MEXICO CITY – A photograph showing firefighters and civil defense personnel holding down a young, bound bear spread-eagled and pulling its ears has sparked outrage in Mexico and brought down fines Friday on those involved.
Black bears are bouncing back in Mexico after being hunted to near-extinction 40 years ago. And after two years of drought, forest fires and hot weather are causing larger numbers to wander into populated areas, where they face traditions of brutal bear capture and baiting left over from the old days.
The 3½-year-old female bear caught this week on the outskirts of Zaragoza, a city in the northern border state of Coahuila, about 30 miles (50 kilometers) southwest of Eagle Pass, Texas, is recovering from mouth and paw wounds suffered after being caught by local people and turned over to volunteer firefighters and civil defense workers.
It was the emergency workers who decided to "celebrate" the catch with a photo that someone later distributed on social media sites showing the helpless, bloody-mouthed bear being spread-eagled by ropes tied to each of its paws. One man was pulling its ears.
"This is outrageous," Environment Secretary Juan Elvira Quesada said. "We are going to go after these people with all the force of the law."
Javier de Jesus Rodriguez, the environmental crimes prosecutor for Coahuila state, said the local volunteer fire department and civil defense office were each fined 15,000 pesos ($1,170). He said the fine "for mistreating an animal" was levied collectively, rather than on individuals.
"Obviously, it was low, because physically the animal is in good shape," he said.
Rodriguez said the government released the bear back into the surrounding mountains Friday, near where she had been captured in the foothills of the Sierra de la Burra mountain, an area known for its large bear population. "Today, she was in good spirits," he said.
"The residents were the ones who tied up the bear this way. The civil defense and firefighters showed up and, instead of helping, they joined them ... and that's where they committed their error, by taking pictures with the bear and allowing it to continue to be tied up," Rodriguez said.
Mistreatment of bears is a not-uncommon problem in Mexico, said Manuel Muzquiz, chief inspector of wildlife and parks for Nuevo Leon, another northern border state.
"This is a situation that happens on a lot of communal farms. We get reports of people capturing these animals, and because they have no equipment to capture them, they lasso them and tie them up, like they did in this case," Muzquiz said.
Muzquiz, a biologist, said 2012 has been a peak year for bear incursions in Nuevo Leon, which is home to Mexico's third-largest city, Monterrey. He said about three dozen bear incursions have required official response so far this year.
He said the main reason more bears are wandering into urban areas is a series of unusually dry, hot years and forest fires.
"There really has been a change in the climate," he added. "The hot season has become a lot longer."
Rodriguez said the same appears to be true for Coahuila state.
"There is a tremendous drought, and for that reason the bears come down out of the mountains, looking for sources of food and water."
Once found well into north-central Mexico, black bears were hunted out of about 80 percent of their original habitat in Mexico in the last half of the 20th century. Declared a protected species in 1994, the bears have rebounded, especially in extreme northern Mexico near the U.S. border, though estimates of their total numbers are still being studied.
Fernando Cortes, a veterinarian and bear specialist for the federal Environment Department, said that during field worker, he and others "have seen a lot more bears."
While studies on total bear population levels in Mexico are still being carried out, Cortes says "we have data that suggest the bear populations are recovering."
"In some cities in the north, we have been having bear sightings, something that wasn't common years ago," Cortes said.
He said another reason for the rising number of bear encounters could be due to the expansion of human settlements into bear habitats.