PRIZREN, Kosovo (Reuters) - Kosovo has launched a campaign to seize wild bears held in restaurants and private zoos, responding to concerns over dwindling numbers in the Balkan country's mountainous border areas.
Authorities have so far traced at least 15 caged bears held in restaurants to help lure customers, to the outrage of animal rights activists.
Ministry of Environment officials say the number of bears in the wild in Kosovo has fallen below 100 due to the destruction of their natural habitat and illegal hunting.
On Wednesday, police officers and animal experts from an Austrian non-governmental organization called Four Paws raided a small private zoo in the southwestern town of Prizren.
They removed two brown bears, known as Ari and Arina, from a 20-sqm metal cage, next to a restaurant selling burgers and pizza. The owner also held wolves, dogs, sheep, cows, snakes and 60 other species, charging 50 cents per visitor.
"It's like taking a child from its father," complained the owner, Salih Shehu. "I know I'm going to lose customers because whoever came spent most of their time with the bears."
He said the bears were given to him as a gift a decade ago by United States soldiers, part of a NATO peacekeeping force in the former Serbian province, after their mother was killed by poachers.
Authorities have set aside a rural area outside the capital to hold the bears.
"In Kosovo there are a lot of bears kept illegally in cruel conditions," said Heli Dugnler, founder and president of Four Paws.
"We give these bears a new life, a new chance by offering them a huge area of nature where the bear can live normally in grass and trees and not in concrete."
Ari and Arina were released into the sanctuary on Thursday.
Kosovo remains one of the poorest corners of Europe, five years after it declared independence from Serbia and more than a decade since a 1998-99 war that left the territory a ward of the United Nations.
(Reporting by Fatos Bytyci; Editing by Matt Robinson and Angus MacSwan)