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The Life and Suspicious Death of Cachou the Bear

The Life and Suspicious Death of Cachou the Bear

Ivan Afonso checked his computer one last time before picking up the phone. It was April 2020, and like most of Spain, Afonso was stuck at home under a strict Covid lockdown. But his mind was in the mountains.

An environmental scientist, Afonso also served as head of the environmental division in the Aran Valley, a tiny area of the Pyrenees mountain range that forms a dent along Spain’s border with France. For the past three years, his duties had included monitoring the movements of Cachou, a 6-year-old, 130-kilo (287-pound) brown bear. The bear was a local celebrity, one of the few males born in the wild in the Pyrenees and living proof that conservationists’ efforts to rejuvenate the region’s struggling brown bear colony were working.

The task had been a nightmare from the start. Cachou was young and fiery, and—to the dismay of conservationists and farmers—prone to wreaking havoc. Like most bears, Cachou had a sweet tooth. He’d started with assaulting bee farms, but by 2019, he’d learned to hunt horses many times his size. Eventually, authorities put a tracker on him, but even that didn’t work. At one point he was blamed for four attacks within two weeks.

The Life and Suspicious Death of Cachou the Bear

Cachou had given Afonso and horse breeders in the valley some rest during winter. But the tracker showed the bear had come out of hibernation earlier than usual. He’d been in France in March, but a more recent ping put him somewhere in the mountains above Les, a tiny village of fewer than 1,000 people. After that he’d ventured deeper into the forest, close to a trail—and then stopped. The next 24 pings were all in the same spot. Afonso couldn’t shake the feeling that something was wrong.

“Either the tracker had dropped, or he was dead,” he thought. 

The Life and Suspicious Death of Cachou the Bear

In light of the vast extinction event currently underway on Earth, the death of a single bear might seem less than significant. And yet, on the morning of April 9, 2020, Afonso decided it was time to do something. He called the head of Aran Valley’s government first, then dialed the valley’s ranger corps and requested two trustworthy agents who could discreetly hike to the place the pings were coming from.

Finally, he dialed the head of Catalonia’s park ranger corps in the Northern Pyrenees, Anna Servent. Spry in her early 40s, with a resolute expression and brown hair cut short on one side, Servent heads a small, semi-secret team of investigators who specialize in animal poisonings. Their methods are unconventional. While most rangers focus on analyzing animal remains, the people on Servent’s team spend years building networks of local informers. They wear plainclothes, change vehicles often, and tend to visit their sources in the middle of the night to avoid drawing attention.

By the turn of the 21st century, brown bears were almost extinct here after decades of indiscriminate hunting and poisoning. In 1996, just three survived in the entire 430-kilometer (267-mile) mountain range. While the population has recovered after several European Union-sponsored conservation projects, it remains Europe’s smallest colony, with a count of 64 bears as of 2020. The lower Aran Valley, with its thick forests covered in old beech, oak, and chestnut trees and a milder climate, has become a breeding ground for the endangered predators.

But what conservationists consider a victory, many who’ve grown up in the mountains see as a declaration of war. “Naturally, when you reintroduce a species that has been previously eliminated on purpose, you’ll run again into similar conflicts that caused the reduction in numbers in the first place,” says Elisabeth Pötzelsberger, head of the resilience program at the European Forest Institute, an EU research center. “It would be quite naive to think everyone will be happy and clapping hands.”

The Life and Suspicious Death of Cachou the Bear

After talking to Afonso, Servent and one of her investigators—whose identity can’t be revealed to avoid compromising ongoing cases—jumped in a car and drove fast through deserted, meandering roads into the Aran Valley. The view on the way in is bucolic, with rocky peaks covered in snow and slopes so steep one fears they might collapse onto the bright green pastures below. The stone towers and slate roofs of Romanic churches dot the expanse, which is split in two by the Garona river. Those who live there still speak a modern version of Occitan, a romance language troubadours used for songs and poems before the Renaissance. They’re proud of their rural roots and tend to look suspiciously at anyone coming from south of the Pyrenees. 

The Aran Valley community is so tight, Servent’s rangers hadn’t been able to groom informants in the area, so she hoped their car would go unnoticed as she and her teammate neared Les. They headed up the mountain trail, climbed through the steep forest, and reached Cachou’s body at roughly the same time as the local rangers.

The Life and Suspicious Death of Cachou the Bear

The bear was lying belly up at the bottom of a 40-meter rocky cliff, a single canine sticking out of his half-open mouth. There were signs he’d been there for a long time, but that the death was quite recent, indicating that he could have lay there suffering for a long time, which happens sometimes in poisoning cases.

Servent speaks in a low voice and a calm tone as she details their inspection of the body and the surrounding area, but her face is serious behind a blue surgical mask. “We didn’t see any signs of poisoning initially,” she says. That made them even more restless. Before they left, Afonso had told them: “If you don’t find an obvious cause of death, look for antifreeze.” 

Ivan Afonso likes to think of himself as a man between two worlds. He was born of the Pyrenees, but not of the Aran Valley, and completed his university degree in cosmopolitan Barcelona. At 47 years old, he still feels more at ease in the mountains looking for endangered birds or scouring remote ponds for rare frogs than he does in his small office in the Aran government’s headquarters.

The Life and Suspicious Death of Cachou the Bear

It pained Afonso not to be able to go out into the mountains to find Cachou, but he had reason to believe that they’d be walking into a crime scene, which meant that the fewer people there disturbing evidence, the better. Twice during 2019, he told Servent’s rangers, he’d overheard a man from Les talk about using antifreeze against bears, according to court documents seen by Bloomberg Green—once during a private meeting, and once during a public speech. This same man had once headed the Aran Valley Land Department, and was partially responsible for overseeing 2.4 million euros ($2.8 million) of EU funds intended for brown bear conservation in the Pyrenees.

“I didn’t pay attention to him at that time. Maybe it was a mistake, but I was skeptical,” Afonso says. “There are rumors about killing bears all the time. People boast about having killed a bear and the next day we see it appear on a surveillance camera.

“Even if I had paid attention,” he goes on, “what could have I done? Everyone in the valley has antifreeze. I’ve got two bottles at home.” 

The Life and Suspicious Death of Cachou the Bear

Antifreeze is a ranger’s worst nightmare. Used to prevent car engines from freezing and therefore widely available in shops and petrol stations, it goes undetected in common post mortem tests and vanishes from corpses within days, if not hours. It can only be found if the body is fresh, and if pathologists are specifically looking for it. 

A few hundred miles from where Cachou’s body was found, wildlife pathologist Roser Velarde was sitting in in her office at Universitat Autonoma de Barcelona’s Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, surrounded by microscopes and deer skulls, when she got a call from Afonso, telling her that the bear would be on her operating table by the next day. With 20 years of practice behind her, Velarde didn’t flinch—Cachou’s would hardly her first animal autopsy, and certainly not her most challenging. Once, much to the amusement of her students and colleagues, she performed a necropsy on a whale on the patio outside because the animal wouldn’t fit inside her lab. 

During Cachou’s necropsy, Velarde spoke in the same patient, explanatory tone she uses with her students. The body had no bullet wounds, no broken bones, cuts, or major signs of violence. Some superficial teeth marks on the side of his head suggested that an animal, most likely another bear, had bit him, but that was ruled out as the cause of death. As she opened him up, she also ruled out death by common poisons, as most cause massive internal bleeding. Velarde spent four hours cutting, weighing, measuring, gathering samples, and taking pictures, but she found nothing. It wasn’t until after all that that Servent’s investigator, who attended the necropsy, told Velarde about Afonso’s antifreeze suspicion.

The Life and Suspicious Death of Cachou the Bear

Back in her office, Velarde processed samples of urine and brain tissue. Three days later, the university’s head of wildlife eco-pathology confirmed that the samples contained crystals of calcium oxalate, which are consistent with the presence of ethylene glycol, the chemical that comprises between 90 and 95% of antifreeze. 

About 12 hours after ingesting the antifreeze, Cachou’s neurological system would have started to malfunction. He would have felt severe stomach irritation and possibly slipped into a coma. His lungs and heart would have started to shut down within hours, but he could have stayed alive as for as long as nine days later, until his kidneys finally failed. 

“Cachou the bear suffered a slow and very painful agony that went on for days—until he died,” Velarde concluded in her report, according to court documents. That, combined with the signals from the tracking device, meant Cachou was poisoned on or around March 26. 

“The first thing we did was to request the judge to keep the investigation secret,” Servent says—something typically only done in highly sensitive cases such as those involving drug trafficking and political corruption, and never before for the suspected murder of a wild animal. “It terrified us that people would find out and start getting ideas—and obviously we didn’t want the poisoner to know we knew.” Her request was granted. As a result, details of the investigation haven’t been made public.