September 30, 2020

Flying bears of the Soviet Union

Some questions don’t seem to matter, but they hide really amazing answers. For example: why are not all Bulgarian bears the same? The question doesn’t sound like much, and we might even miss it, but we’d be missing a story of planes, complexes, and the unfading Soviet Union.

Let’s transport ourselves to a Bulgarian forest. Walking through it you hear a growl, you look up and there it is, a bear hidden in the lush forest. However, something is wrong. You’ve been touring the mountains for days and you haven’t seen anything like it. All the bears you have seen so far were relatively small in size. All of them brown bears (Ursus arctos), just like the one you are seeing now, only with one difference: this is huge.

It is a fairly large bear, but it is even more so when compared to its Bulgarian companions. We might think that this is an exception, but none of that. Our great bear is not alone. Others of the same size cover these mountains and, although they are few, have survived for years. The strangest thing is that there are no intermediate cases, it seems to be two different populations of brown bears that do not mix with each other. Between the big and the small there is not a range of medium, it is a mysterious all or nothing. How can it be?

A long trip

It seems like a simple question, but it has taken biologists time to answer it. There was only one thing that was clear to them until now: those bears were aliens. They did not know where, but they suspected that it could be another subspecies that had come from somewhere else, but where? The answer came in 2013, with the publication in Nature of an article where these bears were genetically analyzed.

The scientists had specifically carried out a microsatellite analysis, which amounts to comparing how many times certain DNA sequences are repeated in the genome of two individuals or populations. It is much more efficient than sequencing all the DNA of an individual with which many more measurements can be made, improving the statistical power of the study. The more kinship there is, the more similar the number of repetitions will be. Well, applying this, the scientists discovered that our Bulgarian giants were not as related to their country companions as to the Carpathian bears that lived in Romania. What’s more, it’s not that they looked alike, it’s that they were practically identical.

It is possible that you have never traveled from Bulgaria to the Romanian Carpathians by car, in fact, it is most likely and since I have not done it either, I have had to look at how far we are talking to get an idea of ​​the journey those bears must have taken. Separating the Romanian and Bulgarian bears are more than 300 kilometers. More or less the distance between Zaragoza and Madrid and without mountains that could serve as a refuge. Biologists were not convinced by this idea, what could have made these bears venture 300 kilometers off-road when the Carpathians are bear’s paradise?

Bear’s paradise

The Carpathians have a reputation as a land of bears. There is enough food there to support a more than respectable brown bear population, but that’s not all. One of the main reasons that there are so many bears in the Carpathians is that, in the Soviet Union, kings. The authorities were responsible for ensuring their protection and livelihood, sometimes even promoting their breeding in captivity and then releasing the cubs. It all sounds wonderful, until we ask ourselves the key question why? These cares were not “free”, as much as Ceaușescu liked bears, there was something he liked more and that was hunting them. Bear hunting was generally quite in vogue in the Soviet Union from 1960 to 1980. The bigger the bears, the better.

We might think that the Romanian bears fled the hunt for Bulgaria, but that would have been going from bad to worse, because the hunting hobby was shared, but the care was much less. The scientists were a little lost until, finally, they found the key, and it was not biological, it was political.

Bear complex

To understand what happened we have to keep talking about the Soviet Union, because, as we have said, bear hunting was also in vogue in Bulgaria. Although of course, it was only fashionable among the wealthy and in fact was a status symbol, as in its time it was skiing. The problem is that, as we have seen, the Bulgarian bears are not as splendid as the Romanians and therefore the experience of killing them was not as “epic”. Todor Zhivkov was the President of Bulgaria at the time, and how could it be otherwise, he was a great fan of bear hunting. In this context a gossip arose, a myth from which there is no document that defeats it but that has gained strength over the years: the “flying” bears.

Todor reportedly envied the great Carpathian bears and asked for help from his hunting comrade, Nicolae Ceaușescu, the Secretary General of the Romanian Communist Party. Apparently Ceaușescu responded to the request and with great generosity sent a few bears to Bulgaria. But not by truck or train, because if you want to export bears to hunt high positions in the Soviet Union, you do it well or you don’t. The bears crossed those 300 kilometers on planes. Supposedly there were many planes, many “flying” bears that were not recorded in the records, but that allowed Todor to unleash his passion to kill animals and boast of the great bears that housed his lands.

All this has been a rumor, something of which there was no evidence until now. They are not an invoice, a dedication or an abandoned plane full of Romanian bear skeletons, it is scientific proof. Suddenly everything falls into place because, if it is true that these plane trips existed, it is completely understood that there are large Romanian bears in the Bulgarian forests. This even solves the mystery of why these populations do not interbreed. Despite being of the same species, they have evolved in isolation and when they were reunited thanks to the Soviet Union their bodies and customs had followed different enough paths not to attract each other too much. They could reproduce, but they simply prefer “their own.”

This is what science tells us. It’s not just about formulas, calculations, and theory, but all the stories it helps us discover. If it weren’t for genetics, Soviet “flying” bears would still be relegated to the world of gossip. And, it is true, there is still not enough evidence to affirm emphatically that there was a massive export of bears, but we are much closer to discovering it.


  • We do not know if these bears were ever sent from Romania to Bulgaria, and even less if it was done by airplanes. In any case, it is a possible hypothesis that explains most of the characteristics of the Bulgarian bear population.
  • Some sources speak of Bulgarians who claimed to have seen flying bears. However, the bears were transported inside the planes, so the validity of these claims is unclear. In fact, there are suspicions that it could be a mistranslation and that he was referring to a famous Soviet aircraft model called by NATO “Bear”, but that does not seem like a convincing explanation either.



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