The killing of a well-known wild bear named Amarena has shocked Italy and raised fresh doubts about whether humans and large carnivores can coexist peacefully.
At 11pm on 31 August, Amarena was wandering through the streets of San Benedetto Dei Marsi in the Abruzzo region of Italy with her two cubs, when she was shot dead by a man who said he was defending his chicken coop.
She was one of around 60 remaining Marsican brown bears ((Ursus artos Marsicanus)a subspecies of the Eurasian brown bear classified as critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. It is mainly found in the Abruzzo, Lazio and Molise National Park, one of Europe’s wildest areas, around an hour’s drive away from Rome. Poaching and collisions with cars and trains are the leading causes of death for the subspecies.
Typically, only three to four females reproduce each year, having a total of three to 10 newborn cubs. Amarena was the most prolific individual ever known. In 2020, she gave birth to four cubs, an unusually high number.
Marsican bears are often spotted wandering around the small mountain villages in Abruzzo, and they are an attraction for tourists. But for the safety of bears and people, the national park and other institutions have tried unsuccessfully to prevent them from approaching villages.
“The presence of wild animals in villages increases the risk of negative interactions with people and the likelihood of accidents,” says Mario Cipollonethe co-founder of Salviamo L’Orso, a non-profit organisation working to save the Marsican bear from extinction. “If there are people who lure bears into towns for economic or selfish reasons, efforts by associations and institutions to keep these animals out of towns fail.”
Paula Mayer at ETH Zurich in Switzerland has studied the coexistence of bears and humans in Abruzzo, using a mathematical model to map the areas in which conflict is more likely. She found there is wide variation in people’s attitude towards bears, with more positive views in communities that profit from tourism and more hostility in those dependent on subsistence farming. Her research also shows that state investment, such as financial compensation for damage caused by bears, is crucial for fostering positive attitudes towards wildlife.
“In the area where Amarena was killed, the map shows a high probability of coexistence, meaning both threats to bears are low and human tolerance is high,” says Meyer. “However, a model remains a model and can never predict with certainty what will happen in reality.”
The killing of Amarena has taken people by surprise in a region that has been touted as an example of coexistence between humans and large carnivores.
“I believe that some areas of Abruzzo are truly models of coexistence. However, without a change in values, in the sense that the general population accepts wildlife in a shared landscape even if it brings them no instrumental benefit, we will never reach a deeply rooted and sustainable state of coexistence in the social-ecological system,” says Mayer.
“There is a need for the state to recognise the protection of nature and endangered species as a national priority, to invest in a culture of knowledge and respect for biodiversity, in the prevention of conflicts with large carnivores,” says Cipollone.