Encounters with bears


In Poland, safety is mostly about avoiding close encounters with bears. Be vigilant in or near dense forest and try not to surprise the bear. In the mountains, move only on hiking trails, which are generally avoided by these predators. If you have to leave the trail, make sure your journey is noisy, especially if visibility is limited or when hearing is impaired, for example in dense vegetation, in mist or fog, near running water, or if you are walking into the wind. Be particularly cautious in places where the probability of bear’s presence is high, e.g. in coniferous thicket and dense vegetation (where bears can rest during the day), in areas with abundant forest fruits, near carcasses and supplementary feeding sites. Look out for tracks and other signs of bear presence; if they are fresh, be alert! Give the bear a chance to hear you in advance and time to move out of your way. You can whistle, talk or sing, everything in order to not surprise the animal. They have a good sense of smell and hearing and will avoid humans whenever possible. Experience shows that surprise is the most common cause of the attacks. Keep in mind that forest is the animal kingdom, do not disturb them. Travel at night only if strictly necessary because it is the time of the day when most animals can peacefully forage and be active. They also need calmness! Be aware that the bear is a predator, not a nice teddy bear. A free running dog increases the risk of a bear encounter. If you walk with a dog, keep it always on a leash. Do not attract animals by throwing them food, do not approach it to take pictures and do not disturb them during winter sleep. All of them are irresponsible actions that can finish bad for both you and the bear.

Attack on people

Bear attacks on people are extremely rare in Poland. Most of them happened when we surprise a bear, for example, if he can’t smell us because we move into the wind, if it is hidden resting in dense vegetation or if is eating and concentrating on food. Any encounter with a bear carries a certain level of risk, but generally it is much less than most people think. The brown bear in Poland does not regard humans as prey: it is not trying to eat us. Bears habituated to humans can be dangerous and approach deliberately to people in order to get food, but these cases are quite rare in Poland. Almost all attacks on people are defensive, it means that a bear reacts in self-defence, because it feels threatened, for example if we have surprised it, it defends its food or a female protects her young. The closer we are to a bear in the moment when it notices us, the greater the risk that it will react defensively. During the mating season (May-June) bears are very active, even during the day, and walk long distances in their search for a partner. The yearlings are exploring the environment after separating from their mother and can be very curious and not afraid of humans.

If you meet a bear

First golden rule when you meet a bear is always to stay calm, do not panic and assess the situation. Never approach a bear. If the bear is not aware of your presence, go slowly backwards on your steps, quietly, when the bear is not looking to you and keep watching the bear. Do not shout, you could surprise him and provoke an attack. Make sure when you are leaving that there is enough space and a way for the bear to escape if he suddenly notices you. If you meet a curious bear cub, keep in mind that its mother is probably just around the corner. Turn around and leave the place the way you came.
If the bear notices you, stay calm and stand your ground. Do not run! It could provoke pursuit. If the bear stands upright on its hind legs, it is just to survey the surroundings to confirm what its good sense of smell and sharp hearing already have informed him; that you are a human. Raise to your full height and make your presence known by talking in a low, firm voice and slowly wave your arms over your head. Retire slowly and carefully the way you came – but never run away! Keep watching the bear. Try to look non-threatening. During a sudden close encounter avoid looking into a predator’s eyes (for the animal this is a sign of aggression). If the bear is approaching you, stand your ground and talk to the bear with a calm voice. If the bear stops, try to increase your distance by moving back slowly. Try to get off its path or out of its way. This might be all that it wants.

Mother bear with a cub. Photo: Tomasz Zwijacz-Kozica

If the bear is provoked by you, probably it is a female with cubs, a bear with a carcass nearby, he could not hide himself in a safe place because you appeared suddenly or you wake up it from the winter den. A provoked bear might attack you. Commonly it is just a fake. You should signal as soon as possible your peaceful intentions. Talk loud, do not hit the bear or make any threatening gestures. Leave the place slowly and never run! If the bear charges, it is often only a bluff – it stops or changes direction before direct contact. Physical attacks are rare.

If you are going to be physically attacked, make a last effort to distract the bear by putting something you are carrying in front of you. If this does not help lie on your belly, legs slightly apart. Join your fingers behind your head. This position will protect your face and neck. If you have a rucksack it will help protecting your back and neck. Put your hands around your neck and protect your head. Bears often concentrate on a person’s face during attacks. Try to protect your belly and vital organs against the ground, or if not in a foetal position. Pretend you are dead. You appear less threatening to the bear by making yourself as small as possible and behaving as passively as possible. When the bear senses that you are not a threat it will usually leave. When the attack stops, keep laying still and wait until the bear has definitely left.

Information summarized from the Scandinavian Brown Bear Research Project and www.medvede.sk