The forests of the mountain ranges of northern Greece are home to Europe's largest population of the protected brown bear. But the bears who have been given sanctuary by Arcturos are far from wild. Most are the infamous "dancing bears" abandoned or confiscated from gypsies when the practice was banned in 1969.
They "danced" because they had their front feet burnt on hot coals as youngsters while their masters played the tambourine. Traumatized by the experience, they would instinctively dance whenever the familiar tune was heard.
Even if saved from this fate, however, they could never survive back in the wild. Many had their teeth broken to stop them biting their owners and were psychologically scarred by their experience in captivity.
Having heard about their dilemma by chance from an English contact involved in the LiBEARrty campaign to preserve the brown bear in the Balkans, leading winemaker Yianni Boutari decided to help set up a sanctuary near his ancestral village of Nympheon.
"There was a law which outlawed dancing bears but no system for taking the bears off the gypsies and nowhere for them to go," he recalls. Boutari had been looking for a project to breath life back into the virtually abandoned stone village (he has since been instrumental in its revival as a charming historic town).
In 1992, Arcturos was formed as a non-profit organization and the following year began programs to protect the brown bear, eventually attracting EU and private sector support, as well as funds from WWF. Today, Arcturos has a team of 16 staff, 40 associates and another 40 volunteers whose work entails protecting and managing the area's natural environment and wildlife. They are also leading Balkan initiatives to monitor and protect the region's bear population.
Thirteen bears have found a home in the five-acre sanctuary, including an American black bear from a circus and three refugees from the Belgrade zoo brought in after the Yugoslavia wars.
In the nearby town of Aetos, there is a veterinary station and an innovative visitor center with excellent interactive displays and programs. Arcturos' "sponsor a bear" program and educational programs have helped raise awareness of the problem and of environmental issues throughout Greece. Along with the sanctuary, the center attracts about 30-35,000 visitors per year.
Arcturos also works with farming organizations to offer local farmers and bee-keepers support and compensation for damage to their livelihoods by wild bears. Whereas in the past many of these bears were shot, now farmers contact the center, which helps provide electrified fencing, shepherd dogs or other means of protection.
In 1998, Arcturos began a similar program aimed at protecting the region's wolves and has established a separate wolf sanctuary nearby. VK