Italian farmers furious with furry fugitive

Bear strength: The bite force of a brown bear is 975psi, strong enough to crack a bowling ball. © Getty

Can humans live alongside dangerous animals? As bears are reintroduced to northern Italy, some worry that they pose a threat to humans – while others worry that humans are a threat to bears.

All this summer, the people of Trento, in northern Italy, lived in fear of a notorious fugitive.

So menacing was this runaway, who goes by the nickname “Papillon”, that the local authorities sent out an order to shoot him on sight.

Now, at last, he has been taken alive – and sent to a maximum-security prison, where he is surrounded 24/7 by a live electric fence.

Papillon’s real name is M49, and he is a four-year-old brown bear. He is far less dangerous than he sounds: he has never attacked a human. However, he does have a weakness for snacking on other people’s chickens, making him an unpopular figure amongst local farmers.

His recent escape has sparked a heated debate about whether bears should be reintroduced to the wild. By the 1990s, there were only four bears left in northern Italy. Careful conservation measures have brought this figure up to around 90, but this is causing conflict with locals who worry that bears pose a threat to their livestock — and to their lives.

Bears have lived in Europe for as long as humans, and they have left their mark on human societies. Two constellations, Ursa Major and Ursa Minor, are named after bears. The name Bernard means “brave as a bear”, and linguist Stefan Zimmer believes that the name Arthur derives from an old Celtic word meaning “bear-king”.

There is no doubt that bears are lethal predators. The brown bear grows up to 2.5m long, weighs 620kg, and can run at speeds of up to 35km/hr.

But bears have generally only killed humans due to extreme hunger, or when protecting their young – they are mostly nocturnal, and live well away from human settlements. As omnivores, they are capable of living on berries, so they do not need to steal farm animals or attack humans for food.

Indeed, for most of history, bears have been the victims of humans, not the other way round. In ancient Rome, they were captured and forced to fight other wild animals, and sometimes against human gladiators. Just a few centuries ago, “bear-baiting”, in which a bear would be tied to a stake and mauled by savage dogs, was a popular sport.

When humans settle, they tend to wipe out wild animals. Before American colonists arrived in California, 10,000 grizzly bears lived alongside the existing human population. The colonists slaughtered both. Today there are no bears left in California.

But humans do also co-exist with dangerous predators. In southern Egypt, it is common for people to keep young crocodiles, which eat rats and mice, as a form of live pest control, although they have to be returned to the Nile when they grow older.

Some argue that we have exaggerated the threat posed by these large predators. Rabid dogs kill as many as 25,000 people each year, but no-one questions whether or not human beings can co-exist with dogs.

So, can humans live alongside dangerous animals?

Unbearable

Yes, say some. In Canada, people co-exist with bears living just outside their cities. If we can learn to live alongside nature, treating it with respect, then we can restore biodiversity and enrich our natural environment. Humans have little to fear from bears: the main threats to human life around the world do not come from big predators, but from preventable diseases and manmade hazards.

Not at all, say others. New ecosystems have developed around human agriculture that big predators will disrupt: chickens and sheep are not adapted to being hunted. Evidence from Spain suggests that reintroduced bear and wolf populations often eat farmers’ livestock. Farmers often retaliate by killing these animals. Bringing back bears endangers not only human beings, but also the bears themselves.

You Decide

  1. What are the three animals you are most scared of? Would you be willing to live near them?
  2. Do we have a responsibility to try to preserve animal habitats exactly the way they were before human beings moved in; or should we encourage animals to adapt to us?

Activities

  1. Imagine Papillon escapes again! Write a ballad about the legendary bear that could never be captured.
  2. Write a letter to a newspaper supporting or opposing the reintroduction of bears to Europe.

Some People Say...

“Always respect Mother Nature. Especially when she weighs 400 pounds and is guarding her baby.”

James Rollins, American writer and vet.

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Most people agree that human behaviour is killing off animal species at an alarming rate. Half of the planet’s species might go extinct before the end of this century. Human settlement and expansion has almost always been accompanied by the annihilation of local animal populations, but this has intensified in recent decades due to pollution. Some scientists think that human beings should be considered a global super-predator, thanks to our success in eliminating other animal species.
What do we not know?
There is some debate over whether or not humans can survive our own extinction event. We are dependent on some of the animals that are rapidly disappearing: pollinating insects, including but not limited to bees, are vital for growing crops, and they are dying out in huge numbers. However, humans are extraordinarily adaptable, and it is possible that we will find an alternative to natural pollination.

Word Watch

Constellations
Constellations are generally named after animals and figures from Greek mythology. Today, they are used to categorise celestial objects. Although the stars appear to be close together in the night sky, they are actually millions of miles away from each other, and from us.
Linguist
Someone who studies the development and workings of languages. Some linguists study how modern languages work, while others study how languages developed historically; still others try to translate ancient languages.
Nocturnal
Active at night and asleep during the day. The term derives from the Latin “nocturnus”, meaning “of the night”. Its opposite is “diurnal”.
Omnivores
An animal that lives on a mixed diet including both meat and plants. Omnivores, a group that includes human beings, stand between herbivores, which only eat plants, and carnivores, which only eat meat. The word comes from the Latin “omnis”, meaning “all”, and “vorare”, “to eat”.
Gladiators
Ancient Roman fighters who would stage battles and duels for the entertainment of large crowds. Although this is often thought of as a bloody sport, in reality it was quite rare for gladiators to be killed: their aim was to incapacitate their opponent.
California
A large state on the west coast of the USA. It is the country’s most populous state, with more than 37 million people. First settled by Native Americans as much as 13,000 years ago, the area was subsequently conquered by Spain, then was absorbed into Mexico, which was forced to hand it over to the USA in 1848.
Nile
The longest river in the world, passing through eleven different countries. It is an exceptionally old river, thought to have existed in some form for 23 million years. Egyptian civilisations have sustained themselves on the Nile, whose floodplain creates very fertile soil, for 7500 years.
Rabid
Describes an animal that is infected with rabies, a deadly disease that can be passed to humans by dogs and bats. It affects the brain, and can cause some odd symptoms: in its history it has sometimes been referred to as “hydrophobia”, meaning “fear of water”, because sufferers show signs of panic when presented with water.
Biodiversity
The range of species present within a particular area. Human activity tends to favour particular species: domesticated animals and plants that are useful to us, like wheat and other crops.

Subjects

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