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Italy is home to the world’s most endangered bears – here's how we can save them

The European Nature Trust has been a long-term supporter of the conservation group Salviamo l’Orso and their mission to expand Italy’s population of Marsican brown bears. On 18th October, we’re hosting Wild Abruzzo – a premiere film screening event – to celebrate the untamed nature of Italy, while raising awareness and funds for the protection of the Marsican brown bear.

Eight bear species live across the planet’s diverse ecosystems. From our earliest beginnings, they have mystified and enchanted us as a symbol of the untamed wild. Yet, very few are aware that brown bears are endemic to the Apennine Mountains of Italy, less than 200 kilometers from Rome. 

Italy’s Marsican brown bear is one of the rarest and most endangered bears in the world. A cousin of North America’s grizzly, it is a unique subspecies that became geographically isolated from other brown bears in Europe. With a population of about 60 remaining individuals the species is at extremely high risk of extinction and is listed as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List. In 2015, the last population census revealed just 13 reproductively active females in the population.

Once widespread throughout the Central Apennines, the Marsican brown bear population was hunted to the point of collapse in the last two centuries. Today, Italy’s remaining Marsican brown bear population is concentrated inside the Abruzzo, Lazio and Molise National Park – an area spanning just 190 square miles. This core area struggles to support more than 60 individual bears; territorial, individual bears require large areas to freely forage. Moreover, with a population so small, genetic inbreeding has occurred, reducing the genetic fitness of the overall population and limiting the subspecies’ ability to respond to new environmental threats, like the impacts of climate change.

The bears’ future depends on the population’s ability to expand beyond the confines of Abruzzo National Park, and for new breeding populations to establish in a broader range of Italy’s protected areas.

This healthy movement of bears between protected areas is possible. In the new film from Chris Morgan – Path of the Bear – bears have shown to be capable of freely dispersing from the Abruzzo National Park to other protected areas. Earlier in 2009, a male bear named “Ulysses” arrived from the Abruzzo, Lazio and Molise National Park to the Sibillini National Park; later, the cub of a bear known as “Amarena” dispersed all the way from Abruzzo National Park to the Gran Sasso National Park.

Watch the trailer for Path of the Bear. On 18th October, we're hosting a premiere film screening event, which will raise awareness and funds for the conservation of the bears. Join us!

The bears, however, need committed conservation work to build safe environments that they can move in. Salviamo l’Orso (a volunteer-led organisation), in collaboration with Rewilding Apennines, is working to encourage bears to safely disperse beyond the core area of the Abruzzo, Lazio and Molise National Park. Their vision is for healthy, connected populations of the Marsican brown bear, living in harmonious coexistence with human populations. The collaboration has identified some of the most important ‘wildlife corridors’ that are crucial to connect the protected areas of the Central Apennines. Today, they are working in five key areas to build ‘corridors’, where bears are able to move between protected areas and increase the population’s genetic health.

Sixty Marsican brown bears can be found in the Abruzzo, Lazio and Molise National Parks. Salviamo l'Orso, in collaboration with Rewilding Appenines, are working in five key corridor areas (orange) to encourage bear dispersal to other protected areas in the Abruzzo region (green). Individual bears have moved through the corridor areas, demonstrating that a vision for healthy, connected populations of the bear is achievable.

Salviamo l'Orso's key conservation actions:

  • Threat mitigation: Within the corridor areas, SLO are removing obstacles to bear movement, such as barbed wire, and are combating poaching activities across the ecosystem. Traffic collisions with bears are being reduced through the installation of acoustical warning systems on road sides that deter bears, as well as through signage to increase driver awareness of bear presence. Local dogs – which could introduce new diseases to the fragile bear population – are being vaccinated against emerging diseases.
  • Education: SLO have established educational programmes in local schools, and work with young volunteers to support conservation efforts in the field.
  • Coexistence: SLO are building community awareness of the bear and unearthing traditional methods of coexistence. In addition, bear-proof waste bins are being disseminated, and electric fencing is helping to build a network of 'bear smart communities'.
  • Improving habitats: The SLO team are planting fruit trees and restoring ecosystems in corridor areas to improve food densities to encourage bears to disperse. Fruit trees at high altitudes are being pruned to increase yields to prevent bears from entering villages, which can create conflicts that eventually limit the bears’ ability to disperse.  
  • Monitoring and research: Corridors are constantly monitored by volunteers and passionate conservationists through long-distance wildlife observation and identification of animal tracks and signs. In collaboration with the National Park authorities, Salviamo l’Orso work to assist the movement of individual bears by educating and readying local communities.
Amarena, a female that recently gave birth to four cubs. All survived, and miraculously, one individual migrated from the Abruzzo National Park to the Gran Sasso National Park, demonstrating that bears can disperse if the right social and ecological conditions are built.

In many regions close to bear habitat areas, local people have embraced the bear as part of Italy’s natural heritage. Travellers from all over the world come to Italy to see wildlife, and the Marsican brown bear has proven to be an ambassador of conservation and the region itself. 

To many, the future of the Marsican brown bear represents a crossroads for European wildlife. According to the European Environment Agency, 81% of habitats and 63% of species in Europe currently have an ‘unfavourable’ conservation status. The bear cannot go extinct on our watch. Conserving the Marsican brown bear – as a large-bodied and wide-ranging mammal – would enable the protection of all the biodiversity it shares the ecosystem with. We must come together and protect the Spirit of Untamed Italy.

Join us at Wild Abruzzo

On 18th October at Ham Yard, Soho, The European Nature Trust will be hosting a premiere film screening event, showcasing two new films on the Marsican brown bear. 100% of proceeds from ticket sales will be donated to Salviamo l'Orso. 

Join us, support Italian nature, and help save the bear from extinction!
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