Cachou didn’t stand a chance. The hulking six-year-old brown bear was ravenous after waking from hibernation as it wandered across the border from France and down into the thickly wooded Aran Valley in the Spanish Pyrenees in early spring last year.
A few days later its 130-kilogramme frame was found at the bottom of a ravine with a bellyful of antifreeze, leading to a criminal investigation into the killing of a protected animal that exposed shocking corruption.
The mystery is intensifying as the authorities work to find the killer of Cachou, one of few bears born in the Pyrenees during a European Union-backed reintroduction campaign.
So far, the investigation has shown that local authorities tried to cover up the real cause of the bear’s demise. It has found a 140-strong WhatsApp group in which landowners and forest rangers discussed killing the protected species, and has even led to the discovery of a Colombian cocaine-trafficking gang in the idyllic forested valley.
The chief suspects include a forest ranger, a former local politician and a horse breeder who witnesses say boasted about how to kill bears with antifreeze, as well as a public official.
The official, who is also a leading beekeeper, has been placed by telephone data near the area where Cachou is believed to have been poisoned. He told the judge he was checking on hives he has in that area.
“Whoever it was, they hunted a deer and left its body in his path, stuffing it with sponges impregnated with honey and antifreeze,” Joan Vázquez, founder of environmental organisation Ipcena, said. “It would have been a week of agony after consuming the poison, which would then have shut down organ after organ before finally affecting the brain and the nervous system,” said Mr Vázquez, who believes Cachou was the victim of an orchestrated campaign.
The bear was one of a handful born in the Pyrenees after the controversial reintroduction programme, which has seen the number of brown bears in the mountain range rise from three in 1996 to about 50 today.
Rangers found Cachou lying at the bottom of a 40-metre escarpment, with one of its fangs protruding in a gruesome rictus, which is a sign of possible poisoning. The Aran government was quick to announce that the suspected cause of death was a fall into the ravine after a fight with another bear.
Ivan Afonso, an environmental scientist, suspected otherwise. “If you don’t find an obvious cause of death, look for antifreeze,” he told colleagues at Barcelona’s Autònoma University, where an autopsy found crystals of calcium oxalate in brain and urine samples, suggesting that the poison had been ingested.
This indication of poisoning was enough for an Aran judge to open a criminal investigation, which is proceeding in secrecy.
Telephone records show that 140 people had formed a WhatsApp group to vent against the presence of the animals in the valley. One forest ranger said in the group: “I’ll go out on Saturday and stick four bullets in him.”
Wiretaps searching for clues relating to the death of Cachou led to a cocaine-trafficking gang, with Catalan police in March arresting 12 people, including 10 Colombian citizens and a local mayor, as well as seizing 2kg of the drug.
Vázquez believes that a guilty verdict may not be forthcoming in the trial, which is expected to be held in the Catalan city of Lleida next year.
“The conspirators will do everything possible to avoid revealing who killed the bear. But the social trial has been won; the bear is clearly the victim and was killed unjustly,” he said.
– Telegraph Media Group
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