Call of Bulgaria's wild beckons for orphan bears

SOFIA, May 23 (Reuters) - Three brown bear cubs stare forlornly through the bars of a cage as they prepare for a journey though the borderlands of Bulgaria.

Three months old and still unnamed, they were found by rangers in late April, seemingly abandoned, in the southwestern Rhodope Mountains.

Efforts to track down their mother proved unsuccessful, and they were eventually taken to Four Paws, an animal foundation that has nursed them back to health with milk and flour.

At around 800 strong, Bulgaria's brown bear population is concentrated in its central and southwestern mountains and among the most stable in Europe. But the species, which is protected, remains on the endangered list.

"Our experience shows that in more than 90 percent of the cases in which little bears are found in the wild, the mother has been chased or shot by poachers," said Dimitar Ivanov, the manager of the rescue center that Four Paws runs jointly with the Brigitte Bardot Foundation.

The foundation hopes to return the three cubs to the wild in Bulgaria, but first they must be transported by van to a specialist rescue center in Greece, where it is hoped they will learn the skills they will need to survive.

"They will spend around a year there," said foundation spokesman Yavor Gechev.

(Reporting by Angel Krasimirov; editing by John Stonestreet)