It’s hard to work out what annoys Antonio Pace more. The fact a bear stole his chickens in the middle of the night, or the fact he slept right through the raid on his supposedly bear-proof coop. Resting on a thin wooden staff, the diminutive 83-year-old shepherd points to an empty doorway on one of his stone outbuildings. ‘There,’ he says. ‘A thick wooden door was right there. The bear went straight through it. In the morning when I came down, feathers and pieces of broken wood were lying around. Maybe my hearing’s going.’
Pettorano sul Gizio – where Pace has lived all his life – is a picturesque medieval town clinging to the slopes of Monte Guardiola, a hill at the foot of the much higher Monte Genzana. Once famous for its carbonari (the ‘charcoal burners’ – a secret group of revolutionary societies in the 19th century), it still celebrates their work each January with a polenta festival. With its tight alleyways, narrow cobbled streets and ochre-roofed buildings, it has changed little over the last 200 years.
Pettorano sul Gizio also sits at the centre of the Mount Genzana-Alto Gizio Regional Nature Reserve, a vital wildlife corridor that runs between the d’Abruzzo, Lazio and Molise National Park (PNALM) and the Majella National Park (PNM). In terms of biodiversity, it occupies a unique position.
‘It’s amazing to think that less than two hours’ drive from Rome we have such a wilderness,’ says the reserve’s director Mauro Fabrizio. ‘There aren’t many towns in Europe where you can stand in the main square and have the possibility of seeing wolves running through the snow, roe deer grazing and golden eagles flying overhead.’
But it is Italy’s largest carnivore – the Marsican brown bear – which makes Pettorano such a draw for wildlife lovers. An increasingly frequent sight in and around the town, they present local residents and conservationists with a hefty challenge.
‘Of course we’re proud of the bears,’ says Pace. ‘They’re an emblem for our region. I don’t want to lose my chickens, but I don’t really have a problem with the bears. They just want to eat. Somehow we have to find a way to co-exist harmoniously.’
Of all the Apennine regions, Abruzzo is renowned for its jagged, elevated terrain, with two-thirds of this rugged land sitting above 750 metres. Forming the backbone and ribs of the Italian peninsula, the Apennines expand laterally here creating a complex system of parallel mountain ridges that enclose vast tablelands. This great topographic knot is the final refuge of many animals and plants that were once widespread across all of Italy’s mountainous areas.
Of these, the Marsican brown bear (named after the Apennine peak of Monte Marsicano) is the most at risk. Having been isolated from the nearest other bear population in the Alps for about 500 years, it may even be a unique subspecies. But it is now in danger of disappearing altogether.
Since the 1980s, half of Abruzzo’s bears have been lost. The last reliable research carried out in 2011 by the Sapienza University of Rome estimated a population of between 40 and 50 bears. Not surprisingly, they are at extremely high risk of extinction and rated Critically Endangered on the Red List of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
‘Over the last 200 years the population has been decimated by hunting,’ says local wildlife photographer Bruno D’Amicis. ‘The remaining animals mostly live in the PNALM and surrounding territories. They have no natural enemies so poaching, poisoning and traffic accidents are the main causes of death.’
‘The problem is that the bear population inside the PNALM is not enough to ensure survival,’ says Fabrizio. ‘Genetic erosion is a problem. If a disease were to spread to the bears from cattle, for example, they wouldn’t survive. Bears have big territories and when they leave the park they invariably come into conflict with humans. This is why protected ecological corridors leading to other wild areas are so essential.’
Unfortunately, not all of Pettorano sul Gizio’s inhabitants are as tolerant as Antonio Pace. Last September, a young male bear picked the wrong farm and the wrong chicken coop. The owner of the birds in question was so incensed by incessant bear attacks that he shot the bear dead. It was only a few days afterwards, when the body had been discovered and his fellow villagers decided to find the culprit, that he admitted responsibility.
The issue of bears is one that sparks passionate and divisive debate in Italy. In August 2014, ‘Daniza’, a female brown bear introduced to the Alpine region of Trentino from Slovenia as part of a rewilding project, attacked a 38-year-old cable car operator who was foraging for mushrooms. Subsequent anaesthetisation of the bear during an attempt to capture it resulted in the animal’s death.
However, while tens of thousands of animal lovers, activists, hikers and others had petitioned on social media and staged street protests on the bear’s behalf, not everyone is so keen to have such a large carnivore living on their doorstep.
Opponents of the EU-funded Life Ursus scheme in Trentino, which has reintroduced Slovenian brown bears into the region for the past 15 years, include farmers who say that an increasing bear population raids orchards and bee hives and kills livestock. The right-wing Northern League party claims attacks on animals and humans will increase if bears are allowed to roam free in the wild.
‘Bears are an easy target,’ says Fabrizio. ‘They can’t defend themselves. People either love them or hate them, but without them there would be a hole in the ecosystem. Bears and wolves have always lived in the Abruzzo region. The vast majority of people here accept their presence. The reason that the bear was killed in Pettorano sul Gizio last year was that we weren’t prepared. When you live with wolves and bears, if you don’t prepare then you will get damage.’
Just down the road from Antonio Pace’s farm stands a collection of multicoloured boxes, surrounded by beech trees. They may resemble elvish homes, but these are, in fact, bee hives.
The Abruzzo region is famous for its honey, with production of this sweet delicacy dating back to the Middle Ages. From late spring onward the hills here are covered in a scarlet carpet of French honeysuckle, tempting the local bee population with their rich nectar. Local beekeepers know the best spots for their hives, many of which are situated in the middle of national parks. The hives themselves – yellow, blue and green – are colour-coded for the bees as they return home after foraging in the flowers.
Agriculture is practiced across Abruzzo. The area is characterised by ‘transhumance’ sheep farming, which means large flocks of 500 to 1,500 head spend eight months of the year in lowland farms, rubbing shoulders with chickens and other animals. Fruit also grows well here too, with bountiful orchards of figs, peaches, apples, pears and nuts surrounding many smallholdings.
For a hungry bear, such a well-stocked landscape is akin to an all-you-can-eat buffet. Livestock predation, honey theft, hive destruction and crops and fruit tree spoilage is the result. Fabrizio estimates the total cost of bear damage in the Pettorano area to be around £15,000 per year. ‘This environment of high mountains and valleys with gardens, orchards and small farms is ideal for bears,’ he says. ‘These animals are not shy and quite tolerant of human presence. In a way this is good, but it also makes it hard to deter them from inhabited areas.’
One solution is electric fences. Cheap and easy to install, it has proven to be almost 100 per cent effective in deterring bears from beehives. It’s also safe for wild animals, pets and humans.
Working within central Italy’s national parks, Rewilding Apennines is the Italian branch of Rewilding Europe, an organisation founded in 2011. It’s working to ‘rewild’ one million hectares of European land by 2022 where endangered wildlife can return to or, if necessary, be reintroduced.
Rewilding Apennines recently began the distribution of electric fences to the residents around Pettorano sul Gizio, and they are becoming a common sight, protecting chicken coops, pens, sheds, gardens and orchards. Notably, since they have been erected, there have been no more instances of bears being shot for stealing chickens.
‘Prevention is far more effective than compensating people for damaged property and lost income,’ says Fabrizio. ‘Compensation takes time and there is never enough funding.’
Increasing traffic on the roads that cross its habitat also represents a continuous danger to the bears around the PNALM. Local NGO Salviamo L’Orso has recently spent more than £5,000 installing reflective studs, sound stripes and road signs in an attempt to reduce bear mortality.
Keeping bears and humans in a state of largely harmonious coexistence will take more than just fences and signs however. Apart from their high concentration inside the PNALM, one of the other reasons why Marsican brown bears are wandering farther afield is that much of the surrounding land now lies abandoned.
‘Over the last few years we have witnessed the gradual abandonment of agriculture in the highland fields and of sedentary livestock raising in mountain pastures,’ says D’Amicis. ‘Many young people here don’t want to work in agriculture. They want office jobs in Rome or Avezzano.’
The trend toward urbanisation and land abandonment is particularly pronounced in Europe. By 2020, it is estimated that four out of five European citizens will be living in urban areas. With the depopulation of the countryside, an ageing rural society and increased competition through globalisation, more and more low-productive farmland is now reverting to wilderness or semi-wilderness.
‘The rewilding concept in Europe is built on the recognition that people are leaving huge areas of land, rural economies are struggling to survive and wildlife is now recolonising,’ says Alberto Zocchi, Rewilding Apennines’ team leader.
‘With all this amazing wildlife on our doorstep, we have the perfect conditions to turn a problem into an opportunity,’ says Fabrizio. ‘Let’s take the poorer, marginal villages and towns around the PNALM region and turn them into models of sustainable tourism. Chefs, guides, photographers, rangers, minibus drivers... if the park and its bears can provide a living for local people then everyone benefits and everyone has a greater incentive for the bears to thrive.’
At the moment the tourist infrastructure around the PNALM is limited. Thanks to a lack of hotels and other tourist amenities, those that wish to stay near the park are pretty much confined to Pescasseroli, a town of 2,000 residents that also boasts numerous restaurants and hiking shops.
Nonetheless, Rewilding Apennines has already achieved some success with its plans for sustainable tourism. The towns of Gioia dei Marsi and Lecce nei Marsi, which lie just outside the PNALM boundary, are close to some of the best bear-watching spots in Italy. While they have played a leading role in local conservation, they have so far reaped very few economic benefits from the presence of high profile wildlife species such as bears and wolves.
Local leaders have recently signed a memorandum of understanding with Rewilding Apennines with a view to changing this. ‘We are working to involve livestock owners, hunters and young people in a number of activities to provide lodging opportunities, services and better protection of the areas,’ says Zocchi.
With local people on board and effective conservation schemes in place, the Marsican brown bear could easily expand from its overcrowded nucleus to re-colonise the entire central Apennine area. When asked about their prospects, Mauro Fabrizio is cautiously optimistic.
‘We are seeing more bears,’ he says. ‘We are also seeing the first integrated efforts between parks and reserves. Of course, huge problems remain. But these animals are resilient – they just need our understanding. And above all, they need more space. If we can’t work together to save such a magnificent species here, then what does this say about us? This is a challenge we must overcome for the sake of wildlife everywhere.’
This article was published in the December 2015 edition of Geographical magazine.