Collaboration is a major component to sucess, and this is something that TENT strives to incorporate into everything we do. That’s why where possible, we encourage our conservation project partners to meet and share experiences, knowledge and ideas in order to improve their understanding of the wider world of conservation.
This month, team members from Salviamo l’Orso took a field trip to Asturias to meet with Fundación Oso Pardo. Here’s the field report from Mario Cipollone, board member of SLO:
Angela Tavone and I, Mario Cipollone, both board members of Salviamo l’Orso (SLO) arrived in Santander in the afternoon and met Carolina Rueda, María Párraga and Marcel Hiriart at the office of Fundación Oso Pardo (FOP). After dinner, Juan Carlos Blanco picked us up and drove us to Cervera de Pisuerga, in Castilla y León, where we met the President of FOP, Guillermo Palomero. We spent the night at the cosy hotel Peñalabra, whose staff showed great respect and consideration for the representatives of FOP and their work.
We met Begoña Almeida, FOP’s bear warden in that Cervera’s area for an early breakfast. Later we had a sunrise observation with Juan Carlos and Guillermo in a wild area near Cervera, where we were lucky enough to see a wolf following a group of deer. The place was stunning with rutting deer and soaring griffon vultures and common ravens.
After the observation, we had a short hike in an oak forest nearby finding several tracks and a scat of bears. We also found a tuft of hair, very likely of bear, on a barbed wire fence and some tracks and scats of wolf that made this experience very exciting, especially because we were in the Eastern area of the Cantabrian mountains where the bear population is smaller, with ±50 individuals estimated last year, and therefore more endangered.
After a delicious lunch at the hotel Peñalabra, with the hotel manager, Teresa, customizing our dishes with “Bear-smart decorations”, we had a siesta and then went again for observation with Juan Carlos and Guillermo. We saw a pack of wolves and a several deer. No sight of a mother bear with three cubs that Guillermo wanted to show us, but the beauty of the place and the observation of the wolves were very rewarding. It was interesting to notice how a couple of people observing the wolves by us were showing great respect to FOP and the observation being a powerful means to communicate and interact with the people. That was something already experienced in the Apennines, but nice to confirm it in Spain.
After the observation, Juan Carlos drove us to Retuerto where we were kindly hosted in his mountain house, in the western part of the brown bear distribution in the Cantabrian mountains, where the population is thriving with ±330 individuals estimated last year.
During the night the weather passed from warm and sunny to cold and rainy. Juan Carlos drove us to Somiedo. On the way we stopped to admire Los Picos de Europa, an interpretive centre in the Redes Regional Park, some brañas – local thatch-roofed house in the county of Somiedo – which have been restored thanks to a LIFE project. On the way we discussed a lot on the importance of funding, especially from LIFE projects, and about some road signs to warn drivers about the possible crossing of bears. We compared the experience in Spain, with only one bear killed so far by a vehicle on a motorway and another just injured, with the threat that roads pose for bears in the Apennines, with a bear killed in Molise region on the 22nd of August 2019, and several more that have been killed in collisions by cars or even trains since 1970.
This comparison suggested us that the Cantabrian mountains and the Apennines differ for landscapes, land use by the people and bears, density of human settlements and roads.
We arrived in Somiedo, in Asturias, in the afternoon. We met Marcos Simón, FOP’s bear warden in Somiedo’s area, and visited the local Bear’s House. We were very impressed by the accuracy and the efficacy of the exhibitions inside that interpretive centre. You can feel how Somiedo is proud of the bear and as understood how to give value to what in the past was seen just as a pest to destroy. The long-sightedness of Somiedo’s mayor is surprising and proves the good communication work done by FOP.
We tried to buy some souvenirs to support the work of FOP, but they were so kind to give us the most of what we chose for free.
We spent the night in the hotel La Brañina in Villablino. The password of the hotel’s WIFI is “osopardo”, and it’s enough to understand how FOP has succeeded to raise awareness in local communities about the ecological, cultural and economical relevance of the bear, also in difficult areas like that, where mining economy was the main threat for the bear either indirectly, through habitat depletion and destruction, or directly because of extensive poaching. The irreversible declined of mining economy showed the capacity and willingness of this part of Spain to reconvert towards an eco-friendly economy with the bear as an icon.
In the morning we met Luis Fernández, FOP’s bear warden in Villablino’s area and technician of the project “Oso Courel”, who showed us a waste bin which a bear visited a couple of week before in the industrial suburbs of Villablino and some plantations of trees to increase food availability (fruit trees) for bears and improve forest cover and connectivity (not necessarily fruit trees) in the corridor between the Eastern and the Western population of bears, which have been separated so far, except for some dispersing males from the west to the east, by the mining activities and the motorway. Speaking with Juan Carlos and Luis, we learnt that the success of these plantations, in terms of plants’ survival rate, is 40%, which is definitely good. However, Juan Carlos would opt for recovery and enhancement of the already existing food sources instead of carrying on plantations.
Particularly interesting is the evidence that in Cantabria bears do not go to villages to kill domestic animals and that the most of the damages they cause is to bee hives, while in the Apennines some bears are food-conditioned and frequent built-up areas to feed on domestic animals (even chickens and rabbits), especially during hyperphagia. On the contrary, in Cantabria bears damage the plastic envelope of haystacks because they are attracting by the rotting and fermenting grass, raising complaints from farmers.
About the males dispersing from the west to the east, refreshing genes of the Eastern population, FOP was able to detect the passageways under or over the motorway by the collection of signs of presence, as they do not have any bears collared (local governments do not give authorization for captures) and the camera traps they used to monitor under and overpasses were stolen very quickly, differently from our experience in Italy so far, with only one camera trap which has been stolen so far on the occasion of some maintenance work.
In the afternoon we had a delicious meal at Cervera de Pisuerga with Guillermo and Juan Carlos and again we noticed the great respect that the local staff paid to FOP’s representatives.
After lunch, Juan Carlos left for Santander and we went again for observation with Guillermo at the same place as last time. The weather was windy and rainy. Nevertheless, he showed us a wolf lying on a rock at a very far distance. Guillermo is definitely a good observer and he knows that area extremely well. At night we met Elsa Sánchez, FOP’s warden in Potes’ area. She drove us to Potes, in Cantabria, where we slept in the hotel Valdecoro.
We went with Elsa to where we accompanied her in a nature education activity with a local elementary school in Reinosa. We went back to Potes at around 5 pm, after a beautiful drive through the Cantabrian mountains. We experienced a part of a short hike that Elsa walks with pupils when they go to Potes and we ended up visiting the Bear’s House in the small town. This Bear’s House is even more impressive than Somiedo’s one. There are very realistic paintings reconstructing hunting scenes in the past and the reconstruction of the bear’s den is stunning. The Bear’s Museum that SLO runs in Pizzone has two stuffed bears, but lacks of many of the interesting pieces and ehibits that are exposed in both the Bear’s Houses we visited.
I feel more motivated to improve the Bear’s Museum on FOP’s example, though the property of the exhibition belongs to the Municipality of Pizzone in our case.
On the way back to the airport, Elsa drove us to Los Corrales de Buelna where we attended a lesson on the bear that she gave at an elementary class at the local school. Then Elsa dropped us off at the office of FOP in Santander as she had to go to the prison of Dueno for a meeting with prisoners. At the office, we had a chance to greet Maria, Marcel and Maribel Escalera.
In the afternoon we returned to Rome and then the Apennines.
SLO and FOP are very similar organisations that are both made up of a very motivated staff. Though, from the very beginning went FPO wanted to have professional staff and applied for LIFE projects (even before they were called LIFE) to maintained paid personnel, while SLO relies upon volunteers. Maybe the different legal status – FOP is a Foundation, while SLO is an Association – has also determined this different orientation.
FOP’s performance has been partially affected by the economic crisis, while SLO was actually born during the economic crisis.
The challenge that both organisations are facing led them to pave ways of coexistence between rural communities and large carnivores, the bear in particular, in order to preserve two critically endangered populations of the brown bear.
The amazing achievements of FOP with the Cantabrian bear has been inspiring SLO since the beginning. The meeting between SLO and FOP finally took place.
We are very grateful to FOP for their generosity and hospitability and to TENT for giving us this precious opportunity to share experiences and best practices.