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Fatal Bear Attack Roils Conservationists, Regulators in Italy

A rare bear-related fatality in the Italian Alps could change public opinion on a once-popular bear rewilding program.

a european brown bear walks in the forestA European brown bear, also called a Eurasian brown bear; (photo/Shutterstock)
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A bear-related fatality in Italy is igniting debate around the country’s 25-year-old bear reintroduction program.

Editor’s note: This article was originally published on ExplorersWeb.

The trouble began on April 7 in the north Italian province of Trentino. Andrea Papi, 26, was out on a training run on Mt. Pellar in the Brenta Dolomites when a bear attacked him, delivering wounds to his chest, arms, and neck, according to The Guardian. Papi’s family reported him missing when he didn’t return from his run. Authorities found him dead the next day.

The World Wildlife Federation notes that there have been seven bear attacks in Italy over the last 20 years. ExplorersWeb could not confirm the last recorded fatal bear attack in the country before the one that killed Papi. But the death certainly marks the first such event since Trentino began a “bear rewilding” program in the late 1990s.

The EU-funded program began with an initial genetic pool of 10 animals captured in Slovenia and released into the mountains of Trentino. The project, known as LIFE Ursus, now monitors a population of over 100 bears.

a brown bear in a forest
The European Brown Bear has the widest range of any bear in the world. This photo was taken in Slovenia; (photo/Shutterstock)

The bear behind the attack, a 17-year-old female known as JJ4, had already attacked a father and son in the Mt. Pellar region in 2020, the BBC reported. After the fatal attack in early April, Trentino provincial governor Maurizio Fugatti ordered JJ4 to be killed. Wildlife officials captured the bear, but on April 14 a local administrative court suspended the kill order after receiving an appeal from animal rights groups.

A Potential Cull

This brings us to the current moment. As of this writing, JJ4’s life still hangs in the balance. The Italian National Institute for Environmental Protection is expected to issue a ruling deciding between deportation or death on May 11. In the meantime, the Trentino rewilding program is weathering the bad press generated by the fatal attack.

LIFE Ursus enjoyed support from over 75% of the Trentino population when it was launched, according to Wired. But scientists fear the recent death could jeopardize its future.

a brown bear with 3 cubs
JJ4 had three cubs, similar to the brown bears shown here. Italian authorities say the cubs were already in the weaning phase and should be fine without their mother; (photo/Shutterstock)

“It could be a huge step backward, I fear,” Claudio Groff, director of the Large Carnivores Division in Trentino’s Wildlife Department, told Wired. “Now, obviously, the level of public acceptance will fall further, the risks of poaching will rise, and whatever the outcome, it will be bears as a whole that will pay the price.”

It seems a warranted fear. Euronews.green reported that Fugatti — a member of Italy’s far-right League party — has stated he’d like to cull or remove as many as 70 other bears from the region. Wired confirmed this and also noted that the draconian reaction has no scientific basis. Additionally, Papi’s family “have made it clear that they’re not in favor of the mass cull advocated by Fugatti,” Wired reported.

The Benefits of Education

Advocates for the bear rewilding project remain passionate that education around human-bear interactions is paramount in preventing further attacks and deaths. After all, it’s been generations since Alp-dwelling Italians had any meaningful interaction with bears. Italians, like residents of many other European countries, hunted the animals to the brink of extinction beginning in the 17th century.

“We need better communication on why the project was initiated in the first place,” said Marco Salvatori, who monitors the bear population for Trentino’s Wildlife Department. “There’s a lack of knowledge in Italy on many levels, around conservation in general and the biodiversity crisis in particular.”

Such education measures are currently underway in Spain, where the recent reintroduction of brown bears has also generated more frequent bear/human interaction.

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