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We reach the top of the mountain, damp and sweaty after 2.5 kilometres of hiking in the drizzling rain. Lucky for our little group of seven, no sooner do we emerge from the woods does the sun appear from behind the clouds to bathe the meadow in a golden light.
We’re laying our jackets on the ground and getting our cameras and telescopes ready when, suddenly, Valeria Roselli, one of our two guides, signals to us to keep quiet and get down on the ground. Then she points excitedly to the next meadow over, perhaps 700 metres away. It takes me a while to focus on what she is pointing at, but finally I see him: a fair-sized brown bear, “about three or four years old,” Valeria whispers.
At this point, most readers would assume that I’m in Canada. They would be wrong, though. I’m in Italy, only an 1.5-hour drive from Rome in the Central Apennine Mountains of the Parco Nazionale d’Abruzzo, Lazio et Molise. More specifically, I’m on a Marsican bear-sighting safari with Wildlife Adventures.
Yes, there are bears in Italy. Wolves too. Not many – fewer than 50 Marsican brown bears roam the Central Apennines and there are at least 50 wolves, but the people at Rewilding Europe are working to increase numbers.
What is Rewilding Europe?
Rewilding Europe, a non-profit wildlife conservation organization that celebrated its fifth anniversary in July, 2016, works with 10 wildlife areas across Europe, one of which is the Central Apennines of Italy.
The Central Apennines, which have been rocked by two major earthquakes in the past seven years – one hitting L’Aquila in 2009 and another striking Amatrice on Aug. 24, 2016, – is the most rugged part of a mountain range that stretches along Italy’s spine from the northwest coast to the toe of the boot. The mountain chain may not be as tall or dramatic as the Alps, but some peaks, such as the Camosciara, with its crenellated grey rock ridges reminiscent of the Dolomites, create such a spectacular natural amphitheatre that the sight of them made my heart skip a beat.
The work that wildlife conservationists and enthusiasts have done in the Parco Nazionale d’Abruzzo stands as a shining example of what the rewilding movement can do not only for wildlife but also for a community.
Rewilding Europe’s philosophy is simple. Many villages and rural areas across Europe have been left empty because of urbanization and the abandonment of land, says Alberto Zocchi, a nature conservationist and Rewilding Europe’s team leader for the Central Apennines.
In the past four or five decades in Europe, the forest has been growing back and indigenous animals, such as grey wolves, the Eurasian lynx, the brown bear, deer, wild boar, Alpine and Iberian ibexes and the chamois, as well as eagles, griffons and ravens, species that had long ago disappeared or been hunted to near-extinction, have graduallyreoccupied or been reintroduced to the land by wildlife conservationists.
Despite wildlife numbers still being far too low, Rewilding Europe believes that now is a historic opportunity for Europe. “Land abandonment is seen largely as a problem, both for people being linked to the loss of jobs, and for nature. The Rewilding approach wants to demonstrate that this problem can be turned into a big opportunity,” Zocchi says. “If you consider the huge increase in wildlife tourism and the lack of lodging and services opportunities in the Rewilding areas and put all this together, you have an incredible opportunity to develop high-end, sustainable tourism in abandoned areas where wildlife is increasingly easy to observe and the feeling of the wild is at its best.”
As Rewilding Europe has been trying to get across to its opponents, “this makes wildlife more valuable alive than dead,” its website says. Wildlife tourism is good for people, it argues, since it creates jobs. And it’s good for animals.
Rewilding Europe aims to rewild at least one million hectares of land across Europe by 2022. Rewilding Appenines is aiming for 200,000 by the same year.
Into the wild
Before leaving Canada, Zocchi put me in touch with Umberto Esposito, founder of Wildlife Adventures, a wildlife tourism company based in Pescasseroli, a small town located within the boundaries of the Parco Nazionale d’Abruzzo.
At the top of the mountain, as Umberto films the bear on his camera equipped with his gigantic lens, Valeria is inviting us five participants to view the bear through her powerful telescopic lens. Now it’s my turn. Each time, he – or perhaps it’s a she; we don’t know – appears in the lens, I feel my heart speed up and a smile spread over my whole face. “Did you see him? Did you see him?” the others ask in an excited whisper.
I gasp when the bear appears to be gambolling (bears are big and heavy, but they run much more quickly than I could have imagined) toward us, disappearing behind some trees. I imagine that he’s going to race through the woods that divide us and suddenly appear at our feet. Or as Dafne, one of the participants, jokes, turn up directly behind us. Just as swiftly, the bear goes back to the bush he was sniffing at a few moments earlier.
I’ve given up using my camera as the bear is simply too far away for my small lens. Valeria mentions that it’s possible to take a photo through her telescope using an iPhone and she shows me how to do it. It’s harder than it seems, but with a lot of help from Valeria, we end up with a pretty good photo. Dafne and Valeria beg me to send it to them.
As the sky turns from light blue to pink to periwinkle blue, we continue observing the bear lumbering, sniffing, coming and going into the woods as the members of our little group sit companionably, chatting in low voices, looking through binoculars and munching on the snacks we had been told to bring. Viewing wild animals in their natural habitat is a waiting game requiring a lot of patience.
Later, as we head back down the mountain through the forest, it’s getting so dark that the headlamps Umberto provided us with become essential. Dafne spots some fireflies, which I learn are called lucciole, from the word luce (light in Italian). By the time we get back down the mountain, it’s pitch-black outside and it’s freezing. I haven’t been this cold in July since my days of sleep-away camp in the Laurentians in the 1970s.
Umberto picks me up from my B&B in Civitella Alfedena at 8:30 the following morning. On the way to a wolf sanctuary, I ask him what motivated him to open his company. The wildlife enthusiast and photographer came to his work by way of an epiphany, he says, when, as a teenager, he had a close encounter of the bear kind while hiking with two friends.
“It was the cubs who approached us first. We didn’t see the mother bear at first. I had my father’s old camera and I was busy trying to get closer to the little ones so I could photograph them. I noticed the cubs get shy and nervous. Suddenly, my friends were gone. The mother was standing up on her hind legs, face to face with me.”
Rather than run off or slump down and play dead, Umberto took a photo of her. “And I knew at that moment: This is what I want to do with my life. I knew I wanted to be a wildlife guide. Then the mother bear dropped down on all fours and sauntered off.”
Umberto opened Wildlife Adventures in 2009 so that he could share his passion with others. Business has been steadily increasing, especially since his company partnered with Rewilding Apennines, which has been operating for two years.
Unfortunately, summer is not a good time to spot wolves, Umberto says, because they’re in their dens with their pups. The best time is winter. Hence the reason that he has taken me to the wolf sanctuary in Civitella, where you can observe the animals in a relatively large enclosure, with a forested area in the middle and a view of the surreally green lake when they climb a massive rock.
The two adult wolves were hit by cars, Umberto tells me. Apparently their injuries were too serious to be able to release them back into the wild. Now, they live at the sanctuary with their offspring.
In Civitella Alfedena, where I’m staying, and in the park in general, there’s a great love for the two big blockbuster animals: bears and wolves. This love is not new. Unlike many other national and regional parks in Italy, there has been no hunting permitted in Parco Nazionale d’Abruzzo since 1923. The park’s symbol is a Marsican brown bear sitting on his bottom. Everywhere you go in the charming and authentic mountain village of Civitella, as well as other villages in the park, you encounter names such as Bar del orso (Bear Bar) or Hotel del lupo (Wolf Hotel). Many homes even sport bear icons.
Back in the car, I ask Umberto about this.
“In my opinion, it’s a good sign,” he says. “It shows how people see these animals today, not as something to be feared, as in the past, but as an economic resource, as something to be protected.”
As we motor along, passing an abandoned village, fields of grazing horses and groups of café-au-lait-hued cows herded by mocha-coloured Abruzzese shepherd dogs, Umberto points to a mountain. “You see that mountain up there with the tree in the middle of the green field? People aren’t allowed to hike there because the bears go there to eat berries. The park authorities don’t want the animals to be disturbed.”
Umberto hopes that wildlife numbers will continue to increase in the park and that animals will be able to cross over from one park to another, without being killed. He also hopes that more people will be persuaded to return to the deserted villages and open hotels and restaurants, shops and gas stations for the cars that drive through the park.
“Not everyone is convinced that this is economically sustainable,” he says.
“There are many conflicting interests. In the other parks, some want to continue hunting and lead hunting safaris. Others want to open ski resorts. Still, it is working,” he says optimistically. “Did you see all the trekking groups leaving from Civitella? And the hotels are full.”
Unfortunately, people have been scared away by the news reports about the recent earthquake, so Wildlife Adventures has suffered a huge drop in tour registrations. Umberto says tremors were felt in Pescasseroli – 152 kilometres away from Amatrice, the quake’s epicentre – but there was no damage.
Umberto hopes that through re-education, Rewilding Europe and Rewilding Apennines will eventually be able persuade the hunters who live in and around the parks bordering this one to lay down their arms and lead wildlife viewing safaris instead.
It has happened with hunting safari guides in Africa, I point out, why not here? Exactly, Umberto says. “They say this will be the next Yosemite, you know.”
Wildlife Adventures covered the cost of the writer’s bear-watching trek. It did not review or approve this article.
If you go
There are buses and trains from the Rome Tiburtina station to Avezzano, where you can transfer to another bus to Pescasseroli. You will probably have to wait at least an hour for the connection.
If you want to stay in the smaller village of Civitella Alfedena, you’re better off renting a car as there are only one or two buses a day from Avezzano that continue on to Civitella.
What to do
Wolf sanctuary, Civitella Alfedena. Located behind the Museo del Lupo on Via Santa Lucia, Civitella Alfedena. Tel. (+39) 0864 890141. Admission: free.
Wildlife Adventures, wildlifeadventures.it, Largo Molinari 67032 Pescasseroli. Tel. (+39) 0863 1856566. Leads trekking and photography adventures for wildlife enthusiasts.
Where to stay
Albergo Antico Borgo la Torre, albergolatorre.com, Via Castello, Civitella Alfedena, 67030. Tel. (+39) 0864 890121. Simple and rustic, this authentic B&B located in the centre of the lovely medieval village of Civitella feels like staying at a friend’s comfortable cottage in the 1980s. Run by the overworked but friendly and very helpful Antonio Antonucci, the Albergo attracts German, Italian and French hikers and group tours. Not only will Antonio rise before dawn to prepare breakfast for you if you’re off on a pre-sunrise hike, but he works all day in the kitchen to prepare traditional Abruzzese three-course dinners for large groups. He’ll also do packed lunches and cater to veggie eaters. Doubles from €40 ($58) a night. Traditional three-course dinner, with wine, €15.
A higher-end alternative located in the larger town of Pescasseroli is Albergo Villino Quintiliani, villinoquintiliani.it, Viale Santa Lucia, 1 67032, Tel. (+39) 0863 910755. It is set in a restored early-20th-century Liberty-style house, featuring landscaped gardens and modern rooms with all amenities, hardwood floors, wood-panelled walls, some with fireplaces. There is also an elegant restaurant and lounge bar. Doubles from €80.