BRASOV, Romania (Reuters) - Sprawled on the side of a narrow road that winds up the Carpathian mountains in central Romania, a brown bear buries its snout in a paw, eyes peeking playfully at cars passing by.
As drivers pull over to take pictures, the bear strolls toward the cars, striking cute poses and hoping for food.
A few yards down the road, a large billboard urges tourists not to feed bears but across the street, open trash bags are scattered carelessly -- and invitingly -- across pine needles.
With half of Europe’s brown bears -- roughly 6,000 -- living in the largely unspoilt Carpathian mountains, environmentalists and authorities are struggling to keep the wild animals and residents in mountain towns like Brasov safe from each other.
Several people, including foreign tourists, have been mauled to death in recent years by hungry or irritated animals, who come daily to towns and villages in the southern Carpathians in search of food.
The most recent death came in August when the torn body of a local man was found some 500 meters from the center of Brasov. Officials say bear sightings have risen in the past few years.
Bears forage through trash cans, nap in apartment buildings and have even broken into the grounds of pubs and hospitals.
The bears’ natural habitat is being destroyed and increasingly fragmented by rampant construction for Romania’s fast-developing tourism industry. And their feeding habits are changing as they become a high-adrenaline tourist attraction.
“Each evening, there is a show, a circus,” said Flavius Barbulescu, an animal control official in Brasov. “People sit on fences or in cars, and they watch. You cannot fine a person for standing on the sidewalk and watching.”
“TRASH BIN BEARS”
Mountain towns such as Brasov want to keep the bears away from inhabited areas: they empty trash bins three times a day, have relocated scavenging bears to wilder areas and fine people caught feeding or photographing the wild carnivores.
But the tourists still come to places like the Racadau neighborhood, a grim cluster of gray apartment blocs that seems to be the bears’ preferred hang-out spot.
“They come late at night. I saw one ... by the bus stop where I live,” said Vasile Kolumban, 57.
Wildlife experts say the animals, dubbed “trash bin bears,” will continue to scavenge in cities as urban sprawl eats into their habitat, and if people continue to feed them.
“Restaurants should not leave food out,” said Victor Watkins, a wildlife adviser with British World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA).
“The public should not encourage bears. If they want to see the animals, they should come to a bear sanctuary,” said Watkins, who has worked in sanctuaries around the world, including in Zarnesti near Brasov.
In one part of Racadau, apartments rise up right at the edge of the forest, separated by a narrow meadow from a fenced-in area that holds four overflowing trash containers. The meadow is often used, particularly in the summer, by sunbathers and people barbecuing or roasting eggplants.
While these activities are all traditional past-times in Romania, the smells and carelessly discarded trash are the kinds of things that attract some bears to towns like Brasov.
Romania’s lush mountains have been home to brown bears for centuries. The numbers surged in 1970s and ‘80s when communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu banned hunting for all but himself.
Ceausescu, who was executed by firing squad in 1989 during Romania’s violent anti-communist revolution, used to invite friends and foreign dignitaries to lavish hunting parties, sometimes bagging dozens of bears in one day.
Ceausescu won many world bear-hunting trophies, and after his death, hunting parties remained popular with some politicians, like former prime minister Adrian Nastase, a leader of the ex-communist Social Democrat Party.
Now, the law limits bear-hunting to around 300 animals a year, which officials say is needed to maintain their population.
Not far from Brasov and its posh tourist lodges, perched on the hills around Zarnesti village, lies Romania’s first bear sanctuary, an isolated spot with only the cawing of crows to break the silence.
Nearly 40 bears live here. They were rescued from ramshackle zoos or cages at roadside inns and restaurants, where they were used as entertainment. Most bears being relocated from Brasov also stay here, before they are taken to remoter parts.
“Even if we took all bears living near Racadau, other bears would still come because it’s the cause that must be removed, not the effect,” said sanctuary manager Cristina Lapis.
Romanian officials and authorities from other Carpathian states are considering plans to open up mountain pathways used by bears for centuries that would help them move more freely through the Carpathians and find food.
But until such time, the bears will be part of Brasov.
“Bears make the law here. Good thing they’re not (as big as) grizzlies,” said Kolumban.
Editing by Clar Ni Chonghaile