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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Slovaks Turn Wildlife to Profit

TOPOLCIANKY, Slovakia -- Slovakia is making a profit from its rich wildlife by offering wealthy hunters the chance to bag bears, boar and deer at up to $9,500 an animal.

"Westerners are amazed that they can hunt bear right in the heart of Europe," said Daniela Stabova, director of marketing for tourism at the economy ministry in Bratislava. "But in Slovakia, they can."

Slovakia, which split from the Czech Republic and became independent in January 1993, has 40 hunting reserves teeming with wildlife ranging from pheasants to wolves.

The resorts include Topolcianky, central Europe's biggest hunting preserve and a former playground of the Hapsburg dynasty, who built the huge Renaissance-style chateau that towers over Topolcianky village.

The chateau's last private owner, Josef August von Hapsburg, created the biggest game farm in the Austro-Hungarian empire, which was brought to an end by World War I.

Now owned by the state, the castle serves as a hotel that combines elements of a palace with those of a hunting lodge.

In the years when Topolcianky was a state retreat for Czechoslovakia's Communist elite and its guests, Cuban President Fidel Castro stayed here, as did former East German leader Erich Honecker.

Topolcianky, which this year celebrates its 700th anniversary, covers 32,000 hectares of forest full of rabbits, pheasants, red deer, wild boar and bears. Other resorts have wild cats, foxes and wolves.

Hunting trips are arranged by a variety of Slovak agencies, whose prices vary. But game shooting does not come cheap: bagging a bear costs between $2,700 and $4,000.

A red deer with horns spanning 2.20 meters or more will set a hunter back $9,400, said Ernest Krejci, director of Topolov, an agency that arranges hunting trips to the region.

There are no precise estimates on the annual revenue generated by hunting fees. One puts it at about $2.2 million but tourism experts say the figure might be substantially higher: Slovak agencies tend to understate their revenues to avoid tax.

According to the economy ministry, overall revenue from tourism totaled just over $300 million in the first nine months of the year.

On average, about 300,000 pheasant a year are shot in Slovakia, followed by 200,000 ducks, according to East West Travel Agency.

The annual bag for deer is estimated at about 20,000. Hunters shoot about 35,000 wild boar and last year 70 brown bears were taken.

The Slovak government has set a limit of 82 bears per year, about half of which are shot by foreigners.

"It's not just the grand tradition that attracts hunters here but it's also how big we are," Krejci said.

Topolcianky alone attracted about 250 foreign hunters in 1993. Together with some 500 Slovaks, they bagged about 1,100 animals, including 350 wild boar.