The Bear Slayer

During his quarter century of dictatorial rule Nicolae Ceausescu treated the brown bears of Romania almost as badly as he treated the people. Only his gamekeepers saw the grisly reality

By David Quammen

In the mountains of eastern Romania, along a scary two-lane highway winding north toward the city of Brasov, sits an institution called Muzeul Cinegetic al Carpatilor. Loosely translated: the Carpathian Hunting Museum. It's no magnet for international tourists, and you won't find it mentioned in even the better guidebooks. Its holdings, and the style of their presentation, are neither so varied nor so informative as what you'd see in a good museum of natural history. Reduced to essentials, apart from context, it's little more than a warehouse of skulls and pelts. But for anyone interested in landscape and memory, in the complicated relations between human beings and other dangerous beasts, in Romanian history, and in the life and death of that country's most infamous autocrat, this place merits a visit.

The nearest town is Posada, itself too small to appear on national maps. From an industrial city called Ploiesti, in the lowlands just north of Bucharest, you'll snake and climb along the Prahova River toward its source. The highway is a gantlet of soot-farting trucks, lane closures for repair, horse carts looming unexpectedly, and impatient drivers who pass blindly on switchback turns, as though the possibility of a head-on crash were an abstraction that they've never troubled to consider. In other words, it's an average Romanian road. If you attend to your driving as carefully as you should, you might easily miss the museum's sign. Stay alert, plunge out of the traffic flow into curbside parking, and sigh with relief when you're there.

Cinegetic is an important term in Romania, especially among those charged with managing wildlife. Vanatoare is the straightforward word for hunting, whereas cinegetic (possibly derived from the French adjective cynégétique) carries high-flown scientific nuances, suggesting the use of hunting as a tool in a sophisticated program of game management. The national traditions and protocols associated with hunting are ancient, deeply embraced, and peculiarly European, though the European patterns have their still more peculiar Romanian variants. The Romanian Forest Department (Regia Nationala a Padurilor) prides itself on a high degree of cinegetic expertise. And the woods are full of creatures considered game: boar, red deer, roe deer, lynx, wolves, and an extraordinary number of bears. The native bear species is Ursus arctos, conspecific with the grizzlies of North America and the brown bears of Scandinavia and northern Asia. It's known here informally as ursul brun. For a combination of reasons, some ecological, some historical, Romania harbors a far larger population of brown bears than any other European country west of Russia. That unusual abundance is reflected at Muzeul Cinegetic.

The museum is a boxy steel-and-glass building that looks out of place on the grounds of the old mountain estate of the Bibescos, a princely family prominent during the late phase of the Romanian monarchy, which ended amid the upheavals following World War II. One section of the museum features ornate hunting gear and opulent rustic decor from that milieu, including tapestries, antique firearms, signal horns, powder horns, a pearl-handled sword, a set of hunting knives with deer-foot handles, a silver jewel box in the shape of an ostrich, and a bronze sculpture of Saint George killing his dragon, which in this rendering closely resembles the living "dragons" of the island of Komodo. The rest of the museum is filled with mounted heads, skulls, stuffed animals, antlers, horns, boar tusks, and big furs spread-eagled on the walls.

The stolid silence of the trophies, and the dearth of explanatory legends in Romanian or any other language, are offset on the day of my visit by a young woman in a cream-colored sweater and scarf who, presiding as guide, pours forth commentary in singsong schoolroom English. Although her outfit seems casual, her manner is official. The museum was created in 1996, she says. This is a black goat, she says, gesturing at a chamois. And these Carpathian stags—she motions toward a wall festooned with forty-some skull-and-rack mounts of red deer—all of them, they rated gold medals. To earn a gold medal, she explains, requires more than 220 CIC points. (CIC is the acronym for Conseil International de la Chasse et de la Conservation du Gibier, a European body, roughly equivalent to the Boone and Crockett Club in North America, that maintains a record book on trophy animals. Its point system, based on a series of measurements and judgments applicable to skulls and skins, is the means by which competitive hunters keep score.) Here's a stag that received 261.25 points, the young woman says, a world record when it was killed, in 1980. We step past a lynx pelt on the floor. We admire an array of fallow-deer antlers. We move from the mouflon (Ovis orientalis, an exotic bighorn sheep) to the dainty roe deer (Capreolus capreolus) to the stocky and pugnacious wild boar (Sus scrofa), this last represented in various forms: a head, a full body, three pelts on the wall, and two dozen sets of tusks mounted on wooden plaques. A large boar, the young woman says, can attain 250 kilograms (550 pounds). Most of the record-book animals here, she adds in a tone of ambivalent pride, were shot by Nicolae Ceausescu.

She doesn't need to tell me who he was. And yet Ceausescu's name is conspicuously absent from this national shrine of blood-sport mementos. CIC scores are posted beside many of the trophies, but no information as to who killed what. That comes only verbally, from the woman in the sweater-and-scarf uniform. Yes, Ceausescu. Yes, Ceausescu again. This one, too, Ceausescu. And we have many more Ceausescu trophies in storage, she brags—or (it's hard to tell quite which) admits. I keep hearing his name; I can almost feel his presence, despite the absence of photos, commentary, or any other sort of attribution. Ceausescu—he's everywhere and he's nowhere. It's a post-Communist museum filled with discomfiting evidence of, on the one hand, the country's wildlife treasures and, on the other hand, the extent to which those treasures were pillaged for decades during the Communist era by one pernicious pipsqueak who fancied himself a great hunter. No wonder the young woman sounds conflicted. The whole place is uneasily balanced between remembering and forgetting.

Nicolae Ceausescu ruled Romania for twenty-five years, with ever-increasing harshness and megalomania, eventually treating it as his personal kingdom. Like some other such tyrants, he was an inherently uninteresting man whose life story ascended to drama only by way of woeful consequentiality and evil. He came from humble origins (the son of a drunken farmer, he was a shoemaker's apprentice in Bucharest at age eleven), showed no early promise or flair, and made his political contacts in prison, during the years when Communists were persecuted as criminal agitators. He managed eventually to get hold of power and then—a deft manipulator of people and situations—he gradually tightened his grip. One of his former minions, a director of foreign intelligence who defected to the West, described him to a reporter as a man of "native intelligence, phenomenal memory, and iron will," although other portraits are less flattering.

During his early years as chief of state, Ceausescu seemed progressive, at least in comparison with most Communist bosses of the time. He was always more nationalist than Marxist, a Romanian leader in the homegrown style that unites a whole rogues' gallery of fascists, Christian vanguardists, and anti-Semites. He distanced himself from the Soviet Union, reduced his participation in the Warsaw Pact, and criticized the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, in 1968. Moves like that made him, for a while, the favorite Commie potentate among the Western democracies. Richard Nixon came calling in 1969, in his first visit as President to any Communist state, and posed with his arm thrown cordially over Ceausescu's shoulder. In 1978 George McGovern rated Ceausescu "among the world's leading proponents of arms control." In 1983 Vice President George Bush called Ceausescu "one of Europe's good Communists," though by that time the Romanian's brutal side was manifest. He was never a democrat.

From its hopeful beginning to its grim end Ceausescu's regime became increasingly more personal, more ruinous, more desperate, and more vicious. As early as 1966 Ceausescu, craving a larger national work force, not only prohibited contraception but also banned abortion for any woman under forty with fewer than four children, and he undertook to enforce that rule through compulsory monthly medical examinations. With illegal abortion the only available form of birth control, Romania's death rate from abortions became the highest in Europe. The infant-mortality rate was high also—so high that a birth wasn't recorded until the child had survived into its fourth week. These policies also produced an appalling number of orphans, who were consigned to grim state institutions. In the 1970s, dissatisfied with Romania's role as a breadbasket for the Eastern bloc, he put the country on a crash program of industrialization, the main results of which were heavy-equipment factories building inferior trucks and tractors; petrochemical factories dependent on imported oil; forced urbanization; polluted air and rivers; and the squandering of a huge sum in foreign loans. The products rolling out of the factories were generally too shabby for profitable export. Collectivized farms were set up, though many small farmers in the mountains managed to preserve their independence. Another program, called sistematizare ("systematization"), entailed the willful destruction of villages to force people into towns, and the razing of old neighborhoods in towns and cities to replace them with high-rise concrete apartment blocks. Once peasants had been transformed into industrial laborers and packed into state-controlled urban hives, they were at the mercy of the government in ways they hadn't been while living on the land. For instance, their heat or electricity could be cut off. Their habits, even their thoughts, could more easily be monitored. All these stern measures, along with Ceausescu's hold on power itself, were supported by a large state-security agency—the Departmentul Securitatii Statului, known colloquially as the Securitate—and its vast network of paid or coerced informants.

Then, during the 1980s, while systematization and other costly programs were grinding along, Ceausescu became obsessively determined, as a point of pride and independence, to pay off the foreign debts. He succeeded in doing that—by rerouting the modest consumer economy into exports and bleeding his own people pale. Food went abroad while Romanians suffered rationing and hunger. Energy went abroad while Romanians in chilly apartments lived by the light of forty-watt bulbs. Gasoline grew scarce, and horse carts, which had always been part of the rural scene, became vehicles of national purpose. The country's single television channel carried hour after hour of fulsome attention to Ceausescu, his wife, Elena (a harpy who served as his chief adviser and full partner in bad governance), and their supposed achievements. But in the cool blue glare on the other side of the TV screens people hated as well as feared the reigning couple. When the wave of revolutions broke across Eastern Europe, in 1989, Nicolae Ceausescu achieved distinction as the sole Communist leader who was not only deposed but, along with his wife, promptly executed.

That occurred on December 25, 1989, at an army barracks in the city of Tirgoviste, to which the couple had been taken after an attempted escape from Bucharest by helicopter went awry. The fatal loss of Ceausescu's political grip had occurred abruptly just four days earlier, during a speech to a mass gathering in Bucharest. Such gatherings had been, for so many years, marked by docility born of oppression, but this one all at once became weirdly rebellious. To their own surprise and everyone else's, the Ceausescus were on the run. Then they were caught. They remained under guard at Tirgoviste for a few days while dangerous decisions were pondered in the capital by a hastily formed junta, the National Salvation Front. Then came a kangaroo court, lasting fifty-five minutes and recorded on videotape, during which Ceausescu irascibly denied the legitimacy of the men from the junta (including some of his prominent underlings, now turncoats) who had come out to conduct this pro forma tribunal and then kill him. Power relations in Romania had changed suddenly, and the change wasn't precisely a triumph of good over evil. The army had lost patience with Ceausescu and thrown its fealty to the people. The most adroit of the Communist apparatchiks were now quickly and opportunistically reinventing themselves as populists. To advance their goals, and to guarantee their safety against the possibility of a restoration, Ceausescu had to go—not just out of command but all the way down. Then again, it could hardly have happened to a worthier fellow.

After five minutes of what passed for deliberation, the death sentence was read and the couple were led outside. Ceausescu, possibly still assuming that he would be helicoptered back to Bucharest, began humming the "Internationale." Instead of a helicopter he saw a blank wall and four soldiers with rifles. "Stop it, Nicu," Elena snapped. "Look, they're going to shoot us like dogs." A moment later she spoke what may have been her last words: "I can't believe this. Is the death penalty still in force in Romania?" For them it was. The backstop wall later showed scars from more than a hundred bullets.

During his heyday Ceausescu had styled himself the Conducator, a highly resonant Romanian word suggesting "supreme leader, boss, master," which linked him with an earlier conducator: the military strongman Marshal Ion Antonescu, who led the country during World War II and was Hitler's accomplice in the Holocaust. After 1989 Ceausescu was snidely remembered by some citizens under a different nickname: "Impuscatul," meaning "the Shot One."

But the heyday lasted many years, as reflected here in Muzeul Cinegetic, with all its skinned and stuffed witnesses vouching for the Shot One as Romania's pre-eminent and most privileged shooter. Passing beyond the boars, the museum guide leads onward, and I follow her into an innermost chamber, appointed to serve as the resplendent culmination of a visitor's experience. She calls it the Carnivore Animal Room. There's a wildcat mounted in a tree, and below it three wolves chorusing their voiceless howls. Elsewhere around the room, in poses intended to seem lifelike, are a dozen bears, mostly cubs and yearlings. Another dozen, in the form of pelts with heads and claws attached, adorn the walls. Alone on the west wall is the centerpiece of the collection: a vast bearskin, like the largest flying squirrel ever imagined. Its great head hangs downward, nose to the floor. Its front claws are almost three inches long. Its fur is umber, with blond highlights across the shoulder hump and the forelegs beautifully catching the afternoon light. The mount is backed with green felt and punctuated by four florets of green bunting, one at each hip and shoulder, as though the bear were adorned to march in a Saint Patrick's Day parade. Beside it is a laconic plate reporting only the CIC score: 640.46. This trophy—so the young woman claims, anyway—is the biggest bearskin in the world. The animal that wore it was shot by Nicolae Ceausescu.

Whether she's correct about its surpassing size (was it really larger than any grizzly from our Lower Forty-eight, any Alaskan brown bear, any Kodiak from Kodiak Island?) is an issue I don't have the heart to dispute with her. Without question it was a gigantic individual. Yes, she adds—650 kilograms (1,400 pounds) when killed. That was in 1984, in the Mures district, on the western slope of the Carpathians. It was recognized as a world-record trophy a year later, when the CIC met in Leipzig. The size of the skin, the density of the hair, the coloration—all these contributed to its high score.

Then the woman shifts her tone from vaunting to confessional, as abruptly as those underlings shifted in December of 1989. "This bear, I must tell you sincerely," she says, "was artificially feeded for Ceausescu to kill." I haven't badgered her. Apparently it's just something she needed to say. Carrying that piece of information as a lead worth exploring, I make my way out past Saint George and the Komodo into daylight.

The Carpathian Mountains form a large L-shaped divide across central Romania, with the letter turned backwards, its open side facing west, toward Hungary and Serbia, its vertical stem arcing northward, into Ukraine. The crest of the Carpathians within Romania itself serves as a boundary between the country's western province, Transylvania, and the provinces of Moldavia to the east and Wallachia to the south and southeast. The east-west stem, the base of the L, is sometimes called the Transylvanian Alps. Both stems of the range are steep, serious mountains that have helped to delineate and enforce political divisions in the region for centuries. It seems improbable that a single country could have coalesced with the Carpathian partition as its internal frame. Then again, much about Romania is improbable.

The lowlands are flat, fertile plains, draining gently south to the Danube or (in Moldavia) east to the Prut River. Those plains support most of the country's human population and are largely settled, dissected, ploughed, and committed to old-fashioned, almost medieval agriculture. The mountains are still covered with hardwood forests of oak and beech, giving way at higher elevations to spruce and fir and, above that, rocky spires. The hardwood forests, with their mast crops of acorn and beechnut, their mushrooms and berries, their abundance of roe deer and other ungulates representing potential prey, are excellent habitat for brown bears.

Records suggest that in 1940 the country harbored about a thousand bears. By 1950, after the disruptions of war and the austerities of the early postwar years, during which poaching went mostly unpoliced, the number had fallen to around 860. Given the circumstances, such population estimates shouldn't be taken as precise, but the general size and the slight downward trend are plausible. In coming years both the size and the precision of the numbers would increase.

Although Homo sapiens and Ursus arctos had coexisted for thousands of years in the Carpathians, interacting enough to acquire some degree of mutual wariness, hunting for bears wasn't widespread. Most hunters were peasants, and most peasants were more interested in game animals that delivered better meat for less risk, such as red deer, roe deer, and wild boar. Under a hunting law promulgated in 1891, the bear was considered a pest, subject to extermination without license or limit. The royal family did some bear hunting, and probably lesser aristocrats did also, no doubt in a spirit of noblesse oblige as well as rustic adventure, but to the people who made their living in the mountains—the poor sidehill farmers, the shepherds, the woodcutters—bears seem to have been more a menacing nuisance than a desirable form of game. During the 1920s, according to one authority, "the bear was considered a bad and very dangerous animal, and all the bears that were found were shot."

In 1927 some restrictions were introduced—against shooting bears without a license, against shooting sows with cubs, against killing bears in their dens. Implicit in these restrictions were two premises: first, that bear hunting was a form of sport, to be governed by orderly and ethical principles; second, that the bear population was a valuable and finite resource. Recognizing that value and that finitude was not the same as requiring that bears be managed sustainably, but it was a step. What proved helpful for Romania's bear population was not so much the lofty ideals of sustainable management as the realities of Communist autocracy. After World War II things were different in the mountains. Common people had no guns. Common people were afraid of the central government, its regulations, and its means of enforcement. Bear hunting became a prestigious privilege reserved mainly to the nomenklatura—the Party elite.

The last Romanian king was forced to abdicate in 1947, after which the country became a people's republic. For a handful of years, while consolidating its power, the Communist regime endured an internal struggle between two factions, one of which had spent time in Moscow, the other in Romanian prisons. Eventually the prison-annealed group (including Nicolae Ceausescu, then a minor functionary) succeeded in overpowering and purging the others. In 1952 a former railway-workers organizer named Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej, who led the prison faction (although he was more Stalinist in style and ideology than even most of the Moscow group), emerged as Premier of the country and secretary-general of the Party. By that time, according to records from Romania's Forest Research and Management Institute (a branch of the Forest Department known by its Romanian acronym, ICAS), the bear population had grown to 1,500. In 1953 Ursus arctos became a protected species—which was to say, managed carefully for hunting.

Two years later the bear population reached 2,400, a brisk increase that reflected the good habitat, the natural rebound of a depleted population, and the new regime of protective sanctions. The numbers continued rising—to 3,300 bears in 1960, and 4,014 in 1965, the year Gheorghiu-Dej died and was succeeded by Ceausescu. The history books don't say whether Gheorghiu-Dej, an urban agitator in the proletarian vein, fancied bear hunting personally, although there is a record of his having hosted Nikita Khrushchev at a hard-drinking bear-killing junket up in the Harghita district. Ceausescu, similarly, had shown no interest in woodland shooting sports during his earlier years. But in the late 1960s, while he solidified his position as supreme leader of both the Party and the country, he discovered a zeal for hunting—or, more accurately, for the sort of travesty of hunting that only a despot can experience and only a delusional egotist would enjoy.

To understand Ceausescu's relationship with bears, it's necessary to consider a few facts about the bureaucratic arrangements that govern Ursus arctos in Romania. Within the country's forty-one administrative districts (judeti, roughly equivalent to counties) are 2,226 game-management units, known as fonduri de vanatoare, or hunting areas. Many of those areas are in the Carpathians, and more than 400 of them contain bears. The average size of one hunting area is about thirty-nine square miles—small enough that a vigorous person could walk its perimeter in a day. To each area is assigned a professional gamekeeper, a hardy fieldman who comes to know its terrain and its animals well. Some of the hunting areas, notably in the lowlands, support only pheasant, roe deer, waterfowl, and other small game. If the area contains bear habitat, as the best of the mountainous areas do, an important part of the gamekeeper's job is to nurture the resident bears and familiarize himself with them as individuals. How does he nurture them? By putting out supplemental food—apples and pears and plums by the bushel, corncobs by the cartload, pellets of a specially blended bear chow, and occasionally the carcass of an old horse. Spring, summer, and fall, the gamekeeper and his helpers deliver vast quantities of such stuff for the delectation of their bears, serving it at feeding stations sited strategically throughout the forest. A typical station includes a feeding trough (just like one in a barnyard, except here bear scat lies among the old corncobs strewn around it) and a tall iron frame for hanging large pieces of meat. How does the gamekeeper familiarize himself with the local bears? By walking the forest, studying their sign, spending long days and nights observing them at the feeding stations.

Another feature of the typical station is an elevated blind within eyeshot of the trough, from which the gamekeeper does his observing. In some cases this is a simple platform of planks about ten feet off the ground, like a child's tree house though not quite so graceful; in others it's an enclosed structure on sturdy pilings. If the blind is also used as a shooting position, it's known as a high seat. A high seat may be spartan or comfortable; at the comfortable extreme it's essentially a two-room cabin, furnished with cots, a wood stove, a window overlooking the target area (about fifty yards away), a firewood bin, a toilet, and maybe a bottle or two of vodka. Under such circumstances a bear hunter is not put to great inconvenience or challenge, let alone risk. Although a recent change in regulations prohibits shooting bears from such enclosed high seats, the prohibition may not always be enforced. In any case, the real work of understanding the quarry has already been done by the gamekeeper, and the necessity of stalking is obviated by baiting the bears to the trough.

Gamekeepers of the old school, diligent and devoted, keep their bear-watching data in notebook diaries. They give the bears names and record their activities, minute by minute, like a field biologist studying animal behavior. From such a diary the gamekeeper can report months or years later, say, that a certain mature sow came to the feeding station at dusk on October 4, and was driven away an hour later by a certain ill-tempered male; or that a younger female arrived at midnight the same evening, with only one of her cubs—where was the other? A further responsibility of the gamekeeper is to estimate in advance the trophy quality in CIC points of each bear. That task is sometimes aided by hoisting part of a horse carcass on the iron frame, so that a bear will stand erect and reach for the meat, showing its full size against calibrations on the frame. The gamekeeper's role, vis-à-vis his resident bears, combines the services and attitudes of a nanny, a zoo attendant, a field naturalist, a sniper's spotter, and a pimp. To call it an ambivalent relationship would be understatement.

On a mild summer evening I visit one of these gamekeepers at his home in the mountains, near the Transylvania-Wallachia border. His name is Ion Mosu, and his position is maistru de vanatoare, "master of hunting," for an area of some fifty square miles. He's a slender, youngish man with hazel eyes and a stubble beard, wearing an olive uniform shirt, a jaunty warm-up jacket, and an olive fedora. Having just returned from hoeing potatoes, he invites me into his house but then suggests that we'll have a pleasanter ambience in the twilight. Settled outside on plastic chairs, we talk for two hours about bear management and bear behavior while his wife and his mother-in-law silently bring us coffee and sliced cake.

His area at present contains twenty-five bears, Mosu tells me, a number that includes the year's cubs. He feeds each of them five kilos of special pellets a day during hunting season, and in summer (when wild foods are more easily available) somewhat less. Occasionally he also treats them to a horse carcass from an abattoir, or to a load of rotten apples. In autumn and spring he concentrates this bait at the three high seats within his area. Several other feeding stations, at which no one is permitted to hunt, are more remotely sited in the forest. Those he uses in summer, placing food there to entice his bears away from mountain meadows where they might otherwise make trouble—and find it—among shepherds' flocks.

Mosu can recognize each of his bears by its fur color, its footprints, and its behavior. And the bears recognize him in return—by his smell. They're accustomed to him, Mosu tells me. They trust him. They remain calm in his presence but grow consternated when they catch the stink of a stranger. Sometimes he toys with a bear, sidling close, closer, seeing how near he can get before the animal demands a little more distance. Mosu himself is always listening, watching, perceiving smells. He's attuned to the dynamics of the forest, to the interplay of creature with creature, to the balances and the disruptions, in a way that his Forest Department bosses are not. He's a fieldman—minimal education, lots of experience. He can sense the presence of a bear in the way birds behave. He knows how a bear reacts to the sight of a human being. A wolf reacts differently. A fox or a lynx differently. Ever since he was a small boy, Mosu says, as though this were an explanation, hunting was his passion.

When I ask about his current crop of bears, he dashes for the house, returning proudly with a small notebook. It's his field diary, page after page of dates, times, behavioral notes on animals that he knows by the names he has given them. Fricosu ("the Shy One") is a big fellow, worth about 430 CIC points as of April. Furiosu ("the Angry One") is a beast with an attitude. Frumosu ("the Beautiful One") was shot by a hunter two months ago, earning the department a good fee. Yes, of course he was present for that hunt, Mosu says. The gamekeeper must always be present, in case the animal is only wounded (he'll track it and kill it) or something else goes wrong.

Does it ever make him sad, I ask, to see one of his bears shot? Waiting for my interpreter to work, I don't really expect this question to engage Mosu. Sadness over a dead bear? Probably that's an alien and irrelevant vein of sentiment. But I'm wrong. "Sure it makes me sad," he says. "I play with them. I know them." It's a job, never easy, not always agreeable, raising bears for other people to kill. But he's a professional.

As for himself, Mosu no longer cares to hunt. He'd rather watch animals, he has discovered, than shoot them.

The close attention of gamekeepers like Ion Mosu to their respective hunting areas is what allows the Romanian Forest Department to offer precise (and maybe even accurate) annual counts of the total bear population. Biologists at ICAS, the forest research institute, do the arithmetic based on numbers that come in from the fieldmen. A glance at the tables and maps prepared by ICAS shows which districts are richest in bears—Harghita, Bistrita, Arges, and Covasna, among others—and which hunting areas within a given district are particular hot spots. Of course, Nicolae Ceausescu didn't need to consult tables and maps, not personally, because he had toadying bureaucrats whispering in his ears.

Beginning in the late 1960s Ceausescu made himself the hunter in chief of Romanian forests as well as the commander in chief of the military. He arrogated hundreds of hunting areas—all the best of them, as far as large game was concerned—to his personal use. Forest managers at the district level, and the hunting wardens who worked for them, and the gamekeepers who reported to the wardens, came to realize that any estimable animal emerging within their purview was an animal the Conducator might want to kill. They recognized that pandering to his bloodlust, to his lazy greed for trophies, was good professional politics. One district competed against another for his visits, offering big bears and rack-heavy stags as easy targets for his expensive imported rifles. For a typical hunt Ceausescu would fly in by helicopter, landing on a pad cleared within the hunting area. From there he'd be taken by rough-terrain vehicle (in earlier years he favored Jeeps; later a Russian make, the Gaz; and still later a rattletrap Romanian imitation, the Aro) along forest roads to a point very near the spot where hungry bears or rutting red deer were expected to appear. He would walk the short distance to a strategically placed high seat—in a tight little draw that served as a game corridor, for example, or along a stream, where the gurgling water would cover noises made by a hunter. Usually he was accompanied by at least one security officer, who would carry his weapons and ammunition, and a forestry official from the district office. Many other Forest Department employees would have been involved in preparing for his visit, but they were kept at a distance during the actual hunt. In the high seat Ceausescu had little patience for waiting and watching. His attention span, according to a witness who worked with him often, was five minutes. But for this brand of hunting, patience wasn't necessary. Bears came to the feeding troughs. Red-deer stags congregated in response to hormonal imperatives and the attraction of hinds. In some cases both bears and wild boar were pushed toward a high seat in organized drives involving dozens of beaters. Ceausescu took his shots, admired his kills, posed for photographs, and then departed.

The report of his short attention span comes from Vasile Crisan, a forestry official who later published a memoir, in German, the title of which translates as Ceausescu: Hunter or Butcher? The gist of the book is that Crisan's boss was indeed a schlächter ("butcher"), not a true jäger ("hunter"). For instance, Ceausescu would continue firing wildly at an animal until it collapsed or ran away. If he wounded a stag, he'd command Crisan and other attendants to find it and bring him the trophy. If he missed altogether, they would tell him the stag was wounded and that they'd find it; then that stag or a similar one would be killed and delivered. "Sometimes more stags were 'found' than were shot," Crisan wrote. "Once, after a hunt, a party secretary called him the next day and told him that all the six stags were found. 'The hell,' Ceausescu said, 'how can you find six stags, if I only shot four?'"

Crisan revealed the tricky processing method that helped to augment the size, and therefore the CIC scores, of Ceausescu's bearskins. Once cleaned of meat and fat, a pelt was nailed onto a specially designed table with movable panels that could be spread outward, like a medieval rack. Treated with certain oils to prevent tearing, the skin was thus stretched "to the limit of its resistance." Taxidermists who showed their adeptness at such stretching became Ceausescu favorites. "It was an honor for them, but not for us, the forestry staff," Crisan wrote. "Many pelts were totally deformed through this method. Every expert could tell that these were not the natural proportions of a bear, and this was awkward for us." Furthermore, the bearskins didn't need such abuse, "as they were already big enough."

During the twenty-five years of his reign, according to Crisan's tally, Nicolae Ceausescu shot about 400 bears. In the earlier years he sometimes hosted shooting parties at which guests were welcome to kill game—deer, boar, even some of those precious bears. On a single day's hunt in 1974 Ceausescu shot twenty-two bears, and his guests another eleven. In later years he jealously kept the bears for himself. From 1983 until his death, in 1989, according to Crisan, Ceausescu bagged 130. His most notable fit of excess occurred in the autumn of 1983, when, aided by four separate game drives toward his position, Ceausescu shot twenty-four bears in one day.

That slaughter occurred in a hunting area called Cusma, within the Bistrita district, not far from a luxurious hunting lodge known as Dealul Negru ("the Black Hill"), which had been built expressly for Ceausescu and his wife. Having heard about the 1983 crop of bears at Cusma, Ceausescu announced his intention to visit. This triggered a scramble of preparations. The high seats were repaired. The forest roads were improved. The bears were fed—generously, with two tons of fruit and about 450 pounds of bear chow poured into the area each day for six weeks. The hunting lodge was made spiffy. The local Party office recruited 400 citizens to serve as beaters, and from among the local police and the Securitate came a hundred more. Ceausescu arrived by helicopter on the morning of the hunt, October 15. The plan was to split the beaters into three groups, for three separate drives, and then marshal them all into a giant sweep of the forest for a climactic fourth. Crisan's book describes how the day unfolded, with Ceausescu, in one high seat and then another, blasting at bears, killing bears, wounding bears, as they fled toward his position. After the first drive, in which he killed three medium-sized animals and injured two but missed two others that ran back into the forest, Ceausescu complained petulantly about the arrangements. God forbid that two bears out of seven should escape—or, if God wouldn't forbid it, the Conducator would. Next year, he commanded, there should be a fence along here, dammit, to channel the animals inexorably toward the high seat. Yes, yes, the district director promised, next year there would be a fence.

After the second and third drives, having killed seven more bears, Ceausescu was still unsatisfied. The fourth drive began, the big one, with hundreds of beaters moving down brushy hillsides toward a valley. The security men carried semi-automatic rifles; the foresters had small-gauge shotguns; they all shouted and fired into the air, setting up a din. Vasile Crisan took refuge on a high seat, from where he could watch without too much danger that Ceausescu would mistake him for a bear. As the beaters pushed within a few hundred yards of the firing line, they came virtually shoulder to shoulder. "The bears were running in every direction, trying to escape," Crisan wrote. "But it was useless, it was impossible." Bears fell dead, bears were wounded; amid the chaos Crisan couldn't tell just how many, but few if any seemed to be getting away. Ceausescu blazed on with a pair of Holland & Holland .375s, a minion beside him reloading one rifle while he fired the other. When the shooting and the hollering stopped, the forest workers started dragging in carcasses. Twenty-four dead bears were lugged back to the hunting lodge (where Elena could admire them), laid out in two rows, and framed with freshly cut brush, like trout on a platter garnished with parsley. Ceausescu posed for photos. "We, the foresters, gathered at a certain distance," Crisan recalled. He added, in tight-lipped understatement, "Contrasting feelings governed us." He had devoted much of his life to hunting, but he labeled this sorry episode the Massacre of Bistrita.

Vasile Crisan was just one of many such facilitators. Forest Department fieldmen in various parts of Romania still tell tales, some proudly, some loathingly, of the hunts they helped to arrange for Ceausescu. Down in the Arges district there's Viciu Buceloiu, a tehnician de vanatoare ("supervisory warden") of three hunting areas, who remembers Ceausescu not just for his imperious temper but also for the grandfatherly sweetness he often showed to Buceloiu's little daughter, Petra. In Valea Bogatii, a valley not far from Brasov, there's a gamekeeper named Gheorghe Bumbu, a thin man who wears an olive Forest Department uniform, a Tyrolean-style felt hat under which his ears protrude widely, and a sad, sheepish half smile like Stan Laurel's. Bumbu assisted at a hunt in the spring of 1989, during which Ceausescu took a bear worth 616 CIC points—one of the biggest, and among the last, that the Shot One ever killed. Working out of a local office in a village called Izvorul Muresului ("Source of the Mures"), near the headwaters of the Mures River, is a short, red-faced man, Laszlo Kedves, whose head tops his wide shoulders and squared-off body like the cap on a pint of whiskey. Kedves is laconic at first acquaintance but gradually, over coffee, can be enticed to share some of his recollections of the many occasions when Ceausescu came hunting in his areas; of a particular visit in April of 1989, during which Ceausescu bounced from one high seat to another by helicopter in order to kill ten bears in a day; of the time Ceausescu hosted Muammar Qaddafi, and the two of them shot every animal within sight. Up in Bistrita, that famously bear-rich district, is a retired warden named Tudor Tofan, a husky, plainspoken fellow who rose through the ranks to a point where his duties covered three hunting areas, encompassing Cusma and the Dealul Negru lodge. Back in the autumn of 1983, the time of Ceausescu's twenty-four-bear slaughter, Tofan was a mere gamekeeper. Probably he knew at least some of those dead animals by names he had given them himself.

Tudor Tofan consents to meet me for a chat. In a borrowed office at the district headquarters he rests his thick brown forearms on a bureaucrat's desk and responds to my questions with answers so terse and direct that they seem like karate chops. He resembles the actor Ed Asner—or, rather, what Asner might look like if he'd spent much of his life outdoors, feeding rotten apples to bears. Yes, Tofan says, Cusma and two other hunting areas were his responsibility. Together they encompassed 155 square miles of premium bear habitat, attended by four gamekeepers. Within the three areas in any given year lived about forty bears. Of those forty, as things are now managed, maybe twelve to fifteen would be "hunted" (by which he means killed) each year. The "harvest" quota for each hunting area is flexible, to be adjusted annually by upper Forest Department officials, based on recommendations from the wardens.

But wait—twelve to fifteen, from a resident pool of just forty? To me that sounds far too high. It sounds unsustainable. Offering numbers and memories, not justifications, Tofan says yes, and it was higher still in the time of Ceausescu. More like twenty-five bears, he says, all of which were killed by Ceausescu himself, nobody else. Next question?

I'm not sure what has compelled Tudor Tofan's receptiveness to this interview. A lingering sense of duty? The summons of a district chief who may somehow still control his pension? It certainly isn't the sheer joy of reminiscing to a snoopy foreign writer. Nor has he come to bellyache or emote. We discuss the stages of his career. We discuss the schedule of supplementary feeding within his three hunting areas and the amounts of food involved. We discuss the contents of those special pellets—oats? corn? bone meal? He doesn't seem to know or to care. He can't say how they are made. We touch on the problem of bears in orchards during autumn, when the fruit is ripe, and on the conflict between bears and shepherds. He mentions several cases of bear attack on people—in each case a wounded bear lashing back at a hunter or a gamekeeper. He describes the arrangements under which foreign hunters pay big money to the Forest Department for the privilege of shooting a bear. Usually it's a cash transaction, he says, and the money is split between ministry and departmental coffers in Bucharest and the district office. What reaches the district goes back into food and other expenses related to maintaining the bear population. A large, handsome bear might carry a price of $15,000 to $20,000 (usually paid in deutschmarks or, more recently, euros), not including what the client pays to a foreign hunting-tour company for packaging the trip. Bear hunting amounts to big business in an economy as decrepit as Romania's. Ursus arctos is an export product, yielding significant sums of hard currency. Although I'd like to know what Tofan himself was earning when he retired ($60 a month? $100? $200?), I'm not cruel enough to ask.

I do ask whether he's a hunter. "Da," he replies. Mostly for wild boar, red deer, roe deer. And bears? No, not bears, Tofan says. Bears are too expensive. That's a rich man's game. And the department favors foreigners for the permits, he says, because the law requires them to pay higher fees. Germans, Austrians, Spaniards, Mexicans, Belgians, Frenchmen—they're the ones who kill Romanian bears. All foreigners nowadays. Back before 1990 only Ceausescu himself hunted bears. No one else could. No one else dared. Tudor Tofan remembers it.

He remembers October 15, 1983. The big boss, the little man, came in his helicopter to Dealul Negru. They had prepared for him, Tofan says, by closing off other hunting areas and putting out extra food. The gamekeepers organized those drives. Ceausescu stood in his high seat with two attendants, one of them always reloading a gun. He took what was handed to him, and he fired, killing more than twenty bears. Was he a good shot? I ask. "Forte bun ['very good']," Tofan concedes. Anyway, good enough for the circumstances. But there's more to a real sportsman, he implies, than good marksmanship. After swallowing a gulp of anger, and in response to no particular question, this stolid, dedicated ex-professional makes a brief statement. As filtered through my interpreter, Tofan says of Ceausescu, "He hunt too much bears. Too much, for a single hunter, to shot so much bears. He was not allow somebody else to shot bears—only him."

And the skins? They were sent to Bucharest for processing. Most of them, Tofan guesses, are probably now at that museum near Posada.

The growth curve of the Romanian bear population over the past sixty years, as charted by ICAS, shows a curiously positive correlation between ursine abundance and autocratic oppression. Bad governance of a very particular sort has been good for Ursus arctos in the Carpathians.

In 1965, when Gheorghiu-Dej's death opened the way for Nicolae Ceausescu, the bear count was just above 4,000, as I've mentioned. Over the next decade, the early phase of Ceausescu's bear-killing mania, the population dipped slightly and then rose again. By 1978 it stood at 5,204. The Forest Department was now essentially farming bears, through supplemental feeding, which probably helped to increase both the growth rate of individual animals and the survival rate of cubs. In 1988, the last full year of Ceausescu's dictatorship, the Forest Department calculated a bear population of 7,780. That's amazingly high for the habitat in question—which is roughly equal in area to the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, back in America, with its 450 to 550 grizzly bears. At the peak of the curve, in other words, there were fifteen times as many members of the species Ursus arctos in the Romanian Carpathians as presently inhabit Yellowstone National Park and its contiguous forests, which constitute one of the most celebrated bear sanctuaries in the world. This discrepancy says as much about political arrangements, and about thresholds of social tolerance, as it does about the supplemental value of corn, horsemeat, and deliquescent fruit.

But what exactly does it say? That totalitarianism is beneficial to bears? That dictatorship yields better conservation results than private land ownership, open hunting, and cultural priorities that value livestock over native carnivores? These are ugly questions, but they serve as reminders of an important truth: we will not succeed in preserving viable populations of large, dangerous, flesh-eating creatures on this planet unless we move beyond the comfort of our easy assumptions. Big predators tend to have big needs and big appetites—as does the global population of Homo sapiens. Brown bears and other such impetuous, inconvenient beasts won't survive in the wild unless we realistically measure their costs and then decide how, and by whom, those costs will be paid.

With the fall of Ceausescu, Romanian bear management became less political and more commercial. Soon afterward a young ethnic-Hungarian forestry engineer, Arpad Sarkany, set himself up as a broker between the Romanian Forest Department and foreign hunters who might be tempted to come shooting in the Carpathians.

"We are the organizator for the bear hunt in Romania," Sarkany tells me from behind the fine wooden desk in his office in the town of Sfantu Gheorghe. His pretty-good English is seasoned with the Transylvanian variant of a Hungarian accent. "Eighty percent of the bear hunting is coming through us."

Eighty percent of how much, I wonder, amounting to how many bears? Each spring the Forest Department proposes a kill quota, based on its area-by-area estimate of the total bear population. In a recent year the population estimate was 5,616; that year's quota for hunting (according to Sarkany's casual recollection) was seventy bears, or maybe seventy-two. Either way, it was barely more than one percent of the total. If Sarkany's figures are correct, the annual cull should be sustainable, provided additional restrictions are in force to protect females with cubs.

But sustainability is only one issue. Whether commercialized hunting is the best way to conserve a population of large predators is another question. Arpad Sarkany contends that it is; by his logic, if no bears were shot, the bear population would be doomed. It would soon disappear from Romania. Why? "Because is no interest, no economical interest, to this especies." Without those hunting fees flowing to the Forest Department and those payments to local businesses for food, lodging, travel, and taxidermy, the incentive for close management would vanish, the supplemental feeding would cease, and the habitat would be lost to excessive timber harvesting and other forms of land conversion in the new, desperate Romanian economy. To have bears we must kill bears, honoring each death with the electronic tweet of a cash register. So goes the argument. To me it's a tedious paradox, not a liberating insight, and no matter how often I hear it, applied to one or another magnificent species in various corners of the world, each time I find it tedious afresh. But beyond quibbling over details of incentive arrangements and enforcement, I can't rationally disagree.

Viciu Buceloiu, tall and darkly handsome, like a soap opera actor in the twilight of his career, smokes too many cigarettes for his own good. As the supervisory warden for three hunting areas near a town called Domnesti, in the Arges district, he feels job pressure, though perhaps not so acutely as in years past. He has worked for the Forest Department since 1972. This is the fellow whose little daughter, Petra, now a grown woman, brought out a certain doting tenderness in Nicolae Ceausescu on the otherwise tense occasions when the Conducator descended into Domnesti for a hunt. Buceloiu, having assisted at those hunts several times yearly for eighteen years, has a considerable archive of mixed memories. A survivor, a dutiful functionary who balances professional discretion with instinctive generosity, he proves to be one of my most hospitable Romanian contacts.

He sends me into the forest with his gamekeepers. He hosts me for long evenings of bear watching from his high seats. He opens his house, his bottle of homemade tuica (plum brandy), and his family snapshot albums to me. He provides me with photocopied excerpts from Catalogul Trofeelor, the record book of national hunting trophies (which tells a wet story dryly: of the fifty highest-scoring bearskins ever recorded in Romania, forty-five came from kills credited to "N. Ceausescu"). I impose on Buceloiu my specific requests and my greedy, unfocused curiosity, to which he and his wife respond with graciousness, coffee, fresh strawberries, chocolate cake, corn on the cob, a form of deep-fried Romanian pastry called gogos, and information. One afternoon, as we sit in their living room, which is spread with a half dozen bearskins like so many throw rugs, Buceloiu puts a videocassette into the player. He offers no preface or explanation. Music, credits—it's a little documentary about Ursus arctos.

The narration is in Romanian. The production quality is rough. There's some footage of a bear attacking sheep. Another bear, in the act of pilfering a chicken, is interrupted by a woman with a broom and a fierce little dog, who together drive it away, panicked and chickenless. There's commentary on the anatomy and diet of the species; on the mating habits and reproductive schedule. There are scenes of big yearling cubs, raised in captivity at a government-run rearing compound down in the Arges district (with the notion that they'd eventually be released to serve as more targets for Ceausescu). The cubs are loaded into wire cages and then onto a helicopter for transfer back into the wild. There are shots of smiling Forest Department men in felt hats, opening the cages at a release site. Eleven cubs emerge simultaneously, looking confused. Within days of their release, Buceloiu comments caustically, the first of them would be blundering into fatal encounters with human beings. That rearing compound was futile, he says. The video ends. He pops in another. This one is more political.

It begins like a fulsome biographical documentary: clips of Ceausescu in his public role, kissing babies, attending banquets, making state visits abroad. Ceausescu the family man. Ceausescu the sportsman, on a hunting excursion. He arrives by helicopter. Later he admires his day's kill, dozens of dead chamois laid side by side. In the background of one shot, fleetingly, appears Viciu Buceloiu himself, looking a dozen years younger. Then the scene shifts, the mood shifts, and I see Ceausescu at a cluster of microphones on a balcony, addressing many thousands of Romanians in an urban square. Suddenly the camera captures something indecorous and unexpected—the crowd interrupting him. People start to jeer. Ceausescu waves, as though to hush them. They refuse to be hushed. He looks flustered. More jeers. On the balcony alarmed minions slide into motion. Again he waves, a gesture of befuddlement. This is the very moment—on the morning of December 21, 1989, in Bucharest, as Ceausescu stood before a populace so disgusted, weary, and angry that it would accept its own docility no longer—when he lost control. Recalcitrant hoots from the crowd. "Hallo," he says. "Hallo, hallo." Wake up, he seems to be trying to tell them. Remember your manners, remember your fear; this is me. But they are awake, now more than ever. Elena, in the background, starts hollering at someone. She seems to have sensed, more quickly than her husband, that this break in the national trance could be catastrophic for both of them.

An abrupt cut. The next scene shows Ceausescu stepping disconsolately from an armored truck. He wears a rumpled dress shirt, a tie, a dark topcoat. That coat, Buceloiu tells me—an idle aside, reflecting his own sense of intimate connection to the drama—was lined with bearskin.

Inside a drab room Ceausescu sits at a table, Elena beside him. The room seems to be cold; anyway, they don't remove their coats. Bundled around his neck is a brown scarf. He makes an argumentative response to a comment from a person unseen. The camera doesn't pan; it holds on the Ceausescus unremittingly, and by this time I've realized that we're watching the kangaroo trial.

You had a luxurious life, says the offscreen inquisitor. Meanwhile, he says, people starved. They received only a miserable ration, two hundred grams of sausage per day. You had the army to enforce your power. But now even the army has turned against you. Do you hear what we're saying? Stand up. Answer. You're a coward. With the army gone, you had your personal sharpshooters, opening fire on the citizenry. Who were they, those snipers? Children died, old folks. Who gave the order? You're guilty of genocide. Do you realize you're no longer President of Romania? What about the money in Swiss bank accounts?

Intermittently during this litany of accusations, Ceausescu stares at the ceiling. He reaches across and sets his hand comfortingly on the hand of Elena, who shows no response. She has withdrawn into a gloom so cold it appears almost like boredom. Sporadically she rouses to haggle. The people love us, the intellectuals love us, she says; they won't stand for it when they hear you've arrested us. The people will fight against this treason!, Ceausescu adds, shaking his finger. As though to refute that notion, to pre-empt that remote possibility, the video lurches ahead—as the National Salvation Front did—to a point of finality: a freeze-frame image of Ceausescu's fresh corpse, necktie still tied, a splash of blood beside his head. Silence. End of tape. Buceloiu turns off the machine.

Earlier I asked his opinion about what happened to Ceausescu. Was it inordinately severe, or was it deserved? "It was murder," Buceloiu told me. Now, having seen this lame pantomime of a tribunal, I sense more vividly what he means. He means that the principal movers of the revolutionary junta had their own reasons—urgently expedient ones—for wanting Nicolae Ceausescu not just deposed but exterminated. It wasn't the people's anger that killed him; it was a more coldly and narrowly taken decision. Alive, he would always be dangerous to those whose own political résumés weren't impeccably democratic. He would always be capable of stirring an uncomfortable recollection that (as one candid Romanian bear biologist told me) the cult of the dictator requires a cadre of cultists and an institutionalized complicity as well as a dictator. More immediately, he might give hope and persistence to those loyalist snipers who were still killing peaceful demonstrators in the streets of Bucharest. Dead, he was instantly irrelevant—and certain people could hope that their own pasts, full of deft opportunism and other embarrassments, had been rendered irrelevant also.

Call it murder, or call it mortal politics of exactly the sort Ceausescu himself had long practiced. If his execution was expedient, it was no more so than, say, war as an instrument of national purpose, or lethal injection as an instrument of criminal deterrence, or trophy hunting as an instrument of conservation.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2003/07/the-bear-slayer/302768/