The search for Europe's most endangered bear

I have just spent an amazing weekend in Italy’s Abruzzo National Park in the Central Apennine region, a spectacular environment with 21 peaks over 1900 metres high (6200ft). When I was there, the leaves on the trees had already begun to turn, the water gushed from mountain streams and eagles soared overhead in a cloudless sky.

But I wasn’t there just for the mountains and the forest, the ancient villages and hamlets. Nor for the abundant food and high quality wine.

No, the real reason I was in Abruzzo last month was because in this wild heart of Italy - less than 100 miles from Rome - one supremely iconic species survives: the European Brown Bear.

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In fact, the bears that live in the Abruzzo, Lazio and Molise National Park and surrounding areas, were actually classified as a subspecies of the European brown bear as long ago as 1921. The scientific name for that subspecies is Ursus arctos marsicanus or the Marsican Brown Bear.

Today, with only sixty individuals left, it is listed as being Critically Endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

The Marsican Brown Bear is also listed as a priority species on the EU Habitat and Species Directive, so by any measure helping it to survive and prosper is a major conservation objective.

Mario Cipollone, a rugged thirty-eight year old who is Rewilding Europe’s Team Leader in the Central Apennines met me at Pescara Station on Italy’s Adriatic coast. As we drove west in his equally rugged Fiat Panda towards the central spine of Italy, he briefed me on the work Rewilding Europe was doing.

“The term ‘Marsican’ comes from the Marsi tribe who lived in this area even before the Romans came,” he said. “Marsican bears have been here for thousands of years. We are not reintroducing them. They are a native species. Our job here is to secure their future. That means we have to work with the people of the region, particularly the farming community and villagers who may wake up to find a bear in their front garden.”

He explained that his team were trying to avoid or to minimize bear-human conflicts, for example by putting in protective measures such as electric fences or bear-proof garbage cans. Where damage occurs, and no authorities are paying for it, they try to make sure compensation is paid quickly.

“Crucially, we need to expand the available habitat,” he continued. “We need to create corridors to link up different protected areas. A male bear can need up to 150 square klms to roam in. That’s a lot of space.

“The bear density is already high in the Abruzzo, Lazio and Molise National Park. They need to be able to move not just in terms of foraging for food, but for genetic reasons as well, for example, for breeding purposes.

“But the corridors connecting the main protected areas in the Central Appenines, wherever they are, have to be safe. It’s illegal to shoot a bear, but that doesn’t mean it won’t happen. And drivers must take care. Not everyone here is on the side of the bears. Not yet anyway.”

The fate of the bears was clearly very close to his heart. “For me, the bear is the symbol of the region and part of our identity and heritage. The decline of that symbol was my strongest motivation when I took this job, first with Salviamo l’Orso (Save the Bear) and now with Rewilding Europe. I felt we have to act.”

Solving people-animal conflict is an issue that organisations like Rewilding Europe have to tackle head on. In the Abruzzi region, at least as far as the bears are concerned, there was still a lot of work to be done in terms of winning hearts and minds, in spite of the undoubted revenue that ‘nature-tourism’ was bringing to the area.

As we approached Pettorana sul Gizio, the main centre of habitation in the Monte Genzana Alto Gizio Nature Reserve, a crucial ecological corridor between the Abruzzo, Lazio and Molise NP and the Majella NP, I noticed that many of the ‘Watch Out for Bears’ signs had been shot full of holes.

Towards sunset, we stopped on a mountain pass with a superb view of the surrounding terrain. Mario set up a telescope and for the next hour we surveyed the hills opposite. I would like to be able to say that I caught a glimpse of a brown bear or two roaming in the gloaming but, alas, we had no such luck.

But we did see a herd of wild boar – some thirty-strong – moving purposefully across the hillside opposite, as well both red and roe deer.

“Let’s hope we have better luck tomorrow” Mario said as we headed into town for a late dinner.

The next day Mario and I were joined by another member of the Rewilding Apennine network, Mario Finocchi, and by Bruno D’Amicis, a local nature photographer. We trekked for four hours solid, uphill and down dale. I loved it. I think we climbed 600 or 700 metres, through oak and beech forests, to emerge eventually at a sunny hill-top clearing where we could look out at the gleaming crags opposite or down at the village we had left earlier that day, nestling in the valley far below.

We didn’t see any bears on our trek that day, but from a scientific point of view, that was not the key consideration, since we saw several indisputable signs of their presence. Once Mario C prodded a mound of dung with a stick and pronounced it ‘definitely bear poo’. “Hair follicles will give you better DNA readings” he commented.

For me, the most exciting moment was seeing a bear paw-print in the mud. Bruno photographed it close up. I am not a bear poo expert so this solid print was ‘the ocular proof’, as Othello once put it.

The bear scratchings were important too. Towards the end of the afternoon, we passed through a long abandoned orchard. There were still some apples on the trees, and the bears had been after them, breaking branches and leaving deep marks on the bark as they climbed in their quest for food.

Near the abandoned orchard, Bruno took another photo. “The wolves have been here too. That’s old wolf’s poo. There are over two hundred wolves on this region and they are spreading to other parts of Italy. Wolves from here have even reached the Alps.”

As I stood there, at the end of that long and energetic day, I remembered what Horace who lived not far from here as the eagle flies said about 2000 years ago. “Naturam expellas furca, tamen usque recurret.” You may drive nature out with a pitchfork, but she will keep coming back.

Sometimes, of course, Nature may nevertheless still need a little help from her friends.

Rewilding Europe is a non-profit organisation based in Nijmegen, Netherlands, working to create rewilded landscapes in at least 10 different regions across Europe. More can be found about it here

Stanley Johnson is an Ambassador for the United Nations Environment Programme’s Convention on Migratory Species (and a member of Rewilding Europe’s Circle. His latest novel, Kompromat, is published by Oneworld-Publications.

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