Interview with Matteo Serafini an Italian Wolf Researcher…

Inside the Heart of Wolf Advocacy: The Italian Story

Interview by Brunella Pernigotti

First of all, thank you Matteo for accepting our interview request, where we will try to trace a brief portrait of the Italian wolf for an audience accustomed to quite different situations, even if the problems of management and coexistence with this endangered species are equivalent both in US and in Europe, due to the atavistic prejudices and the vision that men have always had of the wolf as a competitor in the hunt and as a danger for domestic animals.

Matteo Serafini – Interview

Would you please tell us something about you, about your life and the studies that led you to be interested in wolves?

I began to take an interest in this species in 2009, in summer. I was a student in Natural Sciences at the University of Pavia and I was preparing my specialist degree thesis: in these two years of studies and training I researched and evaluated the impact of the predator on livestock activities in the Liguria Region, where the species had been monitored since 2007. In 2012 I won a three-year research assignment at the Antola Regional Natural Park (Genoa), which was one of the leaders of the regional project “Il Lupo in Liguria”, where I dedicated myself to the work on the field (data collection), verifying the alleged predations on the zoo-technical property, and to educational activities. Since the end of this regional project, in 2015, I haven’t had any opportunity to work again actively with wolves. Since then, however, I have continued to collaborate with various universities (Pavia, Turin, Pisa), supporting in their degree theses those students who want to study the wolves, and helping them in data collecting and analyzing. I’m still continuing my educational activities both at any institution that asks me for them (Public Administrations, Schools or corporation) and individually as an Environmental Hiking Guide.

Was there a profound reason that prompted you to be interested in wolf management and conservation in Italy?

To be honest, I didn’t choose to work with wolves … It was a coincidence, even if I had a sort of epiphany: when I was a student, one night I had a dream in which I was chased by a bear, so the next day I went immediately to my teacher, Prof. Alberto Meriggi (who held and is still holding the course of Management and Conservation of the fauna at the University of Pavia) and I told him that I wanted to work on large carnivores. At that time, he was the scientific director of a project to study the wolf in Liguria, so he sent me to the Western Liguria to work on it for my thesis internship. It all has started since then …

In your opinion, is the Italian wolf (Canis lupus italicus) particularly valuable for biodiversity? What problems do we have at a national level if we want to preserve its purity, against the risk of hybridization?

Ecologically, the wolf, like any other species, influences the components and processes of the ecosystem to which it belongs, causing a series of cascading effects. In general, large predators, occupying the top of the food chain, carry out a direct demographic control on prey species, reducing their number, influencing their structure (e.g. age classes) or quality (e.g. by eliminating the weakest or sickest individuals); besides they indirectly modify also the behavior of their preys (e.g. occupied areas or activity rhythms). All this also affects lower trophic levels and the resources that the potential preys could exploit: in this way they indirectly help to maintain the structure of the plant life which is present in their habitat, too. The large carnivores also influence the presence of other small and medium-sized carnivores that, living at higher densities, can have a negative effect on the smaller fauna (e.g. micro-mammals, birds, etc.). It is clear that this top-down effect is of great importance to keep good levels of biodiversity. Under a more managerial profile, then, I think evaluating and conserving habitats for vulnerable or endangered species, such as the wolf, are important for proper land management. Protecting the wolf, which needs large territories relatively undisturbed by man, means also to protect the habitats and species that live within that territory (in this sense we can speak of an “umbrella” species); this also helps to preserve or boost biodiversity. Finally, the wolf is also an economic resource, as a charismatic and totemic species it contributes to generating attractiveness for the territory, bringing wealth and resources to those areas where the state of abandon by men has led to poverty and loss of biodiversity: for instance, neglected open areas, such as meadows and pastures, have favored the “advance” of the forest, with a consequent loss of biodiversity for the local flora and invertebrate species.

Hybridization with domestic dogs is a very complex phenomenon and it’s difficult to resolve. While it is very simple to “pollute” the genetic pool of a population, since a single reproduction event is sufficient to do it, on the other side it is impossible to eliminate the introgressive component completely. To complicate matters there is also the fact that at a normative level it is not clear what a hybrid is: up to what generation can we consider a hybrid? How should it be treated? … We have been considering this phenomenon for a too short time! Identifying the eventual hybrids and captivating or sterilizing them and then releasing them in the wild are effective but palliative methods, on the contrary intervening at the source, that is on canine straying and rambling (framework law 281 of ’91) has so far proved completely inefficient. To this we must also add the profound animalist sensitivity that dwells in our country and which the scientific world often clashes with: let’s think about the difficulty of eradicating some invasive alien species, such as nutrias or gray squirrels. Finally, it should be taken into account that, as long as the number of wolves continues to have a positive trend in Italy and Europe, the chances of a wolf-dog encounter will increase.

Canis lupus italicus

And now let’s talk about the Liguria Region. We all know that Italy is morphologically very different, because it has two mountain ranges: the Apennines that cross it longitudinally from north to south, and the Alps that outline its northern borders. Liguria is in a strategic position: could you explain to us what geographical and logistic role it had, and still has, in the phase of dispersion and expansion of the Apennine wolves travelling towards the Alps?

The mountains have always been an important ecological corridor for all those creatures that can move independently: they are continuous areas, rich in resources and vegetation and with a low human disturbance. Of course, it has not always been so: the progressive urbanization and abandonment of mountain areas by men, that began after the Second World War, allowed a rapid re-naturalization of the territory with the formation of new forest areas and the return of the typical fauna; there were actions encouraged by men, too, such as afforestation and faunal reintroductions for economic purposes. To this we must add the role of the protected areas which, precisely in those depopulated mountain areas, have found a way to establish. Liguria is between the two most important mountain ranges of our country, and it represents a very important ecological corridor. This territory, typically mountainous and wooded with the human population concentrated on the coast, has played a primary role in the displacement of animal and plant species through the Apennines, the Alps and the Provencal reliefs, in both directions of travel. Numerous cases of radiolabeled wolves (wolf M15 is the best known case: it had been named “Ligabue”, and its travel was traced from Parma to Cuneo, that is more than 1000 km!) or of genetic samplings have shown how the process of expansion of the species towards the Alpine arc has passed through the Ligurian mountains: in some cases, moving north through the province of Genoa to Piedmont, Lombardy or Emilia Romagna or, in other cases, continuing westward to Piedmont and then to France.

In Italy wolves are opposed more by breeders, than by sport hunters. During your studies and researches on the field, did you get to deal with breeders who are favorable to the presence of the wolf in their area? When they don’t, what do they especially complain about?

Certainly, I dealt a lot with the relationship between wolves and breeders during my project years, meeting breeders and associations. I have never found anyone particularly favorable to the presence of the predator, however some entrepreneurs have proved to be virtuous and, rather than complaining, they have rolled up their sleeves, listened to and followed the proposals and advice from the experts and although they could not reset their economic damage, they made it acceptable, finding a solution to their coexistence with wolves. However, working on the subject, I could figure out that the wolf, strictly speaking, is the last of the breeder’s problems. There are numerous problems of different kinds: from the economic convenience in working as a breeder, to the management of the damages that undeniably lead to a very difficult and tense situation for these entrepreneurs. Being a breeder (or rather a shepherd) is a hard and tiring job: it’s very often carried out in areas with poor services (such as roads, water points, electricity, etc.) while management costs are very high (shelters, places to product cheese, forage, pasture rent, veterinary expenses etc.) and the income is influenced by numerous factors (environmental and climatic conditions in the season, price of milk and meat, diseases etc.). Probably, without any kind of European, State, or Regional economic contribution, no breeder, who still practices extensive grazing, would survive. To this we must add that when an alleged predatory event occurs, a long and difficult process starts to ask and (in some cases) obtain a refund. 1) It is necessary to find the dead animal within 48h (which is not always easy because of the morphology of the territory, the climatic conditions and the number of men in the pasture) in order to be able to carry out a careful necropsy and certify that the animal is dead because of a predation, but the more time passes the more the carcass decomposes or other animals can arrive and eat it. 2) If the carcass is found in time and we can say for sure that it has been killed, the predator must be determined: was it a dog? a wolf? other? Depending on it, there are different regulations and procedures to follow in order to request a refund; but it is not always easy to remove the doubt: in some cases, it is possible to do DNA tests on the wounds … but who pays for them? 3) Once causes and predator are ascertained, one must draw up the report of damage request and send it, but how much is the damage worth? Species, age, sex and aptitude of the animal contribute to determining the value; besides, the indirect damages, such as the loss of production or the shock for the rest of the herd / flock are not considered. 4) The costs of the carcass disposal are charged to the owner who in any case must report the death of the animal to the competent authorities in order to discharge the head fiscally. So the breeder should: contact our National Health Authority, the rangers or specialized officials, then he has to download, fill out and send the forms, remove the carcass and wait for the result of the request! This process often discourages farmers from reporting the damage, but, without any complaint from them, the Public Administration cannot estimate the total costs of damages to the territory and therefore they cannot arrange the resources for any mitigation measures. So we enter a loop difficult to come out of.

Let’s get to the numbers: approximately how many packs are estimated to be permanent and reproductive currently in Liguria? How many losses are there per year, considering also deaths for poaching and for any anthropic reasons?

It is not possible to provide recent data, since there has no longer been a regional monitoring in Liguria since 2005. In the last report delivered to the Regional administration, six breeding packs, with a population of about 28-35 settled individuals were estimated for certain, in the area. However, these numbers do not represent the totality of the animals that move within the territory, as many other packs are present along the contact areas through Liguria, France, Piedmont, Emilia Romagna and Tuscany, whose individuals cross regions and state borders. Altogether, from 2008 to 2014, 21 dead wolves were detected in Liguria; the main cause of death was poaching (57% by firearms or poisoning), followed by road accidents (14%) and to a lesser extent by diseases (9%); in 20% of the cases it was not possible to trace the cause of death.

Since each Italian Region has different political approaches, what particular measures has the Ligurian Administration taken in order to mitigate conflicts with farmers and to favor a balanced coexistence with this predator?

The Liguria Region embarked on various actions on the matter: particularly it has improved the procedure of Complaint-Verification-Reimbursement of damage and offers support to farmers who accept to test the prevention methods.

Thanks to specific agreements between the Region, the Provinces, the ASL, the former Forestry Corps and the University, a protocol was set up to ascertain the damage: it included the formation of a task force that carried out the inspection, collected the data and prepared the reimbursement reports and death certificates, minimizing the time and expenses for the breeder who was allowed to report the damage indifferently to regional or provincial offices, or to the corps of forest rangers, or to the National Health Authority or to the Park’s Authority. With the acquired data on predations it was possible to develop a probabilistic predation risk model used to classify the most vulnerable farms and then intervene by testing some preventive systems. Mainly two methods were used: electrified fences for the night shelter of the livestock and the installation of acoustic dissuaders. Solutions mixing the two methods were also tested. The results showed that where the systems were installed according to the precise instructions of the experts, the damage decreased. As the results were positive, many breeders invested personal resources to buy new materials. Thanks to the study on the risk of predation it was possible to evaluate other variables that influenced the risk of damage (e.g. droppings with or without a human presence, seasonal periods of sensitivity, kind of pasture) and therefore to suggest other solutions to limit the damage. Most breeders had no intention of changing their methods, but they made at least one attempt. We never tried to introduce livestock guarding dogs, because we believed that this resource, which is very effective and useful especially in Abruzzo where the wolf never became extinct, would be difficult to apply in an area where the shepherd dogs tradition is missing. Managing, educating and working with these dogs is not easy and we could not risk entrusting dogs to people who could not have the knowhow and the time to educate them properly and who, indeed, could have further problems, especially with the many hikers and cyclists coming to our mountains.

In conclusion, clearing the damage is almost impossible where the predator is present (e.g. a switch that does not work, a badly placed or too low wire, a thunderstorm, the frequent fog in August etc.), but making the business risk acceptable, guaranteeing support to farmers and providing them with a fair reimbursement, these are feasible and desirable actions.

What can we hope for, realistically speaking, about the future development of a wolf management policy in Italy?

Speaking in technical terms the management of the wolf is not desirable, as in Italy the term “management” means a direct intervention on the population, it happens for many other species such as wild boar or roe deer. All large carnivores in Europe (wolves, bears, lynxes and wolverines) are threatened and as such, every effort must be aimed at their conservation rather than at management. On the other hand, it’s important to manage the damages and the monitoring at a national level. It is not possible that in each different area of Italy we have different methods for compensation of damages and different approaches for monitoring.

Regarding your personal experience, is there something that impressed you most while monitoring wolves? Are there any episodes or close encounters with wolves that you particularly love to remember?

Unfortunately, in all the years I worked in Liguria, I saw only dead wolves, despite the many kilometers on foot; but the wolf-howling experiences, in which I happened to hear both adults and cubs, have been very significant. Every time I heard them, I remember a shiver down my back and a feeling of joy and emotion. Perhaps those nights around the mountains have been the most exciting and rewarding part of all my field work.

We have come to the end: would you like to say anything more? For my part, there is a documentary, “Medicine of the wolf” by Julia Huffman: this title refers to the myth of the natives of Minnesota that consider wolves as totemic animals and the medicine of the world. Therefore, I ask you: is there anything what the wolf taught you? Can you say that it is a medicine for you?

I venture to say that today I would not be the man I am, if I had not started working on this animal. I left my hometown, south to Milan, seven years ago, in order to move to Liguria and follow the project more closely, then I knew a new and wonderful territory that today, even if my research ended, I would not want to leave. I became very keen on the mountains, so now I am able to interpret every aspect of nature, and I am interested in many other concerning activities. Last but not least, I met the person with whom I have been sharing all this since 2012 and without whom I would not have been able to get where I am. Undoubtedly my life would be very different if I had not taken up the way of the wolf.

Photograph Brunella Pernigotti Alpin valley, taken from the window of my mountain house.

About Brunella Pernigotti

I am a lover of wolves and of Nature in general. With the means of knowledge and awareness, I try to devote myself to the protection of the environment and of the endangered species, as far as I can do.
I live in Turin, Italy. I’m a teacher, a writer and a photographer. I published a novel and a book of tales and have to my credit about ten one-man exhibitions of photos. I’m member of the board of a no-profit association of Turin, “Tribù del Badnightcafè”, that organizes cultural and artistic events. Besides I created a group of volunteers to help women who are victim of domestic violence.