INTERNATIONAL DAY OF BIODIVERSITY 2010
 

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Italy: In the land of the wolves

Announcement

The wilderness is back

Findings and conclusions

Downloads

Gallery

Announcement

Original announcement of the event on this website (April 2010)


For the GEO articles in Italian language, please go to the downloads section.


The wilderness is back

Jana Valicelli is excited. The lectures given by scientists and fauna-experts are over, when she asks: “Is it true that wolf-pups have black fur?“ Marco Mencucci, who studies the biology of wolves here in the Foreste Casentinesi National Park, confirms her assumption. “Then we saw one, just a couple of weeks ago!“ she exclaims and pinches the arm of her husband. He is sitting next to her in the densely packed lecture hall in Campigna, lying at the border between the regions Toscana and Emilia-Romagna high up in the densely wooded mountains. “The wolf stood by the road and looked at us, before he disappeared into the woods!“


The probability of such an encounter still is not high – but in Italy it has risen strongly during the last 30 years. Wolves are back. The predators, reduced at the beginning of the 1970s to nationwide barely one hundred individuals, have now reclaimed the Apennine ridge in its full length. The mountains, up to 2912 meter high and ranging from the south of the Italian „boot“ to the Alps at the Riviera, are forming a one-of-a-kind green corridor. Beside wolves, wildcats, lynxes and eagle owls have resettled in large parts of the mountain range. Blazed by the sun in summer and an icy wind blowing in winter, it has become a bridgehead in the wilderness. This has been caused primarily through emigration of the peasants, which led to the decay of villages and the conversion of grazing land to wood. „Today about a thousand wolves roam the Apennine. They infiltrate the hilly country and even wander as far as the lowlands at the river Po“, says Mencucci. About 100 animals live in the National Park, he reckons, his estimation based on tracks, genetic analysis of droppings and night walks for wolf howls.


The Foreste Casentinesi is a nucleus, which crystallises primal nature. In some places the primeval beech groves have barely been touched for thousands of years. From the hills, the eye follows valleys without seeing houses or streets. Rushing silence. Surging solitude. Francis of Assisi chose these mountains for reclusion, to be one with creation.


This sanctuary hosts the „GEO-Action Day in the International Year of Biodiversity“ – organized by GEO Italy. For two days two dozen experts and hundreds of adults and children from the resident population have gathered, in order to take stock of the biodiversity in the Park's 3600 hectar area. And not only the wolf, the big hunter at the head of the food-chain, thrives here, but less popular animals and plants as well. For instance the shy Black woodpecker (Dryocopus martius). Or Alpine tozzia (Tozzia alpina), a parasitic plant. Or the orchid Epipactis helleborine, glowing white and lonely from the brush. At the Giornata della biodiversita two other mountain ranges on the Apennine peninsula, home, too, to substantial populations of the grey predator, are the destination of specialists for flora and fauna: the Abruzzi National Park and the National Park in the deserted Maritime Alps in the northwest of Turin.


The stocktaking in the Apennine begins in the blue-light-equipped 4x4-van of the Corpo Forestale, the national forest inspection. The car toils up to the top of the ridge, the watershed between Riviera and Adriatic Sea. Here, with winds whistling and branches still bare, lies the territorial borderline of two out of eight wolf packs roaming the park. Officers of the forest management are equipped with a gun and hand cuffs and they are authorized to take police action against poachers. Every year, poachers kill 50 to 70 wolves in Italy – and sometimes they show their loathing of the assumed rivals in a dramatic way: in the Ligurian village Sesta Godano a hunter, never caught, hung a wolf in a noose in the centre of the marketplace, perfectly visible to all passersby.


Now, at daytime, no wolf can be seen or heard atop the Apennine ridge. But his tracks can't be missed. The thick scent of the predator is in the air. Forestale-captain Angelo Salvaguardi detects fresh droppings in the sparse grass, right next to a delicate Scilla (Scilla sp.). The size of the heap is enormous, even compared to one of a fully grown shepherd dog, and it consists predominantly of the fur of boar. Wolves in the Apennine devour hoofed game and wild boar for nine tenth of their diet, they are especially keen on the young. Sheep and calves however, provided they are not left unguarded in the open at night, are rarely attacked by the predators, contrary to public belief.


Therefore, many peasants don't bear a grudge against the grey hunters. They understood, that this majestic animal can almost be regarded as a useful partner. Because deer and sows inflict immense damage on trees as well as fields and gardens. 90 percent of the money in the national compensation fund is claimed for such damage done by game animals, just ten percent have to be paid for sheep killed by wolves. Without the big hunters regulatory lifestyle damages done by deer and boars would probably even be more costly.


The consequence of allowing wolves to return to the woods is a minor loss of sheep – and a gain in wood and agricultural produce. It pays off to let native ecosystems revert itself to their natural, self-stabilizing state. Italy is well on the way of doing so. In April 2010, a wolf was sighted in South Tyrol. Genetic analysis has shown that he originated from the Apennine – and not from Slovenia or the Balkans. The resettling of the Alpes, of that huge European green corridor, has begun, starting in the south.


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Findings and conclusions

"Just like Germany sixty years ago"


Some sceneries in the Apennine are reminiscent of German low mountain ranges like the Harz or Vogelsberg – but before the industrialisation of farming begun. Meadows were mowed late in the year or sometimes not at all. Therefore species, which in Germany became almost extinct, can be found more often in these mountainous regions in Italy. Participants of the Action Day 2010, among them scientists from the universities of Florence and Pisa, were able to catch the rare Orange Tip (Anthocaris cardamines) and the Small Heath (Coenonympha pamphilus). The abundance of insects in the habitat attracts bats. Scientists located the Soprano pipistrelle (Pipistrellus pygmaeus), only recently identified as a distinct species, and the closely related Common pipistrelle (Pipistrellus pipistrellus). Rare birds were found, too, such as the Ortolan bunting (Emberiza hortulana), the once omnipresent but nowadays threatened Italian sparrow (Passer italiae), and the Crag martin (Ptyonoprogne rupestris). Land consolidation, which has destroyed large parts of German landscapes, left the Italian mountain valleys untouched. This had positive consequences on the population of sensitive amphibians: in one single pond alone scientists located three different species of newts – the Italian crested newt (Triturus carnifex), the Alpine newt (Triturus alpestris), and the Common newt (Triturus vulgaris).


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Downloads

Italy_Biodiversity_October_A_2010.pdf

GEO coverage of Biodiversity Action Day in the Italian Alps (GEO Italy, October 2010, in Italian)

2.1 M

Italy_Biodiversity_October_B_2010.pdf

GEO coverage of various international Biodiversity Action Days (GEO Italy, October 2010, in Italian)

547 K

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Gallery

Alpi Marittime


Parco Abruzzo Lazio e Molise


Parco del Casentinese


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Photos: Massimilano Clausi, Emiliano Mancuso / Contrasto, Fabio Liverani