Bears are bringing new life to the old mountain village of Kuterevo
Location: Kuterevo – Croatia,
Story by: Ivan Crnković Pavenka
Ivan Crnković Pavenka is a philosopher, theologist and sociologist living in the mountain village of Kuterevo located in the Velebit Nature Park in Croatia. In 1978 he started bringing groups of young city people from Germany to experience the natural life in Kuterevo, and realized that this arrangement is life-enriching not only for the visitors, but also for local people. After the Homeland War in 1990ties, together with his friends he decided to introduce one more member to this community: the brown bear. In 2002 Kuterevo became the refuge for young bears, bringing together local people, volunteers from all over the world and bears in a thriving community.
They say that there are three large carnivore species living in Croatia: bear, wolf and lynx. But I say there are four: we humans are as much carnivores as the bears. People of Kuterevo have been living with large predators for centuries. They know how to achieve natural coexistence and they can pass their knowledge on to young people that come to spend a part of their life volunteering in the village. We have a meaningful relationship going on in Kuterevo, a relationship between local people, volunteers from all over the world and bears – “ambassadors” of the wild.
Our village is a community, and it is important that it stays in this frame of small and local. The bears in the refuge are part of this community. They bring joy to our village and they have become a trademark of Kuterevo. But the mission of the project is not only to protect the bears; it is also to protect humans, and the local way of sustainable living. People here have always lived from the forest, in the forest and with the forest. Many, like me, left the village in search for what we thought was a better and easier life – we didn’t have what it takes to live here, we didn’t know how. But the people who stayed are the ones we should be learning from. I have lived and worked in Germany for many years, but at some point, I decided to come back to the place of my origin. I wanted to share the traditional knowledge on how to live with nature with people from all over the world.
Large carnivores as a European heritage
Species like wolf, bear, lynx and wolverine always have been an inspiration for humans and kept our imagination alive for centuries. With their charisma, their wild spirit, strength and endurance the became the heroes of many folk stories and legends that influence our perceptions until today. Often they have to carry the burden of our symbolism – wolfs are connected with fear and evil, lynx with mystery and the unknown and bear with untamable strength and power. They remind us of the ongoing challenge of coexistence and are also a chance to rediscover traditional ways of living in the countryside and the rural areas. Today we can combine the ancient knowledge of our elders with new scientific findings and modern technology and thus achieve a sustainable way to share Europe’s landscapes successfully with wolves, lynx, bears.
Today many young people feel the urge to (re)connect with nature again and they come here to experience the spirit of the bears. But what they actually get is the taste of the life of the people in Kuterevo. They start learning Croatian, the only language the local people understand. And they have to communicate, if they want to understand how everything is done. They get involved in daily activities with the villagers, they take care of the bears, horses and chicken, they learn how to knit warm wool slippers “coklje”, they chop and pile wood for keeping everybody warm in the long winter days.
We can host up to six long-term volunteers at a time in Kuterevo, and more come as “pilgrims” on their own and stay as long as they wish – most of them in the summer season. We call our volunteers “the Combo Jazz Orchestra” – each of them contributes with their own tune, but together they create the special Kuterevo sound. They are largely self-organized and take responsibilities autonomously, contributing to the community. They are also talking to visitors who come to meet the bears, informing and guiding them through the refuge, thus maintaining its educational purpose. Although there is no entrance fee for the refuge, almost no one ever leaves without giving a donation or buying a souvenir produced by local people and the volunteers.
Orphanage / Refuge
In many European countries there are orphanages or wildlife parks as a refuge for large carnivores that are sick or cannot be reintroduced to the wilderness for other reasons. Those places are often the last chance for them to survive. Most of those refuges started as private initiatives and they are dependent on donations and public funding. In most cases they also welcome visitors and offer the chance to get a little closer to bears, wolves and lynx. This way the people can build a connection with the animals and also get in touch with the life in nature and remote villages.
Working with volunteers can help to avoid conflicts and support the idea of coexistence with large carnivores at the local level. There are many possibilities to include them: from Citizen Science approaches where citizens report sightings or traces, to volunteer observers who support monitoring activities, educational internships or joint actions for the construction of fences. Working with volunteers mobilizes additional resources and often turns them into ambassadors for coexistence. They learn a lot about the animals and the challenges and can provide their communities with relevant information. The voluntary work is also a good possibility to start an exchange between different interest groups and allows them to change perspectives.
So far more than 9.000 people have been “initiated” in the international community of Kuterevo. All of them have experienced life in the village, and made priceless connections with the villagers, bears, nature and themselves. Forever enriched with this experience, they take the knowledge of living in harmony with nature home, thus spreading the word of Kuterevo spirit throughout the world. This way they inspire others to follow the call of the wild, and come to Kuterevo to be part of the very special and harmonious community of villagers, volunteers and bears.