Kuterevo: Village and Brown Bear Refuge on the Velebit Mountain

Kuterevo is a small village with approximately 550 habitats, situated on the slopes of northern parts of Mt. Velebit at an altitude of 559 meters above sea level. It’s a part of Lika-Senj County. The local road connects Kuterevo with Otočac city (14km), Krasno village and national park Northern Velebit (10km). The village extends over 6 km long valley.

For a long time, I had a great desire to visit this village and to experience the hiking on Mt. Velebit. You may wonder, what is so special about Kuterevo? Everything – from the people, nature and the fact that refuge for bears is situated in Kuterevo and many volunteers from all over the world are coming here to help bears.

I thought my wish will be like many things in life waiting for money and time to be realized, but thanks to Džana, my friend from NGO Terra Dinarica, that time came sooner than I thought. She told me there is a free space in the Bosnian team for the Youth exchange “Nature that (re)connects us”, placed in Kuterevo. So if you want something hard and with some luck, it could be realized.  This youth exchange was supported by the Erasmus+ Program of the European Commission and have gathered 25 young people from Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo and Serbia for 10 days. The goal was to learn, share and discover more about nature, wilderness, mountains, and sustainable lifestyle.

Establishment of Refugium Ursorum Kuterevo

Velebit Association Kuterevo, also known as VUK (Croatian word for wolf), in cooperation with the Croatian center “Knowledge for the Environment” and the Veterinary Faculty from Zagreb launched a project “Refuge for bear cubs” in 2002.

The main goal of the project is to provide shelter for bear orphans, protection of the bear habitat, promotion of sustainable lifestyle and tradition of the local mountain community. An integral part of the project is to educate visitors about the bears and their endangerment by the hunters.

Since 2005 in Kuterevo has been an established Voluntary station in order to support the project and development of the local community. In average, the refuge annually hosts 15 volunteer groups and more than 50 individual volunteers.

Tourist visits exceed the number of 20.000 per year. From all over the world young people are coming to Kuterevo to helps bears, learn about them and enjoy their company.

Currently, 8 bears are living in the refuge, 5 of them are older and 3 are younger. Each of them has a name and story about how it became an orphan and found a home in the refuge. Some of them came here because their mother was killed during a hunt, and they were too young to know how to survive in the wild alone, and others were rescued from zoos.

Volunteers from all Over the World

So, if you want to experience how life is in this mountain village and to enjoy the company of bears you can also find refuge for yourself here. You will have a chance to meet amazing local people, who will welcome you with open arms and tell you stories about their life and traditional customs in Kuterevo.

Here, people live a modest life so don’t expect any luxury. It’s possible to rent a room in the houses of locals, or you can stay in houses of the refuge made for volunteers. If you are staying in the refuge you must agree to live by the lifestyle that is as much as possible sustainable and nature-friendly – use biodegradable means for washing (shampoos, soaps, toothpaste, etc.), reusing waste, rainwater, etc.

The bathroom is outdoor and includes a solar shower and compost ‘toilets’. Also, it is important to bring a good sleeping bag. As for the food – it’s local and home-made. You are participating in the costs – 35kn per day, and as well in the preparation with other volunteers. This is a small eco-community, where people live together in harmony with nature.

Activities for volunteers are planned weekly and also on a daily basis – organic gardening, collecting and sorting the food for bears, welcoming school groups, individual visitors, family, and random passengers, etc.
Nature has managed to connect 25 young people from four different countries and build new friendships. Power of nature!

Life of Locals

During these ten days, I have learned many new things about the nature and culture of different cities in Serbia, Kosovo, and Croatia. We had many workshops – medicinal and edible plants, a short course of the Albanian language, how to make traditional dishes – coal fire pie, Flija, homemade bread, Zagorski štrukli, a course in playing the Djembe drums, art therapy and many more.

Every house in the refuge has its own name- American, Belgian, French, Voluntary station and Voluntary hayloft. We were placed in the American house that has two floors. This was also our place for eating and for most of the workshops. For food preparation and cleaning, we were divided into teams.

While playing a game similar to “treasure hunt”, we had a chance to meet very interesting and friendly local people. Some of the assignments of my group were to make a selfie with a local animal, find a traditional song about Kuterevo and sign it and to get a tomato without paying it. It was very interesting and funny. We met an old lady and her son while trying to find a tomato. They welcomed us with juice, told us stories about their life, sang a song about Kuterevo and escorted us with gifts – few tomatoes, zucchini, a bottle of homemade juice and flowers.

Kuterevo Craft: Dangubica Kuterevka

One day we went to visit the villagers who are producing various handmade crafts. Dragica is a local lady who showed us how does she make “kuterevske coklje”- traditional footwear from Kuterevo. Ive Buric is one of the great masters in making the tamburica “Dangubica Kuterevka” – traditional music long-necked plucked string instrument. In 2012.
Croatian Ministry of Culture declared this instrument as a cultural asset and an important part of cultural heritage of Kuterevo Village.

For centuries, the knowledge of making Dangubica Kuterevka has been transferred from generation to generation, from father to son. Ive Buric also makes other wooden handicrafts – wine barrels, boxes for cheese, beer glasses, etc. and sell them to tourists. I was so impressed and inspired by him because he learned to do everything by himself and although he is 92 years old he still works every day and loves it.

He played tamburica for us and sang traditional songs. Some participants jumped and danced. It was a great little party. We also visited the family that makes quality wooden chairs and Marica, who showed us how to make homemade coal fire bread. Every day during our staying in Kuterevo we received fresh bread from Marica.

Taking Care of Bears

Almost every day I went to the place where the bears are situated, just to watch them play and to enjoy their company. This was my first time to see a brown bear from such a small distance. The trails that lead to them are accompanied by panels with educational content about bears and their vulnerability.

A few times we participated in the feeding of the bears with special made ice cream – a mixture of walnuts, jam, sunflower seeds, honey, and water. It was so cute and amazing to see how they eat and lick the ice cream, especially when they crunch walnuts with their teeth, spit it on their paws and then eat the fruit.

Campsite Kopija: Kuterevo Spirit Ceremony

Approximately one hour of walking uphill from the refuge (3km) there is a place called Kopija. Here, deep in the forest, a campsite is situated. For local people this place is magical. They believe the air and ground have healing powers.

Around the camp, there is a stone defense, where snakes live. It is believed that if someone got bitten by a snake, this part of a person’s body must be buried in the ground so the soil pulls the poison out. Facilities in the campsite are basic: no water, no electricity, and only compost toilets. There is a cute, small wooden house, like a shelter, where you can sleep with a sleeping bag.

One night of our youth exchange we had a ceremony of “Kuterevo spirit” by a big camping fire. Ivan Crnković Pavenka, who is a president of Velebit Association Kuterevo and head of the refuge, invited us to accept the “Kuterevo spirit” and gave us hand-made necklaces with a wooden bear. We all promised that we are going to live according to this – protect the nature and voluntarily help in our local communities. The rest of the night we enjoyed dancing by the fire to the music of a band from Zagreb, who played djembe (African) drums. This ceremony was attended by all the volunteers, so we got the chance to meet each other. Everyone was smiling and dancing under the starry sky.

A special day for me was the day when we went hiking in the national park Northern Velebit. In a few days, I’m going to write an article about this adventure. For now, I will only say that we hiked from Zavižan to Alan peak, a 15km long hike. It was so exciting and inspiring. This is the first time I enjoyed in a stunning view from a mountain over the Adriatic Sea and islands. Amazing!

If you are interested to help refuge with the donation or as a volunteer to participate in the work of the refuge you can contact them via e-mail or phone.

As a tourist, you can visit the refuge during the spring, summer, and autumn. During the winter bears are in their resting phase, hibernation. Visits are recommended during the early morning or late afternoon, especially during the summer days. The refuge is never closed so you can come from morning till the night, but the best is after 9 am until 7 pm.

Handmade Souvenirs in Kuterevo
Youth Exchange in Kuterevo. Making Flija with friends from Kosovo
Pub in Kuterevo
Djembe Workshop
Brown Bear in Kuterevo Refuge
Ice cream, refreshment during hot summer days
Kopija Campsite close to Kuterevo Refuge
Local making instrument called Dangubica Kuetervka
Kuterevo Refuge hosts volunteers from all over the world
Corner for meditation in Kuterevo Refuge

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