite frankly should be illegal to be awake at was tempered by the fact that there was a possibility of seeing a bear up close and personal!
Anyone who knows me will tell you that I am a huge animal lover, and the opportunity to see these gentle, misunderstood and beautiful animals up close was just too intoxicating. I could barely contain my excitement, which led to – in my view – completely unnecessary warnings by the rest of the small group that I was not allowed to go and hug them if we spotted any!
As if I would!
I probably would.
Activities like bear watching, or any wildlife watching for that matter, need the services of a professional guide. Many activities can of course be done solo but this is not something you should do without one, and travellers should budget for this if they want to experience it. Not only does the guide provide expert knowledge and information, but keeps you safe and more importantly keeps the bears undisturbed too.
After a brief safety talk and yet another reminder that hugging is not the appropriate response if the bears decide to come too close, our guide from Adventoura Slovakia, an adventure tour company that specialises in ethical and responsible bear watching tours, issued us with our bikes and gear.
Starting at Podbanske, we began the long ride up to a series of lookout points along the Ticha Dolina valley, the biggest valley in the High Tatras mountains. And I couldn’t wait to spot the local wildlife!
I was really happy to find that the bikes we were given were full on adventure e bikes too, that meant I could crank the power straight up and then look all manly when I was powering up the mountain and secretly letting the bike do all the work! (Shh! Don’t tell anyone!) But this also means that this is not just an activity for the young, fit and adventurous, it is an accessible adventure open to a wide range of ages and abilities.
We mounted our bikes to make our way up through the forest to the spots where we were most likely to spot bears in the wild. Unlike many wildlife spotting treks around the world one of the things that our guide insisted on is that this was as responsible and non intrusive as possible. There was no baiting, no hides, no chasing down the bears, this was a simple bike ride through the woods in the hope that we could spot a bear or two.
What is responsible wildlife watching?
The broad umbrella term of wildlife watching in tourism describes a wide range of different wildlife based tourism activities ranging from jeep and walking safaris to bird watching or whale or dolphin watching from a boat, even very specific tours to view focal species such as turtles, orangutans or bears either in the wild or a protected area.
Although there are no specific rules for bear spotting on its own, and there are no set in stone international regulations for wildlife spotting or watching, there are an increasingly cohesive set of best practice regulations that all responsible tour operators on any type of safari or wildlife watching trip should abide by, and all travellers should know and understand.
Alongside the five freedoms principle set out for animals in captivity, the ABTA Global Welfare Guidance For Animals In Tourism guidelines for example state that when viewing animals in the wild all operators and travellers should:
- Have as minimal impact on the environment as possible.
- Have zero contact with the animals being viewed.
- Keep noise and movement to an absolute minimum.
- Keep strong smells to a minimum, including putting any food in strong airtight containers,.
- View from as much a distance as is practical to avoid causing stress or a behavior change in the animals.
- Put the animals welfare above tourist needs.
- Do not engage in any baiting, chasing or herding of the animals to ensure a viewing or photo opportunity.
- Do not collect, take or move any animal part or plant from the environment.
It was genuinely heartening to see that every effort was being made by our guide to not only stick to these principles when technically they did not have to (and indeed lesser companies don’t), but exceed them in an way possible out of genuine care and respect for the wildlife.
A stunning view and a lesson in bear poo.
The ride started off easily enough, the powerful e bike gliding easily over the well worn dirt road as we headed further up the slow incline. Even the drizzling rain stopped intermittently and allowed me to enjoy the views of the terrain as I blew past them, keeping my eyes peeled for any movement in the surrounding forests.
My eyes kept playing cruel tricks on me, and I started to see every gnarled tree truck and rock as a bear. My eagerness was clearly overshadowing my common sense, again, but I swear I saw more than one rock move!
But before long our guide stopped the bikes and motioned for us to get off, heading slightly off the trail to point something out.
It was bear poo.
Okay, so it wasn’t a full on bear, not yet at least anyway, but one had definitely been here! Our guide used the opportunity to tell us some basic facts about the 700 plus bears that lived in the region, including the berries that they love to eat from the surrounding bushes.
After a brief stop we carried on, eager to see a bear or two and enjoying the increasingly picturesque scenery. The damp weather meant that the bears were more likely to be tucked away somewhere sleeping, but it did make for some impressively mercurial scenery as the clouds and fog shrouded the mountains in the distance.
The powerful e bike took most of the strain as the dirt road wound slowly up the mountain and allowed me to save my strength and concentration for the actual bear spotting, and before long we reached our first viewing point.
These viewing points are not what many people may think of when bear spotting. They are not permanent hides, they have no structure. They are simply spots from the valley road with clear, uninterrupted views up into the mountains, into areas where bears are known to reside and are spotted often.
A bittersweet disappointment.
We scoured the hill for bears through our binoculars, scrutinizing every rock and bush for any sign of movement. Unfortunately despite waiting a pretty substantial amount of time no bears were to be found. I couldn’t really blame them, the drizzling rain would keep me curled up in bed most days too!
Not to be disheartened, our guide took us to the next viewing point, a similar hill on a steep incline and told us of the bears, deer and other wildlife that are often spotted in the region. Again no bears decided to show themselves. Nor did they at the third and final viewing point, a mountainous hill with a raging river made fuller by recent rains. A disappointing end to an otherwise exciting adventure.
An ethical silver lining.
But this feeling of disappointment was only fleeting at best. I was in bear country. This was their territory, not mine. There was never a guarantee of seeing any bears and nor should there be either.
Because the fact that I wasn’t guaranteed to see any bear meant that the bear watching tours were being run responsibly and ethically, and that meant this was a tour operator that loved, respected and cared for the wildlife it was bringing people out to see. That was far more important than my own instant gratification of seeing a bear in the wild.
And just as importantly I still had a great time. This bear watching trip may not have had any actual bears in it, but I did learn a lot about them and their habitat from a knowledgeable guide and what I ended up with was an awesome mountain biking adventure instead!
Back up plan.
Okay, so we didn’t see any bears, but that was just bad luck. We could have easily come on a day when dozens of them could have been out roaming through the mountains and forests.
It was a good job we had a back up plan in the form of a full speed, active mountain adventure! The mountain biking ride down the winding mountain road through unbelievably beautiful scenery was still a hell of a lot of fun. We stopped again at each viewing point on the way back down, and after that I was allowed to let loose and coast down the dirt road at full speed like a scene from the Goonies! I felt like I was 12 years old again and it was awesome!
I highly recommend putting aside two or three days of your trip to spend riding into the mountains and maximising your chances of seeing a bear or two. Remember, it is often down to luck, and it is entirely the bears choice if they decide to show themselves, so if you don’t catch them one day, you may do the next!
The benefits of responsible bear watching.
Bears and humans haven’t always had the best history together when it comes to sharing space and Slovakia is no different in that regard, but responsible bear watching trips like this will not only raise awareness of the conservation issues surrounding wild bears, but also provide the funding to ensure that taking care of the bears and their environment is profitable and worthwhile for tour operators and locals alike.
Responsible bear watching, when done right, can contribute far more to the economy through tourism according to the Commercial Bear Viewing Association of British Columbia than any other industry that threatens the bears and their habitats. Putting your money into an industry that needs the bears and their environment is a much better alternative to the hunting and land encroachment that is the norm now.
So I urge each and every one of you, come and support an industry that promotes responsible and ethical wildlife tourism and will in the end help ensure the continued survival of the species. Make sure that your travel dollar has a positive impact.
Responsible and ethical wildlife tourism like this is the key to changing attitudes to the care, welfare and conservation of wild bears and their habitats. Travellers should take every opportunity they can to support and engage with operators like Adventoura Slovakia and ensure that tourism has a positive impact for the lives of these amazing animals as well as having a truly special experience in the process.
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This article was written in partnership with Adventoura Slovakia. The views and opinions expressed are entirely the authors own based on personal experiences when travelling and are honest and factual without any bias.