For centuries cohabitation had been the normal state of life in the Alps. Over the last century, however, as Alpine landscapes underwent radical changes, bear habitat shrank markedly. By the end of the 1930s, most bear colonies had become extinct. From the mid-twentieth century, as the conservation movement gained momentum, plans were developed for a nature reserve in the Alps of Trentino, in northern Italy. But these efforts succeeded only when, in the late 1990s, new bears were introduced into the area thanks to wildlife programs funded by both Italy and the European Union.
Now with about 80 bears in the area, inevitably there have been some unfortunate human-bear encounters. And they always seem to grab the headlines. As a rule, bears seldom attack humans; in fact, they usually avoid people. While they generally have a calm temperament, they can be unpredictable and can attack if surprised or threatened.
In August 2017, foresters shot and killed Kj2, a 14-year old female bear after it reportedly mauled an elderly man walking his dog. Yet some accounts say that Kj2 may have had two or three cubs with her; she may have been acting in self defense from a scared and stick-wielding human and his dog. If so, the bear’s response was natural, and the killing was extreme. Couldn’t Kj2 have been relocated with her cubs?
In June 2020, Trentino’s governor, Maurizio Fugatti, signed an ordinance to euthanize a bear that mauled two men walking on an alpine path. The national plan in Italy mandates that when a human is attacked, the animal must be euthanized. The rationale is that this could happen again, although there has been no evidence that bears are serial attackers. Animal rights groups say that determining the circumstances surrounding the aggression is critical, because bears shouldn’t have to die because of human errors. To identify the bear, researchers are using saliva and fur on the men’s clothing to extract DNA. They will seek a match in a database that has been built up over five years to monitor the bear population, including its numbers, the ratio of males to females, fertility rates, and movements. The database can also be used if a bear is poached or poisoned, or, as in this case, if it injures a human.
The most headline-grabbing story of 2020 belongs to M49, the bear nicknamed “Papillon” after the escaped convict from Devil’s Island. The most wanted bear in the Alps, “Papillon” has never attacked humans but he has decimated livestock, including cows, sheep and donkeys. Over a 14-month period, he has been captured and put in an electrified cage three times, only to escape again. Despite being well fed, not even 7,000 volts can deter this bear’s instinct for freedom.
The government must be able to safeguard the personal and economic security of local communities while, at the same time, defending the rights of these iconic animals to roam their historic territory. It’s a very tricky balance. Preventive actions to minimize bear-human interaction include: planting trees higher in the hills, ensuring an adequate food supply away from human settlements, and erecting electric fences around farms and vegetable gardens. Ongoing human education is essential. Humans need to clearly understand what they can and should do in areas frequented by bears. They should not approach bears. They should not threaten them with sticks or clubs. They should not allow their dogs to be off-leash. The costs and risks of cohabitation need to be fairly distributed among all participants—citizens, tourists, herders, the government, and, indeed, the bears too. The Alps deserve their bears, and the bears deserve their Alps.