At Leica, we are committed to those working at the frontlines of nature recovery and conservation in Europe. In collaboration with The European Nature Trust, we have launched an ambassadorship programme, where we hope to discover more about the realities of protecting our planet. In exchange, we’re gifting rangers and ecologists the high-quality equipment they need to perform their daily work.
Protector of Europe’s most fragile omnivore population
In the crisp winter snow that falls annually on the mountaintops of the Central Apennines in Italy the silhouettes of wolves can be spied from a distance. Usually hidden in the forests, the snow unmasks the native species that would otherwise be camouflaged in this biodiverse region of southern Europe. But one animal in particular, you probably won’t see; they are burrowed somewhere in the vanishing, mountainous expanse. Waiting in hibernation for the idle hand of spring is Europe’s most charismatic, endangered, and overlooked omnivore – the Marsican brown bear.
Through poaching, poisoning and land fragmentation, the population of Marsican brown bears has today dwindled to around 60 individuals, now roaming a range between 1,500–2,500 km2 in the Abruzzo, Lazio and Molise National Parks and surrounding areas. Having become genetically isolated from other European brown bears sometime between 5,000 and 3,000 years ago, the species began to decline as the wheels of industry marched upon its forested habitat. In the 19th century, Italy’s human population boomed, causing settlers to deforest large tracts of the beech forests the Marsican brown bear relied upon. Appetites for timber rose sharply; the land beneath forests became sought for agricultural purposes; and as gunpowder began to be commonly available, the species was intensely persecuted. It was a cocktail for local extinction.
Today, it is down to the passion of dedicated conservationists like Mario Cipollone that the breeding population and home range of the Marsican brown bear in Italy’s Central Apennines is growing. Mario spearheads the organizations Salviamo l’Orso and Rewilding Apennines – non-profit conservation groups dedicated to expanding the population of Marsican brown bears.
A boyhood fascination
It all began with the formative, unbridled curiosity of youth. ‘As a child, I was always roaming the countryside of the Central Apennines, spotting the birds, martins, weasels and badgers,’ says Mario. ‘I always had this fascination for investigating the natural world. We’d often be having dinner inside, and outside there would be animals, making noises in the dark, eking out their survival; the idea always enthralled me.’ Like so many of Europe’s most dedicated conservationists, as Mario grew older he would become frustrated with the amount of nature on documentaries and television programs that was ‘over there’, in far away places from the rural Italy he so cherished. ‘I think in my twenties I really started to appreciate how rooted I was to the Central Apennines area where I was born,’ says Mario. Then, in 2007, he chanced upon an image that would recourse his life forever. ‘The news channel showed three Marsican brown bears that had been poisoned. I knew that with such a fragile population, every individual of this species is precious. It triggered me to do something, and ever since then I’ve dedicated my life to conserving the bears.’
“It’s all about creating the ecological and social conditions for Marsican brown bear numbers to grow” – Mario Cipollone, co-founder of Salviamo l’Orso
Beginning as a volunteer, Mario has been volunteering for Salviamo l’Orso since 2012. ‘The NGO always wanted to have this practical approach, demonstrating concrete actions for the bear to make a lasting difference.’ Today, that mantra drives Salviamo l’Orso to overcome the modern day threats to the bears’ survival. ‘Humans are a great danger. Rural activities like farming and hunting can cause conflict with large omnivores,’ says Mario. As bears have lost habitat over time, they are often forced into human settlements surrounding Abruzzo, Lazio and Molise National Park to look for easy food. ‘Sometimes, damage to livestock can cause retaliation, and with such a small population of bears remaining, the loss of any number of individuals can be serious.’
To improve coexistence, Salviamo l’Orso are installing bear-proof fences and waste bins in local towns and villages. They are implementing a set of ‘Best Practices’ in local towns to improve human-bear coexistence, working to establish what they call ‘Bear Smart Communities’. Across two such municipalities, bear damage has dropped by 100 per cent. A key part of the success entails community outreach and education, helping locals to realize and take ownership of the natural heritage the bear represents. The species is also becoming a key part of the rural economy as conservation works to bolster bear numbers. ‘Each year, thousands of tourists visit the Central Apennines to see the bear,’ says Mario. ‘Locals are increasingly benefitting from the influx of money, but at the same time we have to make tourists bear-wise, which is never easy.’
Creating the social conditions to allow bear populations to flourish is one thing, building the habitat another. ‘We have a good Protected Areas system in Abruzzo, but in between sites bear habitat is reducing,’ Mario explains. ‘We need to help the bear to grow its range outside of the core protected areas.’ Salviamo l’Orso has multiple strategies: firstly, fruit trees are being planted to increase the range of suitable bear food; secondly, the organization is removing artificial barriers to bear dispersal, like unused fencing and barbed wire, left from old agricultural traditions; third, the quality of habitat is being enriched in ‘corridor areas’ which are crucial for the bears’ movement between the core areas of Abruzzo, Lazio and Molise National Park. The population is also being protected from introduced disease: between 2013 and 2016,
Conservation at this scale takes dedication to everyday work. ‘I’ve spent many years out in the field looking for signs of bears, monitoring damages and thinking of ways to better protect farms from bear raids,’ says Mario. Today, as team leader of Rewilding Apennines, Mario spends the bulk of his time fundraising, applying for critical grants and writing proposals. ‘There’s a lot of public outreach work as well – with such a small population, every detail is precious.’
A Wild Europe
Hidden in such details is an expansive vision for a wilder continent, where humans coexist with keystone species like the bear as essential regulators of the ecosystems we depend upon. ‘Quietly, nature is coming back in Europe, and I’m confident that there is a new approach coming in nature conservation. I trust in younger generations; Although there are fewer younger people living in rural areas, people are increasingly seeing nature as something that needs to be protected and cherished.’
Mario would like to see more individuals and companies doing their part for conservation; like many others, he pictures a world where we all fulfill our duties to the natural world that sustains us. ‘People are better approaching that better results in conservation equates with more ecosystem services like carbon storage, water purification, pollinator numbers – everything human society depends upon, even more economic opportunities through tourism. For us in Abruzzo, it’s more than that though – bears are our cultural and national heritage, and they have just as much right to the land as we do.’
“Through the Leica and The European Nature Trust’s partnership, we’re very pleased to receive Leica’s contribution of this equipment. It’s so important to have this quality equipment for our daily monitoring work for the bear. We will use it daily in the control areas to monitor bears and the threats the species faces” – Mario Cipollone