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.

Inside the Heart of Wolf Advocacy: The Italian Story…

Wolves have been persecuted and killed all over the world, but for different reasons. In Italy, for instance, the main cause of poaching and killing wolves is the conflict between farmers and predators. Erika Ottone, in her own words explains to us the situation and the possible solutions:

“MAN-WOLF CONFLICT: A SOCIAL-CULTURAL, ECONOMIC AND POLITICAL ISSUE by Erika Ottone, veterinary surgeon Spec.TePACS, GPCert (EXAP).

Predations on domestic livestock are one of the main conservation problems of the Wolf, Canis lupus (Fernandez-Gil et al 2016; Mech & Boitani, 2003). The predations are concentrated above all in the areas where the farmers do not adopt correct breeding practices that guarantee the custody and the minimum means of protecting the livestock (Linnell & Boitani, 2012; Marino et al., 2016).
Checking the predations on the livestock is an activity carried out by a veterinary surgeon operating within the environmental managing agency and it allows to obtain information on management methods and above all to establish direct contact with the farmers of the territory. In fact, the ultimate goal of this activity is the identification of effective prevention and damage control plans for the livestock sector through the adoption of prevention tools and adequate breeding practices that could significantly reduce compensation damages and costs (Dalmasso et al ., 2012; Reinhardt et al., 2012)

Erika Ottone works with a Livestock farmer in Italy

A careful analysis of the collected information shows that the conflict between man and wolf is a socio-cultural, economic and political problem. The inadequacy of farm management systems can be attributed to the inefficient economic exploitation of the livestock sector, to the lack of willingness to adapt its management to an environmental context in which a predator is present, to the divulgation of incorrect information. There aren’t only the farmers involved in the men-wolves conflict, but all the citizens can favor the coexistence of men and wolves with their daily choices.

In the National Park of Pollino PNP, engaged for some time in monitoring the conflict between canine and zootechnics, a medical-legal verification activity was conducted on predations to domestic livestock, following a standardized procedure that includes, in addition to the report of the anatomical-pathological investigation, the detection of environmental facts and information related to the management of farms.

National Park of Pollino PNP

The analysis of the number of predations in relation to the number of farms operating in the area, and to the management and environmental context, has made it possible to identify “critical areas” in which the damage caused by predation is serious and frequent only in some of the farms present in the area. The analysis of the management methods of the affected farms confirms that improper management of the farm and the absence of effective precautionary measures, such as security, guard trained dogs, suitable fences and stables for night shelter of animals, may be the main predisposing factors to the high number of predations in that farm. (Dondina et al., 2015; Ciucci et al., 2018).
Therefore, the adoption of prevention tools and appropriate breeding practices identified for each farm could significantly reduce the damage (Dalmasso et al., 2012; Reinhardt et al., 2012). The PNP and other Italian parks, don’t limit themselves to indicate and suggest management solutions but they also  help the farms to realize suitable fences and deliver dogs on free loan of use with a stock of biscuits for dogs, thanks to the collaboration of some pet-food companies.
The lack of adequacy of management systems in some cases is linked to a lack of will to change and adapt one’s own developed and inherited farm managing system that was born in the past, and that now doesn’t fit to a natural context in which  predators are back. Farmers often report: “I have always done so, my grandfather and my father did so, now, just because you wanted wolves, have I to change?” It is easy to find a culprit and it is certainly easier to indulge than to educate; it is not easy to tell and explain the anthropic impact on nature, how man has changed the territory and how the wolf is now entering and adapting in a modified environmental context. It is not easy, yet in the work of monitoring the man-wolf conflict it is essential to engage in education and the divulgation of correct information.
In some cases, management inadequacy is also the consequence of difficult economic conditions. Farmers in large part are grouped together, thinking about their future, in a mood of pessimism. This situation is not only attributable to the conflict with the wolf, as the farmers themselves admit, but also to the poor economic valorization and the scarce consideration the farmers have: it often leads them to feel inadequate to the new social contexts. All the farmers operating in the area are aware of the presence of the wolf and the possibility of suffering predation, they know well that their animals are prey and that the predatory event is part of the natural role of a super predator such as the wolf, the problem is the repetition of predations, is the chronicity of the phenomenon.
Unfortunately the precarious and frustrating situation that the sector is experiencing, the divulgation of incorrect information and the media exploitation of the “wolf question” mean that the predatory event, which certainly creates significant damage to the farmer, becomes the scapegoat of a situation that has its roots in an inadequate economic, social, cultural and political system. Of course, we do not want to diminish the damage of predations on domestic livestock suffered by the farmer, damage which is recognized, compensated and which represents an opportunity for investigation aimed to improve the farm management methods, but certainly the damage in question would be perceived differently by the farmers in a greater economic and social development of the livestock sector.
The improvement of the economic and social situation can and must be the prerogative of everyone: every single citizen can give value to the local animal husbandry by buying its good products, and helping in the education and divulgation of correct information, always checking the sources, inquiring and asking experts in the field. Therefore, it is not correct if we speak about a conflict between livestock and wolves, limiting the issue to the farming sector alone, but it is right when we speak about a Man-Wolf conflict. We are all responsible through our choices of this conflict which, with good will and without exploitation, can change into coexistence.”

Erika Ottone, veterinary surgeon

Featured photography Of wolf by Antonio Iannibelli

Inside the Heart of Wolf Advocacy -The Italian Story

An interview of Antonio Iannibelli, an Italian expert of wolves, photographer, and author. Interview by Brunella Pernigotti a Wolves of Douglas County Wisconsin’s Italian Writer.

Click the following highlighted words for more information on Antonio Iannibelli’s book A Heart Among the Wolves by Antonio Iannibelli

The following is Antonio Iannibelli’s book trailer

Antonio Iannibelli’s website Ethics and Naturalist Photography by Antonio Iannibelli

The Full Interview of Antonio Iannibelli by Brunella Pernigotti

Q: In few words could you please introduce yourself and describe what you are doing about the advocacy of Italian wolves?

A: I’m not a scientist or a public administrator, neither am I a hunter or a researcher: I’m just a private citizen who loves photography and nature and who has been spending his free time for many years tracking the Italian wolves of the Apennines.

My grandfather was a shepherd and when I was a child he taught me many lessons that are still helping me to track the wolves and to understand the secret of their success. I try to describe the wild wolves simply by means of my photos, I use the immediate effect of images to document some stories with a realistic language. I try to be neither too technical nor poetical. I would like to help to spread correct information about Italian wolves so that once people really know them, they won’t be able to hate these animals anymore.

Q: You were born in the heart of “Lucania” [Lucania, the modern Basilicata, means “The land of wolves” in the ancient dialect] and you have been travelling throughout the mountains of the Apennines since you were a child. From a geographical point of view, Italy is shaped like a T, with the Alps that edge it in the north and the Apennines; which are a sort of back-bone placed lengthwise from the north to the south. Now, we know that over the past centuries the Canis Lupus Italicus never became extinct in the Apennines. On the contrary in the Alps it was persecuted and the whole population was killed off. Then in the last century when, in the Seventies, wolves came back and naturally repopulated the Alps. What are the reasons of this difference, in your opinion?

All Photographs of wolves for this interview are by by Antonio Iannibelli

A: Yes, it’s true. I spent my childhood with my grandparents, shepherds and farmers, in the great “house” of Bosco [Wood] Magnano, that is situated in the heart of Pollino Park, in Basilicata. I loved studying wild animals much more than my school lessons, so my parents weren’t very indulgent. However, it was my grandfather that looked after me, and he himself had been born in a family of shepherds and hunters. My grandfather knew nature very well, and was an exceptional expert of big predators, such as wolves and eagles.

“I’m not a scientist or a public administrator, neither am I a hunter or a researcher: I’m just a private citizen who loves photography and nature and who has been spending his free time for many years tracking the Italian wolves of the Apennines.” ~Antonio Iannibelli

The Alps and the Apennines have a very different habitat, but you know wolves have a great ability to adapt and they can live well in both the places. The persecution from the hunters was more serious in the Alps. In the Alps there aren’t so many woods, and in winter the snow covers the ground for a longer period of time: these elements expose the wolves to greater risks, as they are traceable more easily, and the food is less available. Even the neighboring countries [France, Switzerland, Austria] are not much help, because they provide more exceptions to the international rules that should protect the wolves. Finally, the great biodiversity of Apennines and the morphology of their ground are the most proper house to our Canis Lupus Italicus. In fact, above all in the Central-Southern Apennines, our wolves have always been able to find more wild prey, and safe dens where they can breed their pups. Whilst, in the Alps the environment is less propitious.

Q: As far as I know, even the current wolf management is different in the Apennines, where it seems to be more fragmented than in the Alps, and it varies a lot from region to region. Do you think it’s true? And to what extent?

A: In Italy the wolves are protected according to a law which is the same in the whole state territory, but in the Alps there are some autonomous regions and provinces that sometimes ask and tries to receive approval to kill a controlled number of wolves per year: of course they do it for political and economic interests. However the situation is different among the other regions, too, and the reason is always the same: managing the wolves entails a lot of economic interests. In my opinion giving too much autonomy to our regions is not a good choice, and the International Rulebook adopted by Italy should discipline the wolves protection from the top, and by means of definite and clear rules.

Q: In your book you describe the experiences you’ve had from childhood up to now on tracking wolves. You illustrate when you used to go to herd the livestock with your grandfather. My question is: was he a particularly wise and enlightened man? Or did everybody in his village have his same belief; that wolves are not enemies, nor an obstacle to get rid of at all costs? And now, how do these stockmen feel about the present wolf management since they are the most exposed to coexistence with wolves?

A: My grandfather was strongly related to his territory and to his livestock: he supported his family working hard and he knew that the flock had to be protected and watched particularly against bandits who were very popular: in those days before and after the Second World War. That’s why he thought that the true problems were not the wolves, and that watching carefully the flock and owning good watchdogs was enough to keep wolves far away. In those days, then, it was common opinion to think wolves as useful animals, too: for example, when a tame animal died in the mountain woods it was hard to be found and buried, so it became food for wolves that prevented, in that way, the spreading of diseases. “Luckily there are wolves!” my grandfather was used to say. Usually this happened most often during the seasonal transhumance, when thousands of sheep went down from the mountains to the seaside. There were many missing, unwell, or injured animals that couldn’t be carried as the shepherds set out on the journey walking on old and steep sheep-tracks. Still today the few existing shepherds of my mountains consider the wolf as a useful animal with a great ability to survive: wolves are brainy and they can steal some sheep from some inexpert shepherd, but after all wolves prefer feeding on waste to risking a gunshot. It’s a kind of unwritten agreement between men and wolves which is respected from time immemorial.

Q: In spite of the European directives that provide the protection of wolves, these animals are often victims of poaching. Considering the recent public funding cutbacks, do you think the Italian forest rangers have the appropriate resources to fight against this serious problem?

A: I think that they have the needed tools and the resources, but often the will and the coordination of every force are not completely put into the field. Poaching in Italy is a plague out of control, not to mention the lack of information and coordination in the research and, finally, the want of the right tools to prevent wolves crashing against the various means of transport. Speaking of which, we know that a great number of wolves (and not only wolves) are killed being run over on roads, railways and even on protected areas paths (such as the recent case of the wolf killed in the Oasis Castel di Guido, near Rome). Roads should be made safer places by means of specific over-and-under-passes for wild animals, as it happens in other European countries, such as Austria and Germany.

“When, during a magical night, I saw a wolf beside me, I  thought I had really become a wild creature, too.” ~Antonio Iannibelli

Q: Let’s talk about hybrids and grown-wild dogs. They seem to be a big problem in the Apennines, whilst in the Alps anybody hasn’t yet caught sight of them. Could you please explain why?

A: As I told, the harder climate of the Alps doesn’t allow domestic animals to survive, so abandoned dogs die in few days; on the contrary, they can live and reproduce particularly in the Southern Apennines, where you can spot also goats and pigs gone wild. Therefore I think that the bad practice of letting dogs free to roam in the woods in Southern Italy is at the main cause of this problem that affects wolves when they come in contact. In the ridge of Apennines there are some packs of hybrids that reproduce. In Italy today we have some projects to monitor the wild hybrids (only a few dozen) but I think that a close watch on the abandoned and stray dogs (several thousands) would be enough. However, the wolves that live in the wilder areas of the Apennine ridge prefer attacking and eating to mating stray dogs that invade their territories.

Q: In your book you describe a lot of impressive encounters with these elusive and mysterious animals. Would you tell us the one you remember best?

A: Every encounter with a wolf is somehow a miracle: it’s Nature that appears in its wild sacrality. When, during a magical night, I saw a wolf beside me, I  thought I had really become a wild creature, too. When I was a child, I used to ask my grandfather to show me the wolves, and he wisely answered that I would be able to see them on condition that I became a sort of wolf, too. But, at that time, I often disbelieved my grandfather, and even the existence of wolves.
It was in autumn and I had got up in the middle of the night hoping to see the Monte Sole [Sun Mountain] pack. I was hidden in my usual place, waiting in silence for the new day, when I heard the bumps of two fighting deers. I grabbed my binoculars, but was still too dark to see the two fighting males. Even though I couldn’t see off to the side of me, I felt I was being watched so I turned instinctively. The more my eyesight adjusted, the more I realized that there was a wolf by my side: obviously the clashing antlers hadn’t attracted just my attention. The enchanted place, the magical night, the wolf by my side, that was watching the same event I was; reminded me of my grandfather’s words.

Q: The wolves are the symbol of wild life and freedom for many of us. How much is it worth the life of even one of them for the future generations?

A: The wolf’s survival is the same as ours itself: killing even only one of them means robbing the environment of one useful part that keeps it complete. If we don’t make an effort now to defend wolves, in the future our children won’t be able to enjoy a healthy territory such as the Apennines, where there is such a great biodiversity.

Q: Are young people educated enough on how to protect the ecosystem where they live?

A: No, they aren’t. Unfortunately the future environmental education depends on our choices, too. Nowadays this subject is still very uncommon in the Italian schools.

Q: Wolves Of Douglas County Wisconsin promotes education and awareness to practice the preservation, and especially coexistence, based on empathy and the elimination of every kind of violence, the verbal one, as well. It supports and shows how much every wild species is worth; it’s against hunting, trapping, and practices the use of non lethal methods for the farmers to defend their livestock. Is there something like it in Italy? What are we doing?

A: Unfortunately we are not doing enough: as I told you before, the supervision is insufficient to reduce the conflicts with the farmers, who tend to take the law into their own hands, because they want to avoid the slow bureaucracy; the interventions which are often insufficient. Evert year more than 100 wolves are intentionally killed (shot, poisoned or trapped) and many are victims of the human presence, e.g. they are run over on roads and railways. In these last years the persecution of the wolves has increased. With the help of a group of friends, I realized a project of monitoring the causes of death of the Italian wolves Lupi morti in Italia Facebook Page It confirms this trend.

Q: Are the Italian farmers adequately informed of the non-lethal deterrent systems to defend their livestock?

A: Again, there is a great difference between the Alps and the Apennines, between the north and the south of Italy. In the north there is more awareness; but there are also more difficulties to use these means to protect the livestock because of the morphology of the area, and the extent of the rangelands. In the northern Apennines the farmers are well informed, but the situation is different from Region to Region: in Emilia-Romagna for instance there is a better situation than in Tuscany, where there are some farmers  who refuse to use any deterrent, and would like to definitively remove the wolves. In the south of Italy, on the contrary, the situation is better because the wolves have always been there and the farmers never let their livestock be unattended. In those places they don’t need any electrified fence or sonorous deterrent because the farmers coexist with the wolves from time immemorial. Besides the less rough area and the more temperate weather help the animals watch. Also here we can have some cases of poaching, but the guard dogs are very efficient and keep wolves away, so they must make do with the wastes of the cattle sheds or the remains of the butchery.

Q: Finally, besides asking you if there is something else you would like to say, I have for you the question that I always ask in my interviews: what did the wolves teach you, during your life?

A: I’d like to add at least one thing: more than 15 years ago I created an event “The wolf celebration” (Festa del lupo 2018) in order to give correct information to the common people about the Italian wild wolf: it is a no profit event and it’s aimed to oppose the false stories that media propagate every day. Next biennial festival will be held from 2nd to 4th November 2018 at Castello Manservisi, in Castelluccio di Porretta Terme: http://castellomanservisi.it/wordpress/ All of you are invited!

What did the wolves teach me? It’s a good question. They taught me to live in harmony with nature, to respect every creature and, above all, not to waste our resources. My whole life has been influenced by the wolves, maybe because I was born in Lucania: this old name for Basilicata means “The Wolf’s Land” and it has an ancient Greek origin: λυκος [lukos]means wolf, even so my grandfather never told me false stories about the bad wolf. Watching their behavior taught me to be sincere and to do everything without asking anything in return, just as they do. Even though we persecute them, the wolves carry out their task which is essential for our survival, too. The wolves have learnt the meaning of coexistence . We haven’t!

Thank you very much for the time you devoted to us. Brunella

Photograph is the book cover of Antonio Iannibelli’s book A Heart Among the Wolves by Antonio Iannibelli

Thank you Antonio Iannibelli for this interview! Then, since you are a naturalist photographer and an Italian expert of wolves, let’s make a list of your activities for our readers so they can read them on the Internet:

A blog on Italian wild wolves : http://italianwildwolf.com/info/

The bill of rights of the wolf : http://italianwildwolf.com/carta-dei-diritti-del-lupo/

Your book “A heart among the wolves”: http://antonioiannibelli.it/un-cuore-tra-i-lupi/

Your book trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rUq_AATOQ3A

Ethics and naturalist photography: http://antonioiannibelli.it/2016/02/11/etica-e-fotografia-naturalistica/

All the photographs of Italian wolves copyrighted by Antonio Iannibelli

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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.

An exclusive interview with the Italian Life WolfAlps Project – A vital project for everyone.

By Brunellas Pernigotti – Wolves of Douglas County Wisconsin Italian reporter

“At a certain point of my existential way, I discovered the tracks of the wolves and, following them, I happened to go along some unknown and unpredictable paths, until, through different phases, I reached the present moment. At the beginning it was a simple and romantic infatuation for these animals, so elusive, fascinating and mysterious, then it became a passion that made me feel the need to defend wolves against the human destructive force; but, even if I’m not an expert, the more I study the wolf’s behavior and habitat, the more I am aware of the realistic problems related to it. Yet, although I don’t have a scientific preparation that supports me, my love for Nature makes me keep on dreaming: I dream of a peaceful and well-balanced coexistence between men and these big predators, based on the due respect both for the ecosystem and for the human work. This is what I was thinking about, while my life-companion was driving me to the Maritime Alps, through woods and little villages that compete for the scarce habitable space with the mountains.  I was looking at the numerous peaks, that originate a natural high and thick border between Piedmont and the Mediterranean Sea, and I noticed that they are very rich in vegetation and offer an ideal shelter: that’s why the wolves, going up from the Apennines to the North in the 90s, wolves settled there and put an end to their depopulation caused by persecution and indiscriminate hunting during the past centuries. In winter it snows abundantly because of the mild air coming from the sea that encounters the cold air coming from the north; in summer the mountain pastures are luxuriant, so many shepherds lead their cattle there.

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The Natural Park of Marquareis (and LWA) premises from outside

Leaving from the plain of Turin, our crowded and hot city, it took us about two hours to get to Chiusa Pesio, where there is the administrative seat of the Natural Park of Marguareis, which has been recently combined with the Maritime Alps Park to create a single, great organization that is one of the 12 partners of the Life WolfAlps Project [“WOLF IN THE ALPS: IMPLEMENTATION OF COORDINATED WOLF CONSERVATION ACTIONS IN CORE AREAS AND BEYOND” http://www.lifewolfalps.eu/il-progetto-in-breve/]. It was a short journey but to me it meant the attainment of a goal after a long way that had started many years ago and during which I had met many people who work with passion and devote their life to the wolves, such as the people of the WolfAlps Project. When we arrived and took off our helmets, we felt the fresh air that was fragrant with the scent of fresh cut hay. Looking at the building, seat of the park, where Erika and Mattia were waiting for us I realized that it was like a mountain hut. In its offices, very different from the ones full of modernity and cement of the cities, there was the scent of wood and of love for Nature: pictures of wild plants and animals hanging on the walls, silence and peace surrounding.

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From left to right Erika Chiecchio, Mattia Colombo, and Brunella Pernigotti photo by Brunella Pernigotti

LWA (Life WolfAlps) is a European project that was born in 2013; it’s mission is aimed to the implementation of coordinated actions to conserve and manage the wolves living in the Alps. It is co-financed by European Union, in the field of a more large-scale project devoted to the preservation of natural biodiversity in Europe.  Its members are about ten partners, among them there are many organizations that manage the several natural parks situated along the arc of the Alps, from west to east, and, across the border, in Slovenia. They all work together to create strategies aimed, above all, to reduce the conflicts and to make wolves and traditional human activities live together.

Erika and Mattia gave us a friendly welcome and soon we started that kind of open and warm relation that joins people who have common points of view. We sat down at a table and in an informal way we started our conversation. I introduced myself by saying that my questions originated from my curiosity and desire to know better what kind of work there is behind the LWA, that I was interested in knowing the people who work actively on the field, what resources and point of view they have, so that I could tell all these things to the people who live on the other side of the world.

First of all, after the introductions, they wanted to denounce the most important problem about wolves in Italy that is the lack of correct and full information. Sometimes, they said, all the researchers’ careful and scientific work is vanished by a news that media spreads with imprudence. After a while the news turns out to be false, but at that point the damage is done. A classic example is the rumor going about those valleys that wolves have been reintroduced into the Alps by animal-rights supporters. Of course it’s completely false. On this point LWA people who work in “Communication and didactics” are making a very good job.”

And now let’s go to the recorded interview:

Brunella – May I ask you both a short personal introduction?

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Mattia Colombo photo credit: Mattia Colombo

My name is Mattia Colombo I am a researcher and, as I like to say, a wolf biologist. I work as the coordinator of the wolves monitoring actions carried on by all the operators in charge in the province of Cuneo, such as game wardens, park rangers, corps of forest rangers, etc. Besides, I personally carry out field research. I started as a volunteer in 2001, right here in Valle Pesio, where, since 1999, one of the first three Alpine packs of wolves had come back (about the other 2: one had settled in France, in the Mercantour area, the other in the Alps of the Turin province). Then I wrote my doctoral thesis on wolves with the collaboration of Dott. Marucco. I completed my studies with a master’s degree on the Scandinavian wolves in Sweden.

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Erika Chiecchio

My name is Erika Chiecchio – I’m a naturalist. I work, above all, in environmental education and didactics. I’m one of the 53 staff members of this organization, where I deal also with tourism, events and web graphic design. As for the didactics and divulgation about wolves, this year I’ve organized with my colleagues many workshops and met about 1500 students of junior secondary and high schools. We always try to provide them with general information, playing and experimenting with them and telling them how and what the field researches are about. We also provide high school students with a scientific and theoretic part. Moreover we read and analyze with them some articles of the main newspapers to find out the fake news and the spoof stories about wolves.  On this point next September we’ll organize also a formative workshop for journalists, in order to give them the correct information and prevent them being mistaken, and believing and writing according to the wrong cliché of the “bad wolf”. Of course I’m sure that our didactical activity is to be developed particularly with children: the rising generations can originate a new culture of sustainability and promote a long term and peaceful coexistence between the wolves and the human beings of this area.

Brunella – How does bureaucracy, with its delays and complications concerning the allocation of funds, hamper the Project activities and running programs?

Mattia – The Establishment requires our scientific studies and exact data collections, in one word we have to work with efficiency and accuracy, but sometimes we are not able to do it because we are in need of a continuous and systematic monitoring, which, as a matter of fact, implies some expensive state-of-the-art technologies such as the DNA analysis and researches in laboratory, in office and on the field. All these activities need not only significant funds, but also studies and competences on the newest technologies that we must keep constantly up to date and that LWA only partly implements.

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Photo of winter tracks taken by Mattia Colombo

Brunella – ln Italy there is a great alarm because the new “Conservation and management plan of wolf in Italy “, prepared by the Italian Zoological Union, is about to be approved. It would provide for the killing of the 5% of wolves each year, of all hybrids and stray dogs, even those beyond the control of their owners. In these days, the State – Regions Conference is preparing the final version, after which the plan should be fully operative. What do you think about it?

Mattia – As LWA researchers, we are in contact with the Ministry of the Environment but we are not involved in the decisional process. We try to carry out our scientific and technic job in the best possible way, but the final decision will be a political one.  At the moment there is a great confusion and nobody is in a position to explain how it will really work. All the national professional associations have been involved in the first draft of this Plan, together with the Italian Zoological Union. This strategic Plan is the result of the awareness that a general regulation of the endangered species management is required in Italy. It is composed of many items and the one about the controlled killing of wolves is just one of them. And we must say that the others are equally important: they provide Regions and every environmental organization with all the needed coordination actions that should be undertaken.  However the final document of the Plan is not yet available. In any case it’s important to know that the killings won’t be allowed indiscriminately, but the decision on how and why the killing of some wolves is needed will be a very complex problem, also because the EU laws will ask us for a justification of the killing on scientific basis. I know that in North America there are similar plans. In conclusion, we should also consider that maybe, at a certain moment in the future, wolves could be delisted as endangered species according to the IUCN Red List.

Brunella – It seems to me that things like these are happening also in the Yellowstone Park, where hunters complain about the rising number of wolf packs, which leave them without enough prey to trophy-hunt…

Mattia – Italian hunters complain too and the problem is that we are not able to refute them with scientific data, as in Piedmont we are not able to standardize the monitoring of ungulates. On the contrary, as regards the farmers’ complaints, we took a census of about 98% of the alpine farms in Piedmont, so now we are able to provide them with livestock protection dogs and with the chance to keep a sustainable level of conflict in this area.

Brunella – On the point of the relation with breeders, is it possible a didactic, cultural approach also with them? I mean, is it possible to provide them with the correct information?

Erika – Of course we cannot hope that breeders love wolves, but it’s our job to provide them with the help needed to coexist, especially on long term. But to get it, we need a constant commitment on the regional and national policy part. As far as we are concerned, LWA provides the breeders with the right information. This year we have arranged 10 guided tours to the mountain pastures in order to awaken breeders and tourists to this kind of problems. After those tours we had different answers from the breeders: some of them told us that wolves are not a problem for them, as they use electrified fences and have protection dogs; but others of them still complained about some predations.

Mattia – Of course the return of the wolf in this area is really traumatic for the breeders because they must turn upside down the routine of their firm management. I confess that when I used to go to the mountain pastures to help them to use the new deterrent methods, sometimes I almost felt ashamed of being a wolf biologist, particularly when I saw them crying for the losses and damages they had suffered after a predation.  However, in LWA we believe in our project which has also the aim to support their work so that, wolves and working activities can be safeguarded. After all, it depends on us, who do field researches and are involved in the project of wolf conservation, to keep the strong awareness that this is the only practicable way.

Brunella – So, what must we expect from this Management Plan, which now is at a standstill?

Erika – At an official level we can’t say anything yet.

Mattia – On my opinion we need in any case an action plan that gives us rules to follow with strong and really scientific grounds. Personally I trust in the professionals who are following at a scientific level the procedure of this Plan, as they are researchers with also a serious past experience in law-making in the European Union.  On the other hand, I’m also convinced that the final decisions will be political, so probably they will disappoint everyone, because they will result from the attempt to make the opposite hunters’ and animal-supporters’ demands meet on one and only point. I hope that all the people involved, politicians included, gather in-depth information because the risk is that there won’t be the technical grounding to come to the final decisions. They must read the scientific reports, they must attend the technical meetings, and they must study and consult with specialists and scientists. For instance, they don’t have enough consideration for the fact that we, LWA researchers, together with our French colleagues, are studying one of the three most important populations of wolves in Europe (the other 2 are the German and the Swedish ones). Politicians must listen to the researchers in order to make mindful choices, because they too have to take on their responsibilities.

Brunella – Does this Management Plan consider also the poaching and the illegal killing by traps and poison baits?

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Wolf scat sample photo by Mattia Colombo

Erika – Yes, of course. Should anthropic killings of wolves be found, the poachers are punished, but it is also necessary to deduct the number of victims from the possible annual amount of “controlled” killings provided for by the Plan. Therefore, as long as the findings of illegally killed wolves are so many, the “controlled” killings provided for by the Plan can’t be applied.

Brunella – An Italian serious wolf management plan should provide also for the problem of crossbreeds, I think.

Mattia – Of course! How should we manage them from a legal point of view? They are not yet here in Piedmont: we know it thanks to the DNA tests made by the Institute ISPRA in Bologna, where we send the traces we find and pick up. But in Tuscany and in general in the Apennines they are a serious problem. First of all it’s very difficult to distinguish a wolf from a crossbreed and sometimes it’s possible only by means of a DNA test, then at a legal level, the dogs or wolves management is very different.

Brunella – So, the hybrids don’t constitute only a risk of losing the wolf genetic inheritance, but they are also a problem for the wolf management! For instance, what about a predation that is reported as from wolves and then it is proved it was from hybrids? …

Mattia – In general there is a compensation for damages caused by “Canids”, that is by dogs and by wolves, without distinction. But in the past years a similar event happened in an Italian Region that had a protocol providing a compensation for damages caused only by wolves, so it was difficult for the breeder to get a compensation.

Brunella – In this connection, what are the differences of the wolf management in the Alps and in the Apennines?

Mattia – First of all, we must say that we live and work in the Alps, where the wolves have gradually settled again and we have had the time to get organized. So, the first difference is that in Piedmont, with the LWA Project, we are trying to have a coordination at a regional and interregional level, whilst in the Apennines the management is more complex and diversified, depending on the areas.  Then in the Alps, in general, there is more snow, so in winter it’s easier to track the wolves. Other differences are the orography and the possibility, at an institutional level, to raise funds and resources. The Apennines are certainly more extended and obviously there is a different approach. Probably in the National Park of Abruzzi and in the Majella area there is a little more tolerance, but generally, even if in the Apennines the wolves never extinguished completely, the breeders of those territories are not well disposed to them. For instance in Tuscany some wolves were recently found killed and with their heads cut: these are real acts of retaliation.

Brunella – Well, let’s approach the wolves from a more cultural and traditional point of view, now. How are they regarded around here?

Erika – My job is also to show the wolves tracks to the children, to explain them how the food chain works and why they have come back to these valleys. We often meet with different responses. The children that come from the city have no prejudices: they are like white sheets of paper on which it’s possible to write. So when we tell them the life in a pack, they compare it to the life in their family, and when we explain the dispersal of the young wolves, or when we reappraise with them the Little Red Riding Hood tale, we immediately realize that we have a strong hold over them and meet with positive responses. Whilst, those who come from these valleys are not so tolerant. Of course during our meetings we never try to convince them to love the wolves, but only to let them understand that the wolves have come back in a natural way, deflating the false news and rumors that say that wolves have been reintroduced by men. Then we explain that wolves are very useful big predators of wild animals and that they keep wild herds in good health by killing only the old or weak or suffering preys.  Right then, when the children understand that the wolf presence is important and that the wolves will never invade this area in hundreds, we are rewarded with positive feedback that we can verify when we receive from their schools the drawings and the stories invented by the children after our meetings. I remember also a particular event we organized with the students of the Agricultural Institute, whom we had a different approach with. We wanted to speak with them not about wolves, but about the breeders’ problems and the possible deterrent methods to be used. We brought also the antivenin dogs and showed them some newspaper articles with spoof stories. We had a very positive feedback. Precisely, at the beginning of our meeting, we had given out to each of them a first card with the writing: “On my opinion the wolf is…” that they had completed with negative comments. But when we gave out the same cards again, at the end of the meeting and after our explanations, the comments had changed and become positive.  This made us understand that the problem is always a lack of correct information.

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Dott. Francesca Manucco, one of the most important zoologists and wolf experts in Italy and one of the LWA persons in chargge, speaking at the event “the wolf in the Alps -Twenty years of coexistence. Photo credit: Brunella Pernigotti

Brunella – According to what is said in the USA award winning documentary film: “Medicine of the Wolf”, the wolves are the medicine that can save mankind, as they act like men, are sympathetic and can feel strong emotions. What do you think the wolves can teach us?

Erika –The children show interest when they learn how the social life in a pack is important: the mutual assistance, the parental care, the territoriality. The children compare the wolves to themselves and often they end up by talking about bullying, as in Italian pack and gang are the same word. I never thought that talking with children about wolves could have social and relational implications. We often examine with them the negative behaviors of bullies in a gang/pack in order to compare them with the positive examples of loyalty and solidarity represented by the wolves in their pack. Moreover, our society is full of negative words linked to the wolves. For instance many journalists are used to mention the “bad wolf” symbolism when they talk about crime news. However, there is now a growing tendency to rediscover the wolves and their importance and we are trying to support it by means of our educational activities, especially addressed to the new generations.

Mattia – The wolves taught me particularly to hold out, to never give up! They are incredibly able to survive despite the obstacles and the real difficulties posed by nature and men. Besides I consider them like a bridge that connects us to our mountains: to me the wolf is the symbol of the wild life that doesn’t drive humans away from here, but that makes me understand more deeply these places and that attracts me to live here. The wolves fascinate me but not for some idealistic and sentimental reasons: I’m very realistic and I know that they can be violent and aggressive, for instance when they kill a foreign wolf that comes in their territory. It’s natural. But, no matter how we try to understand them, they remain elusive and inaccessible: even though in my life I’ve been tracking them for hundreds of kilometers, I’ve met them only about fifteen times.

Brunella – Do you have some particular memories?

Mattia – Yes, a lot. For instance, when they hadn’t noticed that I was hiding in a bush: I heard a little noise, I turned and I saw them; they were three, not very far from me; or when they answered for the first time to my wolf howling. But it’s important to say that I love the wolves not only when I meet them, but also when I do my daily job for them: the field research I do and the relations I establish with the people of these mountains.

Brunella – The last question: what kind of non-lethal deterrents are used around this area? Do they work?

Mattia – The use of deterrents brings the problem of inurement. My job is also to test every prevention method. Here the breeders use many of them: the electrified fence, the livestock protection dogs, the fladry fencing, the vocal dissuaders. But the wolves are very clever and after a while they understand that these things are not dangerous, so they don’t fear them anymore and we have to convince the breeders to change method. Moreover every valley or area has local and orographic differences, so, even if we have proved the efficacy of one method in one place, we can’t say that we’ll be able to take it to another place and guarantee the same success: everything is to be adapted again, according to the geography and the habits of the breeders.

All we can say is that we have a valuable experience of 15 years of working and researching: this is a store of knowledge that can be useful to find the right strategies and to contribute to the pacific coexistence between men and wolves in our mountains.

“With these last words, my interview ended. I thanked and said goodbye to my friends. On my way back, while I was thinking to our conversation, I realized that the respect for the creatures that live in these places can originate only from the deep scientific knowledge of the environment around us. I am sure that, from the model activities that LWA is carrying on by informing and popularizing, new interests and passions will be born in the future generations, so that they will improve the ancient relation between humans and big predators.  As Jim Brandenburg says in Medicine of the Wolf, it was the wolf that about 14.000 years ago, decided to get closer to men and to let them domesticate it. Now it’s the man that must take the following step and give the wolf the chance to survive, as it is one of the key animals for the ecosystem. The wolf must be able to live in its habitat, and men must coexist with wolves in a sustainable way, as men too are guests, not owners of the natural environment! If humans do not learn to understand that the wolves, like all predators at the top of the food chain, represent our salvation, there won’t be a future for mankind.”

Brunella Pernigotti

Featured image: “Lupo Ormea_ Centro Faunistico Uomini e Lupi_ photo credit Fulvio Beltrando”


Brunella Pernigotti

Brunella has joined Wolves of Douglas County Wisconsin’s blog and will be writing about the wolves in Italy for our Italian and Europian readers. Watch for the Italian language version of this interview on WODCW -Brunella Pernigotti’s blog out on Monday September 12, 2016.

Il Progetto Life WolfAlps – Un progetto vitale per tutti.

Photo ( left to right) Erika Chiecchio, Mattia Colombo and Brunella Pernigotti during our interview at the LWA offices in Chiusa Pesio, photo credit: Brunella Pernigotti

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Sede del Parco Naturale del Marguareis (photo by Brunella Pernigotti)

Lungo il mio percorso esistenziale ad un certo punto ho scoperto le orme del lupo e, seguendole, mi sono trovata su sentieri sconosciuti e imprevedibili, finché, attraverso diverse fasi, sono arrivata al momento presente. All’inizio fu una semplice e romantica infatuazione per questo animale così apparentemente vicino eppure così lontano e inarrivabile,
 affascinante e misterioso, che mi fece sentire la necessità di difenderlo
dalla forza distruttrice dell’uomo; però, man mano che studiavo da profana i comportamenti e l’habitat del lupo,  approdai a un maggiore realismo dovuto alla consapevolezza delle problematiche ad esso legate. Non ho preparazioni scientifiche che mi supportino, ma solo la passione per la Natura e per le mie montagne. Continuo a sognare, quello sì. Sogno una coabitazione pacifica e un equilibrio, tra l’uomo e questo grande predatore, improntato al rispetto sia dell’ecosistema che del lavoro umano. A questo pensavo mentre, sul sellino posteriore della moto, lasciavo che il mio compagno di vita e di avventure mi guidasse lungo la strada verso le Alpi Marittime, tra piccoli paesi che contendono alla montagna lo scarso spazio abitabile. Le tante cime, che creano un confine alto e spesso tra il Piemonte e il mare, sono estremamente verdi e offrono l’ideale rifugio ai lupi che, dagli Appennini, risalirono verso nord negli anni ’90 e che alla fine vi si insediarono nuovamente ponendo fine alla loro sparizione causata dalle persecuzioni e dalla caccia indiscriminata del secolo passato. D’inverno sono zone in cui nevica molto proprio a causa dell’aria mite che arriva dal mare che si scontra con quella fredda del nord e d’estate i pascoli sono rigogliosi, per cui sono molti i pastori che vi portano in alpeggio il loro bestiame.

In circa due ore, dalla pianura di Torino e dalla città affollata e calda,
arriviamo a Chiusa di Pesio, dove si trova la sede del Parco Naturale del Marguareis, ora accorpato con il Parco Alpi Marittime in un unico grande Ente, uno dei partner che partecipano al Life WolfAlps Project. Un breve viaggio che rappresenta però per me il raggiungimento di una meta dopo  un lungo cammino iniziato molti anni fa, durante il quale ho conosciuto molte persone appassionate che lavorano e dedicano la propria vita a questi animali, tra cui i soggetti del Progetto Life WolfAlps.  Salendo, curva dopo curva, osservo le creste e i boschi che costituiscono l’habitat naturale del Canis Lupus Italicus e ne immagino i recessi selvatici e imperscrutabili.
All’arrivo, togliendoci il casco, ci accoglie l’aria fresca e profumata di
erba appena tagliata. Alzando gli occhi noto che l’edificio ha l’aspetto di un rifugio montano: gli uffici in cui Erika e Mattia ci aspettano sono
sicuramente diversi dagli uffici tutto tecnologia e cemento della città. Qui si respira il profumo del legno e della passione per la Natura. Foto di piante e animali selvatici appese un po’ ovunque. Silenzio e pace circostanti.
 
Il LWA(Life WolfAlps) è un progetto europeo nato nel 2013, che ha come obiettivo la realizzazione di azioni coordinate mirate alla conservazione e alla gestione del lupo che vive sulle Alpi. E’ cofinanziato dall’Unione Europea nell’ambito di un progetto più ampio dedicato alla Natura e alla biodiversità. Al progetto partecipano una decina di partner, tra cui soprattutto gli enti di gestione dei vari parchi nazionali distribuiti lungo l’intero arco alpino, da ovest a est, fino a sconfinare nella Slovenia.
Tutti insieme lavorano per creare strategie mirate soprattutto a ridurre i conflitti e a far convivere il lupo e le attività tradizionali dell’uomo.

Erika e Mattia ci accolgono con calore e subito si crea quella relazione
schietta e sorridente che c’è tra persone che hanno una comunione di
intenti. Ci sediamo attorno a un tavolo e in modo informale e amichevole inizia la mia intervista. Le domande che faccio nascono soprattutto dalla mia curiosità di capire e conoscere meglio che tipo di lavoro c’è dietro al progetto dedicato al lupo delle Alpi e alla sua salvaguardia. Mi interessa conoscere le persone che attivamente si muovono e lavorano sul campo, con quali risorse e quali prospettive, per poi poterlo raccontare a chi vive dall’altro capo del mondo.
 
 Innanzitutto, dopo le presentazioni, emerge il primo e più importante
problema: quello di una corretta ed esaustiva informazione. Il lavoro
accurato e scientifico dei ricercatori può essere facilmente cancellato da
una notizia diffusa con leggerezza dai giornali o da altri mezzi di comunicazione. Spesso l’informazione risulta poi essere falsa, ma dal momento che viene pubblicata, il danno è fatto. Nelle vallate in cui il lupo è tornato, per esempio, circola la convinzione del tutto infondata che il lupo sia stato reintrodotto dall’uomo. Non è vero! E su questo e per questo, chi si occupa di “Comunicazione e didattica” per il LWA sta facendo un ottimo lavoro.
 
Ma passiamo all’intervista vera e propria:
Vi chiederei cortesemente una breve presentazione personale.
Mattia Colombo – Sono un ricercatore e, come mi piace definirmi, un wolf biologist. Mi occupo di coordinare il monitoraggio dei lupi nella provincia di Cuneo da parte di tutti i possibili operatori preposti, come i guardiacaccia, i guarda parchi, il corpo forestale, ecc. Inoltre svolgo io stesso attività di ricerca sul campo. Ho iniziato nel 2001 in Valle Pesio
come volontario, poiché dal 1999 nel parco era già tornato uno dei primi tre branchi di lupi (gli altri due si insediarono uno in Francia, nel Mercantour, e l’altro sulle Alpi della provincia di Torino). Poi con la dott.ssa Marucco ho preparato la mia tesi universitaria sul lupo. Ho completato gli studi con un master in Svezia sul lupo scandinavo.
Erika Chiecchio – Sono una naturalista e lavoro soprattutto in ambito di educazione ambientale e didattica. Mi occupo di turismo, manifestazioni, didattica e sono il grafico dell’ente  dove in tutto siamo 53 dipendenti.
Per quanto riguarda l’attività di divulgazione e didattica sul lupo, quest’anno io e i miei colleghi abbiamo organizzato incontri con circa 1500 ragazzi delle scuole medie inferiori e superiori. Abbiamo cercato di dare loro informazioni generali attraverso il gioco e la sperimentazione, spiegando come avviene il lavoro sul campo. Per i ragazzi delle scuole superiori è anche prevista una parte teorica e scientifica.  Inoltre abbiamo presentato alle classi di studenti alcuni degli articoli apparsi sui giornali, per analizzarli e svelare le bufale relative al lupo. A questo proposito a settembre sarà organizzata una giornata di formazione dedicata anche ai giornalisti, perché evitino di cadere nei luoghi comuni del lupo cattivo e feroce. Sono convinta che l’attività di comunicazione vada sviluppata soprattutto con i bambini e con le nuove generazioni, per creare una nuova cultura sostenibile e favorire a lungo termine una buona convivenza pacifica tra i lupi e gli uomini di queste vallate.
In quale misura la burocrazia, con i relativi problemi legati ai
finanziamenti, rappresenta un ostacolo all’attività e alla funzionalità del Progetto?
Mattia – Le istituzioni richiedono che siano fatti studi scientifici, che i dati raccolti siano esatti, che il nostro lavoro sia fatto con efficienza e
che presenti una credibilità che a volte però è scarsa per la mancanza di un monitoraggio sistematico. Infatti per ottenerlo sono necessarie tecniche sofisticate che utilizzano l’analisi del DNA, e poi molto lavoro in laboratorio, sul campo e in ufficio. Tale lavoro è in generale da gestire con energie finanziarie notevoli, ma anche con studio, competenza e aggiornamenti costanti sulle nuovissime tecnologie, che il LWA implementa in parte.
ln Italia ha destato molte critiche il nuovo “Piano di conservazione e gestione del lupo in Italia” predisposto dall’Unione Zoologica Italiana, che prevede l’uccisione del 5% dei lupi esistenti ogni anno e che sta per essere approvato. Che cosa ne pensate?
Mattia – Noi come ricercatori del LWA abbiamo contatti col Ministero dell’Ambiente ma non siamo inclusi nel processo decisionale. Le nostre attività, che noi cerchiamo di garantire al meglio, sono scientifiche e tecniche, ma la decisione finale sarà politica. Al momento c’è molta confusione, nessuno è in grado di spiegare come funziona. Alla bozza iniziale di questo Piano hanno partecipato tutte le associazioni di categoria nazionali e l’Unione Zoologica Italiana. Il Piano di azione nasce dall’esigenza di regolamentare la gestione delle specie in via di estinzione. Il punto delle deroghe, cioè dei previsti abbattimenti, è però solo uno dei punti in cui si articola il Piano. Bisogna dire che anche gli altri sono altrettanto importanti: essi sanciscono tutte le azioni di coordinamento che le regioni e gli enti dovrebbero fare. Il Piano in forma definitiva non è ancora disponibile . Ma gli abbattimenti in realtà non potranno essere indiscriminati: si tratterà di decidere come e perché potranno essere attuati e sarà una cosa molto complessa, anche perché sono da giustificare a livello europeo e a norma di legge, quindi devono avere una base estremamente scientifica. Nel Nord America ci sono piani d’azione simili. Bisogna tenere conto anche del fatto che il lupo ad un certo punto, forse tra molto tempo, potrà essere declassato come specie a rischio (Endangered. IUCN D).
BrunellaPare stia accadendo qualcosa di simile anche a Yellowstone, dove i cacciatori lamentano un aumento dei branchi di lupi, quindi un aumento delle loro predazioni , che lasciano i “poveri” cacciatori privi dei loro tradizionali trofei….
Mattia – Anche qui i cacciatori si lamentano. Il problema è che non riusciamo a ribattere con dati scientifici perché in Piemonte non è  sapere con esattezza quanti sono gli ungulati, poiché non si riesce a standardizzare il monitoraggio. Sugli animali domestici, invece, la situazione è differente; infatti c’è stato un censimento del circa 98% degli allevamenti in alpeggio in Piemonte, anche per poterli dotare di cani da guardiania e per mantenere tra loro e i lupi un livello di conflittualità sostenibile.
 Rapporto con gli allevatori – E’ possibile fare cultura e corretta informazione anche con gli allevatori?
Erika – Di sicuro non si potrà mai sperare che l’allevatore ami il lupo ma dobbiamo accertarci che riceva gli aiuti necessari per convivere, soprattutto nel lungo termine, e per ottenere questo ci vuole un impegno costante delle politiche regionali e nazionali.
L’informazione dedicata agli allevatori è prevista dal LWA. Questa estate abbiamo organizzato 10 visite guidate agli alpeggi, per sensibilizzare i pastori e gli escursionisti. Da questi incontri abbiamo ottenuto, da parte degli allevatori, risposte differenti: alcuni ci hanno detto che il lupo non è un problema, grazie all’uso che fanno di recinti elettrificati e cani, altri, invece e nonostante ciò, si lamentano perché hanno subito delle predazioni.
Mattia – Per i pastori l’arrivo del lupo nella loro zona è un trauma serio perché devono rivoluzionare la routine gestionale della loro azienda. Mi è capitato, quando andavo ad aiutare i pastori a imparare a usare i sistemi deterrenti, di vergognarmi di essere un “lupologo”, vedendo qualcuno che piangeva perché aveva subito degli attacchi alle sue bestie e quindi perdite e danni in termini di lavoro e di soldi. Ma noi crediamo nel nostro progetto, che ha l’intento anche di supportare le attività lavorative per preservare, alla fine, insieme allevatori e lupi. In definitiva siamo noi, in quanto ricercatori sul campo e facenti parte del progetto di conservazione del lupo, che dobbiamo avere l’intima consapevolezza e convinzione che si può e si deve proseguire per questa strada.
 Alla luce di tutto ciò, che cosa ci si deve aspettare dal Piano di Gestione, che al momento è fermo?
Erika – Sul piano comunicativo non ci si può ancora pronunciare.
Mattia – Secondo me è necessario comunque avere un piano d’azione, cioè dei paletti entro cui muoversi che abbiano un supporto scientifico forte e reale. Personalmente nutro fiducia nelle figure professionali che stanno seguendo l’iter dal punto di vista scientifico, in quanto si tratta di ricercatori con grande esperienza alle spalle anche a livello legislativo in ambito europeo. Tuttavia sono convinto che le decisioni che saranno prese saranno politiche e probabilmente scontenteranno tutti, perché è la conseguenza ovvia di un tentativo di far convergere in un solo punto le esigenze più estreme e contrastanti degli animalisti e dei cacciatori.
Comunque spero e mi aspetto che tutte le parti in causa, politici compresi, si documentino realmente perché il rischio è che manchi alla fine la preparazione tecnica per prendere le decisioni finali. Quindi è necessario che leggano i report, che partecipino agli incontri tecnici, che studino e si consultino con esperti e studiosi. Per esempio, non si tiene abbastanza in considerazione il fatto che noi del LWA, con i francesi d’oltre confine, stiamo studiando quella che è la terza popolazione di lupi per importanza d’Europa, insieme a quelle della Germania e della Svezia. Da parte dei politici è essenziale ascoltare i pareri tecnici e fare scelte consapevoli perché alla fine anche loro dovranno assumersi le proprie responsabilità.
Al Piano d’Azione è legato anche il problema del bracconaggio e delle uccisioni illegali tramite trappole o bocconi avvelenati?
Erika – Certamente sì. Il ritrovamento di lupi uccisi per motivi antropici è sanzionato ma anche legalmente scalato dalla eventuale quota dei lupi da abbattere annualmente prevista dal Piano. Quindi, fintantoché rimarranno così tanti i ritrovamenti di lupi uccisi dall’uomo, gli abbattimenti programmati dal Piano non potranno mai essere applicati.
 A un piano di gestione del lupo in Italia credo sia anche fortemente legato il problema degli ibridi.
Mattia – Certo! Legalmente cosa ne facciamo di questi ibridi? Da noi in Piemonte per ora non ne abbiamo: lo sappiamo perché grazie al DNA abbiamo la possibilità tramite l’ISPRA di Bologna di campionare molto precisamente le fatte ritrovate. Ma in Toscana e sugli Appennini in genere il problema ibridi è forte. Il fatto è che innanzitutto non è sempre facile distinguere un lupo da un ibrido, alle volte solamente tramite il DNA e inoltre, a livello legislativo, ci sono provvedimenti decisamente differenti a proposito della gestione dei cani o dei lupi.
BrunellaAggiungerei che gli ibridi non rappresentano solo il rischio della perdita del patrimonio genetico del lupo, ma sono un problema che ha conseguenze anche sulla stessa politica di gestione del lupo. Per esempio, che cosa capita se un allevatore lamenta una predazione da parte di un lupo che poi invece risulta essere un ibrido…?
Mattia – Generalmente vengono risarciti i danni provocati da “Canidi” che includono sia i danni da lupo che da Cane. Quindi in realtà non cambia. In passato, in una regione con dei protocolli che prevedevano solo risarcimento dei danni da lupo è successo di aver avuto dei problemi  nel risarcimento.
 A questo proposito, quali sono le differenze nella gestione del lupo
sulle Alpi e sugli Appennini?
Mattia – La recente ricolonizzazione da parte del lupo sulle Alpi è avvenuta gradualmente, quindi abbiamo avuto tempo per organizzarci, quindi, sicuramente una prima differenza è che in Piemonte, con il progetto LWA, cerchiamo di creare un coordinamento a livello regionale e interregionale.
Negli Appennini invece la gestione è più articolata e varia a seconda delle zone. Noi abbiamo in generale più neve e ci è più facile monitorare i lupi presenti in inverno, differenze orografiche e capacità di reperire risorse a livello istituzionale, poi, fanno il resto. Certamente gli Appennini sono anche più vasti e per forza c’è un approccio differente. Nel Parco Nazionale d’Abruzzo  e in Majella c’è magari un po’ più di tolleranza da parte degli allevatori però in generale, anche se sull’Appennino il lupo non è mai scomparso del tutto, gli allevatori di quei territori non sono amichevoli.
Nel grossetano per esempio sono molto arrabbiati e si sono verificati casi di ritrovamenti di lupi uccisi e con le teste tagliate, atti da considerarsi quasi come rappresaglie.
Ora veniamo a un approccio al lupo un po’ più culturale e meno scientifico. Come vengono considerati da queste parti?
Erika – Nel mio lavoro facciamo vedere ai bambini le tracce lasciate dai lupi, facciamo capire loro come funziona la catena alimentare e spieghiamo perché sono tornati. A questo punto abbiamo reazioni diverse. I bambini che arrivano dalla città non hanno pregiudizi, sono come un foglio bianco su cui scrivere: gli raccontiamo la vita del branco, che nella loro immaginazione richiama quella della famiglia, la dispersione dei giovani, rivisitiamo la fiaba di Cappuccetto Rosso, e subito ci rendiamo conto che su di loro abbiamo più presa, ottenendo quasi sempre reazioni positive. Quelli che arrivano da queste vallate invece hanno atteggiamenti meno tolleranti; sia chiaro che nei nostri incontri noi non cerchiamo mai di fare amare il lupo, ma solo di far capire che il lupo è tornato in modo naturale , smontiamo le bufale che parlano di un suo reinserimento da parte dell’uomo, spieghiamo
che è un grande predatore utile per mantenere sani  i branchi di animali selvatici che costituiscono le loro prede. Ecco che allora, quando i bambini capiscono che è importante la sua presenza e che non ne avremo mai un’invasione a centinaia, siamo ripagati con un feedback positivo in termini di lavori fatti a posteriori, che poi ci mandano dalla scuola: belle storie inventate, disegni e finali di fiabe modificati. Con i ragazzi dell’Istituto Agrario, poi, c’è stato un approccio ancora diverso: abbiamo chiesto di andare per parlare non dei lupi ma dei problemi degli allevatori e dei possibili sistemi di prevenzione; abbiamo portato con noi anche i cani antiveleno e alcuni degli articoli da leggere che presentavano notizie false. In verità noi non vogliamo mai convincere ma solo informare. Anche in questo caso abbiamo avuto un buon feedback, e l’abbiamo capito grazie alla tecnica dei bigliettini da completare, distribuiti all’inizio degli incontri con la scritta “Secondo me il lupo…” su cui i ragazzi hanno scritto commenti molto negativi, ma poi, ripresentandoli alla fine e dopo le nostre spiegazioni, abbiamo ottenuto risposte molto più favorevoli, così abbiamo capito che quel che manca è sempre e soprattutto una corretta informazione.
Secondo il documentario americano “Medicine of the Wolf” il lupo è la medicina che può salvare l’umanità, perché è un animale dal comportamento simile all’uomo e in più è sensibile e capace di provare forti emozioni. Che cosa ha da insegnare a noi il lupo?
Erika – I bambini rimangono colpiti quando apprendono l’importanza della vita sociale del branco: la collaborazione, la cura della prole, la territorialità. Quando spieghiamo questi comportamenti del lupo, i bambini li paragonano subito ai loro e fanno dei parallelismi, spesso ad esempio con il bullismo. Io non avevo mai pensato che parlare del lupo ai ragazzi potesse avere dei risvolti relazionali e sociali: capita spesso di esaminare con loro i comportamenti negativi attribuiti al “branco” dei ragazzi definiti “bulli”, per arrivare agli esempi positivi offerti invece dai branchi di lupi, quale la solidarietà e la lealtà.  Nella nostra società, purtroppo, c’è tutta una terminologia legata al lupo come elemento negativo. I giornalisti continuano a citare il lupo cattivo come simbolo abbinato a notizie di cronaca nera. Ma ora sta nascendo un tentativo di rivalutazione che noi in particolare cerchiamo di suscitare con l’educazione soprattutto delle nuove generazioni.
Mattia – Personalmente quello che il lupo mi ha insegnato è a tenere duro, non mollare. E’ incredibile come riesca a sopravvivere nonostante le barriere e le difficoltà oggettive poste dalla natura e poi anche dall’uomo. E’ inoltre un ponte che ci lega alla nostra montagna: per me è l’emblema della natura selvaggia che non manda via l’uomo da questi luoghi ma che anzi me li fa comprendere più in profondità e mi attira. Il lupo mi affascina non per motivi idealistici e romantici. Sono estremamente più realistico e so che il branco può essere anche crudele quando ad esempio uccide un lupo estraneo, quindi sono convinto che non è tutto positivo. Però per quanto ci sforziamo di comprenderlo, è inafferrabile e rimane misterioso. Non so quanti chilometri ho fatto nella tracciatura del lupo, ma in tutti questi anni l’avrò visto solo una quindicina di volte.
BrunellaParticolari ricordi?
Mattia – Sì, molti. Quando per caso non si sono accorti che io ero acquattato in un cespuglio: ho sentito un rumore, mi sono girato e ne ho visti tre a poca distanza da me. Un altro è di quando per la prima volta hanno risposto al mio wolf howling. Ma mi preme dire che, a parte gli avvistamenti, quello che il lupo mi insegna e anche mi affascina di più è la quotidianità di questo mio lavoro, è il rapporto che si viene ad instaurare con le persone.
 Quale uso dei deterrenti si sta facendo? Funzionano?
Mattia – Legato all’uso dei deterrenti c’è il problema dell’assuefazione. Il mio lavoro è anche quello di testare i sistemi di prevenzione: qui si usano le recinzioni elettrificate, i cani da guardiania,  le bandierine (fladry), i dissuasori acustici con voci umane registrate. I lupi, però, sono intelligenti e dopo un po’ capiscono cosa sono e non li temono più e quindi si è costretti a cambiarli. Il problema oltretutto è che ogni regione o vallata ha differenze locali e orografiche . Quindi, nonostante noi abbiamo avuto un’esperienza positiva in un posto, non possiamo credere di poterla esportare a scatola chiusa e di garantirne automaticamente la riuscita in un altro luogo. L’ambiente, le abitudine della conduzione agli alpeggi… tutto deve essere poi rimodulato.
Noi abbiamo 15 anni di esperienza preziosissima  in Piemonte, questo sì, è l’unico bagaglio che possiamo portarci dietro e che può servirci per contribuire a trovare strategie di convivenza pacifica tra uomini e lupi sulle nostre montagne.
Con queste ultime considerazioni, la mia intervista è terminata. Dopo aver salutato e ringraziato i miei ospiti, sulla strada del ritorno, mi colpisce la lucida consapevolezza che è solo tramite la conoscenza scientifica e approfondita dell’ambiente che ci circonda, che si può sviluppare il rispetto per le creature che lo popolano. Sono certa che dall’esemplare opera di informazione e di divulgazione che il LWA sta facendo presso le nuove generazioni possano nascere interessi e passioni che in futuro serviranno a migliorare un rapporto che dura da millenni tra uomini e grandi predatori.
Come dice Jim Brandeburg nel film documentario “Medicine of the Wolf”, è stato il lupo che circa 14.000 anni fa scelse e decise di avvicinarsi all’uomo e di farsi addomesticare. Ora è l’uomo che deve fare il passo inverso e dare al lupo la possibilità di sopravvivere in quanto uno degli animali chiave per il mantenimento dell’ecosistema, in modo che continui a vivere nel suo habitat, condividendolo in modo sostenibile con l’uomo, che ne è ugualmente ospite e non padrone assoluto. Se non si capirà in tempo che i lupi, come gli altri grandi predatori all’apice della catena alimentare, rappresentano la salvezza, per l’umanità non ci sarà un futuro.
 
Brunella Pernigotti
Immagine di copertina: “Lupo Ormea_ Centro Faunistico Uomini e Lupi_ photo credit Fulvio Beltrando”

WODCW Interview: Luca Anselmo monitors wolves in the Italian Alps

A Wolves of Douglas County Wisconsin (WODCW) Interview by Brunella Pernigotti 

1.Luca Anselmo, thank you for answering some questions for Wolves Of Douglas County Wisconsin! First of all, will you tell us something about you and your work?
– I’m 32 years old and I live in Susa Valley, a wide valley in the West Alps. I have been working as a Naturalistic Guide for some years. My main activity is to lead school children and groups of people on naturalistic tours in many parks of the West Alps, but when I go monitoring wolves, I do it mostly in my valley, for my convenience and also for my attachment to some wolf packs.  Also, I move in other areas of Piedmont, when I’m engaged in other monitoring Wolf Projects.

  

Photo: Alps in Italay by Luca Anselmo


2. Why did you decide to do this kind of work? How many years have you been monitoring wolves?

– Since I was a child, I’ve been fascinated by the animals in the wild. It was at the end of ‘90s, when the wolves came back to the Cottian Alps, that I started to devote myself completely to the study of this species. Long time passed, during which I could turn my mere curiosity into a deep passion and above all I could join and work with the teams of “Lupo Piemonte” and “Life Wolf Alps” projects. 

I’ve been working with them since 2007, but not continually. During my teamwork I met extraordinary people who have been studying these animals for ages, such as Elisa Avanzinelli and Francesca Marucco: they both contributed very much to my training. As a Naturalistic Guide, I conduct educational activities.  I concentrate especially on this great predator, as it is a perfect means to explain the difficult equilibrium of the alpine ecosystem and the impact that the humans make on it. This year I have been working for the “Life Wolf Alps Project” didactics in the Cottian Alps Parks.   These walking tours concerning wolves are offered to every school of the region that is interested in knowing something more about the presence of wolves packs in this area.

3. If I’m not wrong, Canis Lupus Italicus is the only native species of wolf in Italy; but, what do you think about some other subspecies settling in our peninsula?

– Despite the cruel persecution of the last centuries, a small population of the subspecies “Canis Lupus Italicus” was able to survive in the central Apennines untill 1976, and at last they became a protected species. From those wild woods they started to colonize again the Italian and French Alps; some of them ventured very far and we have recent reports about wolves that reached Germany and even Spain. 

Wolves are “champions” of dispersal, so it’s possible that other subspecies come to Italy; to tell the truth, some years ago, it already happened to some surviving Slovenian wolves and in 2013 two wolves, an Italian female and a Slovenian male formed the first mixed pack in the Alps of Veneto, in the Verona district. This event marked a very important change for the future destiny of the whole species!

  

Photo: Wolf tracked by Luca Anselmo


4. Can you take us through a day of wolf tracking?

– They are always exciting and exhausting days. Waking up at first sunlight is obligatory. It’s necessary even in midwinter because snow that has just fallen could melt very quickly after sunrise, so the precious tracks could vanish before we find them. 

We get to the starting point of our “snow tracking” by car, then we continue on foot or with snowshoes (we called them “ciaspole”) and usually we go along ways that have been pre-arranged by the previous monitoring sessions with the aim to cross every portion of the valleys where wolves are present in the hopes of finding the right tracks. Once we have found them and verified that they are really tracks of wolves because dog’s paws prints are very similar to those of wolves: it takes at least a 300 m. tracking to estimate and identify the walk and the behavior of the animals.  Then, we follow the trail first backwards, and forwards, in order to detect even the oldest prints to prevent any possible trouble the animals are experiencing. 

Sometimes we are able to follow them for many consecutive days and even coordinated with other operators.  More often the blanket of snow stops at a certain point and we lose the tracks after just few kilometers. Wolf tracking is a work requiring concentration because we need to pick up the dung for the genetic analysis. We examine the predations or the mere consumption of prey to map exactly each movement and every significant detail. 

  
Photo: gathered samples for genetic analysis by Luca Anselmo


I think  the greatest experience is the counting of the lone individuals.  Often wolves don’t move with the pack, but when they do it, it’s important to identify and to make a rough estimate of the tracked individuals. During tracking the wolf/wolves that have passed through I can see if they are moving fast, trotting, or sleeping or even eating.  
In any case, when we come back home we know that we had been able to follow only a little part of their displacements. Wolves usually move fast and cover dozens of kilometers every day. In our Alps the territory of a pack averages 250 square kilometers.

5. Do you have a story about an interesting wolf or wolf pack to tell our readers?

– Well, wolves are very amazing animals. Their ability to adjust to any environment is surprising.  A wolf can move like a real mountain climber even as a cub; in one word, their behavior is always very interesting. 

During my life I’ve been able to catch sight of 15 wolves and each time it was very exciting. For instance I remember what happened when I was with my friend, as well as researcher and scientific coordinator, Elisa Avanzinelli. We were in a beautiful place, at dusk, before starting the “Wolf Howling” (it’s a method we don’t often use, because it can disturb the animals), when two wolves appeared suddenly at few meters far from us. It was an adult female with a rather young male that probably was its new mate. I recognized the female that, until that moment, I had been able only to imagine by following its tracks.  It’s  old mate had died some months before. The experienced female, despite the strong wind that was blowing our smell far from them, perceived something and ran way almost at once. 

 

Photo: Wolf tracks by  Luca Anselmo

On the contrary the young male kept still for a moment scanning around without seeing us, then it vanished swiftly with its tail between its legs. It was a wonderful sight. That night no wolf answered our howling: probably they had become suspicious after our encounter.

6. What do you see as the most prominent obstacles in monitoring wolves in our Alps?
– For many years the greatest obstacle was to get the right coordination between the involved Regions and States, but now this problem is working out for the best. However there is still the great risk that there isn’t a regular yearly monitoring.  Sometimes it’s not possible to raise the needed funds to gather and analyze all the data. So, when it this happens we have the so-called “hole”, which doesn’t allow us to refute the aberrant public claims and false information from people who make propaganda against wolves.  If important scientific data monitoring is not regular, we must begin all over again each time!

7. What do you see as the most significant obstacle between wolves and people for coexisting in the Alps?

– I will tell you my personal opinion. I think that spreading of disinformation on the whole causes ignorance about wolves is at the root of the question. Moreover some political lobbies often use the wolf item to take the shepherds away from their real and greater problems related to their important work.  That is to say the strong economic crisis of the sheep market which the State doesn’t support enough. In reality fewer and fewer assaults on the livestock are recordered thanks to the more frequent use of the deterrent methods. But for many people it’s easier to blame the wolves and all those researchers who work hard in order to find the correct strategies for humans & wolves coexistence. As I said before, the real problems of shepherds are not related to the wolves and they are not easily solved.

8. Have you witnessed illegal hunting of wolves?

– No, I’ve never, because these are mean acts made covertly by poachers. I know some people who have had their dogs killed by poisoned baits meant for wolves, spread in the woods. I don’t think hunters are involved, as luckily many of them are for wolves. Most hunters know the ecological importance of these big predators that keep the populations of wild ungulates healthy. However it can’t be denied that there are some hunters who, for ignorance and old prejudices, are helping to spread a lot of dangerous misinformation.

9. From your experience which predator abatement or deterrent has worked the best?

– According to several studies I think that the best solution is to get out of the habit of leaving sheep out to free pasture without safekeeping.   it was a not onerous activity for the shepherds in the past, when there were no predators.  Today things have changed and it exposes sheep to the risk of easy assaults. On the contrary the presence of a shepherd, the use of watchdogs and the habit of keeping flocks inside electrified fences during the night are proving to be the best solutions. 

In the province of Turin about 90% of the mountain pastures that risk a predation use these systems. As a matter of fact, the number of wolves packs is increasing, but the number of their assaults is even decreasing. 

I know there are also other methods that are being tested positively, such as sound and light deterrents. In conclusion the best strategy seems to be to change these precautionary measures at regular intervals, but there is always room for improvement.

10. What do you think about organizing a sort of “wolf watching” tourism in the Italian environment? What would be the pros and cons?

– I’ve noticed that, of all animals, the wolf  is of interest and excites the the curiosity of the groups of people I lead into the wild. However I know that a sort of tourism focused on the search for a direct contact with this species is somewhat an utopia in Italy.  Because wolves are extremely fearful, nocturnal and tend to hide very well. But most of all I think it’s ethically wrong. It’s already too easy to disturb them because we do not have enough wilderness spaces and often wolves are forced to live in close contact with humans. 

In the last few years photographers and video makers have caused enough problems as it is, without adding anything else to the scientific research. We must understand that there is a very high risk of interfering with these complex animals that need quiet places where they can breed and hide from human encroachment.

11. How humans damage most the wolf habitat and, particularly, what kind of risks could result if they will really bore the long tunnel through the mountains for the high-speed railway Turin-Lyon (the so-called TAV)?

– The wolves are the most widespread carnivores in the world and they have the greatest ability to adapt thanks to their opportunist diet. They can live wherever there is enough food and a possibility to escape humans. People who don’t know the Alps should imagine a very interesting natural environment but greatly transformed to meet human needs. At a low altitude there are many railway and road communications that not only cross several territories of the wolves packs but they are also barriers which many other wild animals find hard or impossible to get past. 

Speaking about the Alps, it’s right in Susa Valley that there is the greatest concentration of wolves killed by cars or trains every years. And in Susa Valley there the plan to make a new high speed railway (TAV) that would add to this illogical consumption of the valley floor. That’s why people living there are opposing and obstructing this plan.

12. Is there anything else you could tell readers?

Yes, of course! I want to send my regards to all the wolf fans from these mountains, with my wish that wolves will be allowed to come back and settle every place where they usually lived before humans arrived and that they can teach us how to coexist, not to predominate!  ~Luca Anselmo


  

Photo: Luca Anselmo 

  

Image: Lupo appenninico – Italian Appennine wolf 

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Interview of Luca Anselmo by Brunella Pernigotti

About Brunella

Brunella Pernigotti lives in Turin, Italy. She is a teacher, a writer and a photographer. She published a novel and a book of tales and has to her credit about ten one-man exhibitions of photos. She is member of the board of a non-profit association of Turin, “Tribù del Badnightcafè”, that organizes cultural and artistic events. 

More work by Brunella: Italian Documentary Film: Storie di uomini e lupi – Stories of men and wolves – reviewed by Brunella Pernigotti


On the trail of the Italian wolf

By Brunella Pernigotti 

If you look at a map of Italy, you’ll see that Turin, my city, is to the extreme north-west of the country. It is surrounded by mountains (the western Alps), that are arranged in a semicircle at north and west and south of it, so that they separate Italy from France. Turin is the capital of Piedmont region, whose name means exactly “at the foot of the mountains”.

Turin Italy

Turin is a big city with a beautiful historic center, with the river Po that runs through it and with sweet hills that rise on the riverside. Yet, like every city, it is also very chaotic, crowded and with a heavy traffic; so I often drive for about 70 kilometers to the mountains, where I can find some fresh air and relax.

Po river near Turin Italy

I’ve got a very little house in a resort which has become famous thanks to the past 2006 Winter Olympic Games: Sauze d’Oulx. It’s a ski resort, but I keep away from the ski slopes as I like better the solitary paths that run through the woods. So I climb up to places where I can see only the sky above and, down there in the valley, people bustling about, like little ants.

Photograph titled “my wood” is the starting point of the path in Val di Susa, that I climb, always in the hopeful search of wolves.

The object of my walks is, of course, to see wolves, that live on the top of the mountains around the Susa Valley, but it’s very difficult to meet them, or even to hear them howling in the distance, since they are very shy and fear humans. If I’m lucky, I can just find one print in the snow or the remnants of some prey.
The story of wolves in Italy has sad origins. At the beginning of the Twentieth  Century they were widespread everywhere: on the Alps and on the Apennines; but soon they started to be so persecuted and killed to reach their extinction. Only few of them survived on the Apennines, the mountain chain which extends from the Po Valley to the south of Italy. In the 1970s they were calculated to be only about a hundred. It was a shame and even a paradoxical situation, because the Catholic patron saint of Italy is San Francesco, who was famous for his addressing to the animals and particularly to a wolf that he had tamed with his words of love and respect!

Wolf track found on my walk.

From those years on, several conservative campaigns were launched with success and at the beginning of the 1990s Italian wolves were calculated to be about 400. The Alps were slowly repopulated. Unfortunately, at the same time, human beings started again their persecutions and cruel killings. Still now, breeders and hunters keep on saying that on the Alps wolves have been restored on purpose by animalists, who brought them from France. But it’s not true! DNA tests have confirmed that it’s the Canis Lupus Italicus that, in their migration, went up from the Apennines, moved through the Ligurian mountains and the Alps, crossed the border between Italy and France, and then, from there, came back to Piedmont, where 2 or 3 little reproductive nucleus stopped and settled down. However, lobbies of hunters and breeders claim that wolves are not part of the local wildlife and put pressure on local governments and public opinion in order to get larger lawful power to kill them.  
Wolves on the Alps are still in danger, not only because of human ignorance but also because they are still too few, so they haven’t many possibility to cross their genetic inheritance with individuals of new packs.

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

On the other hand there are more and more hybridizations with dogs that came back to wilderness. Those hybrids don’t fear humans and cause the worst damages to cattle and sheep.
Besides, their ancestral natural passages (the so-called “corridoi ecologici”) are nowadays crossed by a lot of roads and railways. Too many and frequent car and train accidents are recorded, where wolves, deers, and other wild animals die!
At the moment the situation in Italy records a population of wolves of about 1.000/1.500 individuals, but there isn’t any certain calculation. They are still (!!) a protected species and the law provides for funds to be paid out by local administrations to breeders who want to get what is necessary to defend their properties, as well as compensations for the damages suffered by a breeder, when he’s able to demonstrate that his killed animal was a prey of the wolves.
Wolves are at the center of bitter controversies, where too many interests (economic and political powers) are involved. Their life is in danger because of the human behavior. But human beings are responsible not only to the wolves, but to their children too, since the whole ecosystem is risking to collapse as a result of their blind, greedy and incompetent management of the environment, which we are part of.
 

For more information : “Il ritorno del lupo nelle valli torinesi” by Massimiliano Borgia – Luna Nuova Edizioni – Torino 2004.


Photographs: Brunella Pernigotti 

  

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Brunella Pernigotti lives in Turin, Italy. She is a teacher, a writer and a photographer. She published a novel and a book of tales and has to her credit about ten one-man exhibitions of photos. She is member of the board of a non-profit association of Turin, “Tribù del Badnightcafè”, that organizes cultural and artistic events.