Bruno the king still going strong
The massive and powerful presence of Europe's biggest predator, the brown bear [Ursus arctos] fully earns this lovely creature its title of Finnish National Animal. The population has increased in recent years and is now estimated at around one thousand. It is the highest number of bears that have lived in Finland since the last century.
Once confined to remote regions in the east and north, bears have now spread to every part of Finland, all the way to the Helsinki metropolitan region. They are being sighted so frequently that coming across one is no longer regarded as anything particularly special. One that did cross the news threshold in summer 1997 spent many weeks on a tour of towns and cities not far north of the capital. Dubbed "the City Bear", it was a young male trying to find a territory for himself, and scaring the wits out of a lot of people in the process. He had discovered that the easiest way to get food was to pinch apples from trees in people's gardens or help himself to honey from beehives. The public alarm that this caused was not good for the poor bear, whose odyssey was ended by a police bullet.
A bear is a wild animal, and close coexistence with humans is not healthy for either party. In its own bailiwick deep in the forests, however, this mighty animal is actually very shy and carefully avoids people. If surprised, on the other hand, it understandably defends itself. Thus if you happen to be hiking somewhere that you suspect there might be bears, just make some noise - whistle, sing or talk aloud - and sharp-eared Bruin will give you a wide berth. If, as is unlikely ever to happen, you come face-to-face with him, do not try to make a run for it. Instead, the experts advise, back slowly away, calmly talking and without turning your back on him.
Only one person is known to have been killed by a bear in Finland this century. That tragic event took place on the outskirts of Imatra near the Russian border in June 1998. The victim was a jogger in his forties and his assailant a female bear, aged about four, who had a year-old cub. A search for the man was launched when he failed to return home and his body was found soon afterwards. The bear and her cub had remained near the scene and were shot.
People are not part of the bear's diet. If they were, biologists calculate, one person a day would be devoured in Finland each summer. What bears do eat is berries, insects, small mammals and the hives of wild bees. Sometimes they catch animals as big as the European elk (or American moose). In winter they doze for four or five months in a nest, which can be anything from an old ant heap through a hollow scooped out under the roots of a tree to a suitable cave. In January, females in their winter nest give birth to two or three cubs, which are only the size of a squirrel.
The bear is a protected animal in Finland, so hunting is strictly regulated. Last year, shooting permits were issued for 118 bears, and 96 were shot. The permits are usually issued for areas where the population is strong and the animals might pose a danger to humans. Experts say that bears "know" when they are being hunted. That makes them even warier than usual and they withdraw to their hiding places in the innermost recesses of the forests, which is the best place for them.