A bear-faced lie: Czech environmentalists fall for a prank

Photo: www.hnutiduha.cz

Czech environmentalists were celebrating last week after they discovered bear tracks in a rail underpass in the north-east of the country. The tracks were deemed proof that the recently-built underpass, designed to allow animals to safely cross the railway line, was actually working. But it soon turned out that the bear track was faked, and that environmentalists had fallen for a prank.

Photo: www.hnutiduha.cz
The last bear in the Czech lands was hunted down more than 100 years ago in the north Moravian mountain range of Beskydy. Since then, bears have been extremely rare in what is now the Czech Republic, although in recent years, several of these large animals were once again spotted in northern Moravia, presumably migrating from the more pristine environment of neighbouring Slovakia.

Last week, members of the Czech branch of Friends of the Earth were delighted when they discovered a nice set of bear tracks in a railway underpass near the community of Mosty u Jablunkova, in the country’s north-east corner. The activists said this was proof that the underpass did provide a safe passage across the major railway line even for the largest animals.

Photo: www.hnutiduha.cz
Environmentalists took a plaster cast of the tracks for a detailed study – only to find it had been faked. One member of the group said someone either wanted to make them happy, or, more likely, to pull their leg. However, the head of the NGO’s wild animals protection programme, Miroslav Kutal looks on the bright side of things.

“We did fall for the prank initially. But we would like to thank those who planted the tracks because it was a proof that mere monitoring of tracks in the underpass was not a reliable method of verifying the permeability of these migration corridors. So we will now work to develop some automatic cameras and photo traps that would be much more reliable.”

The underpass in question was a condition for the modernization of the railway line, connecting the Czech Republic and Slovakia; another 14 such passageways have been built on Czech motorways. Mr Kutal says that even traces of smaller animals that were registered, will help improve such structures in the future.

“The underpass was only built several months ago, and the results have shown us that many smaller animals do use it. We monitor these movements to find out how wide these underpasses need to be and how big they need to be built.”

But the case of the bear that wasn’t highlights the debate about the usefulness of these underpasses. While critics point out at the enormous costs, the Czech Environment Ministry says they can only justify the construction of animal underpasses if they are used by the most highly protected species, of which they have no proof for the present time.