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Killer facts about apex predators and rewilding

The reintroduction of big predators often comes at a human cost, but animal rights lobbyists seemingly choose to ignore the killer facts, says Alasdair Mitchell

A brown bear with cubs

A brown bear with cubs

I have observed before that those who are most enthusiastic about the reintroduction of apex predators seldom live in places where these things are being turned loose. I am not necessarily against reintroductions, but I do wonder why proponents never seem to have a plan if something starts to go wrong. Surely an option for lethal control of specific problem animals should be built into every reintroduction project? And to ensure this safety valve operates, there must be a mechanism for fending off the animal rights lobby.

Look at the situation with brown bears in the Italian Alps. Ten bruins were originally released near Trento in 1999. Under strict protection, they have prospered beyond the dreams of the planners. Today, there are about 120 bears in northern Italy. There have also been at least seven non-fatal bear attacks on humans since the reintroduction. This April, a person was killed.

Mountain rescue

Andrea Papi, 26, went jogging near his home town of Balzano. After he was reported missing, mountain rescue teams with tracker dogs mounted a search. They found his dismembered body at the end of 100m-long blood trail. A 17-year-old sow bear known as JJ4 was identified from DNA left on the victim’s body. She is the home-bred produce of two of the original project bears, which came from Slovenia.

This bear has form; she had already attacked two other people. In June 2020, Fabio Misseroni, 59, and his son Christian, 28, were hospitalised after being mauled by JJ4, suffering deep cuts and bites.

Following this near-fatal encounter, the provincial government gave orders to locate and shoot JJ4. However, this action was stayed after a legal challenge from animal rights activists. One might forgive the most recent victim’s relatives for thinking that by blocking action against JJ4 after those first attacks, this fatality became inevitable.

Andrea’s family have said they will sue the local authorities for not doing enough to protect locals. They are being joined by farmers whose sheep and cattle have been attacked by bears. The provincial president has once again issued a shoot to kill order, but yet again his decree is being challenged.

JJ4 has now been captured alive and is the subject of ongoing legal arguments. The same animal rights organisation that opposes JJ4 being killed is also opposing lethal action being taken against another bear, MJ5, which is still at large after mauling a man in March. Yet another bear, M62, which is considered dangerous because of his overconfidence around humans, was found dead recently. State forestry officials think he may have been killed in a fight with another bear, but the animal rights lobby suspect he was shot.

As big predators return to many parts of Europe, a new realism is beginning to dawn. The German state of Bavaria has recently issued permission for wolves to be shot if and when they attack livestock. In the region of Franconia, which has an important fish-farming tradition, otters can now be legally killed if necessary. Is the tide of political opinion beginning to turn?