Italian Alps: The bear population has risen to 47

By Updated at 2015-06-10 04:16:02 +0000


If you came across a brown bear, chances are you would be just fine. Though they can be unpredictable, they tend to avoid humans and only attack when taken by surprise or if they feel threatened.
For hundreds of years brown bears roamed the Alps in Europe. But in the 18th and 19th centuries their habitats were significantly reduced due to deforestation. In some areas they were also actively hunted.
By the end of the 1990s there were only a handful left in the eastern Brenta range in Italy. In response, bears were deliberately reintroduced into the area.

Seven females and three males were reintroduced between 1999 and 2002, in the hope they would settle and mate. They evidently have. The bear population has risen to 47.

A new report now finds that many people are no longer pleased to be living so close to these carnivores.
Despite the reintroduction being deemed an overall success, the report, published in the Journal for Nature Conservation, finds that hostility is on the increase.
It seems that a few bad-tempered individuals are to blame for tarnishing the reputation of the rest.

That's mainly because of fear, says Roberta Chirichella of the University of Sassari in Italy, one of the report's authors. "The change is evidently related to the bears' increase, which seems to have generated a feeling of insecurity."
Despite initially accepting them, people are now more afraid of potential encounters and so their tolerance towards the carnivores is dwindling.
But the bears' overall behaviour does not back up the allegations against them.
The reports of their "bad behaviour" are in line with expectations. The damage is mostly economic and in rural areas closest to where the bears live.

This includes some predation of livestock, destruction of beehives, and some plundering of crops and fruit trees. Some were even caught trying to break into houses or small rural shelters used by shepherds.
However, the incidents all involved the same few bold "problem bears" says Chirichella. That could in part be attributed to their management.
"The public opinion is highly influenced by the presence of such problem bears, which ultimately contribute to a biased representation of the entire population."
Only in very rare cases has there been a genuine risk to humans.

In fact, bears are more at risk from humans than the other way around. In 2013 two bears were illegally killed, but there has only been one reported attack on a human in 15 years.
This was on a male mushroom collector who came too close to a female bear with two cubs. It was believed to be a defensive attack to protect her offspring. The man was fine, receiving only minor wounds.
In one year, one of the greatest threats was actually car collisions involving bears. There were six such incidents reported in 2012. Since 1999 there have been 22 cases in the Trentino province in Italy, resulting in three bear fatalities.

It's only in direct encounters that the bears pose a limited threat, says Chirichella.
If bears are to become socially accepted in this area, it seems that these problem bears will first need to be better managed. The population in the area is currently thought to be increasing at 15% per year, so the problem is urgent.
Until it is resolved, bears have more reasons to be afraid of humans than we do of them.

Copyright: BBC LONDON - By Melissa Hogenboom

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