It’s 7pm and I am walking down Via Cassia to get home when I see police lights flashing and a bunch of people gathering at the entrance of a small park. Just a few meters from the congested street, a herd of six wild boars are calmly sleeping among the benches. Police officers are telling a girl that measures will be taken, and different opinions emerge: a woman wanting the boars to be brought elsewhere, a mother perceiving them as a danger and nuisance, an old man coming with bags full of left-overs and food, some people passing by and barely noticing them.
In this labyrinth of opinions and discordant behaviours, what is right and what is wrong?
For those who live in Rome, meeting a wild boar (Sus scrofa) and its puppies while walking the dog in an urban park might not seem that weird. Since one year ago a scooter driver died in a car accident which involved a boar crossing his way at night, the “Boar Question” has earned the front pages of many newspapers and has become one of the main reasons for complaint and indignation among Romans. The amazement and curiosity that such an encounter could have raised at the beginning have been replaced by a rooted sense of discomfort and insecurity, and the lack of measures adopted by the local institutions has made the level of intolerance increasingly grow.
The Roman situation, however, gives precious food for thought to introduce the wider concept of urban wildlife management. A compelling, nonetheless underestimated (both at a local and global level), issue that, if given the right relevance, could significantly increase the quality of life of citizens and animals.
The preliminary concept that is necessary to stress is that the efficiency and success of wildlife management programs cannot rest on emergency-based intervention policies.
The stable or occasional problematic presence of wild animals in an urban territory directly depends on complex factors. These need an in-depth analysis to be ascertained in order to develop a focused and successful intervention with a long-term efficiency. In fact, the overnumbered quantity of opinions and contrasting behaviours generated by a lack of detailed and localized analysis does not allow any result to be achieved. The role of scientific research Is therefore fundamental to firstly pinpoint the factors that make an urbanized environment appealing to the permanence of wild animals (e.g. rats, seagulls, squirrels, foxes, boars, bears).
Why should a bear visit orchards when it has entire forests available?
The answer is easy: energy-saving policy. Optimisation of energy resources is fundamental for wild animals which have to provide for themselves and find their own food. This is the reason why, for example, wolves move following straight paths while dogs, which are “domesticated wolves” that no longer need to save energy for hunting, trace zig-zag paths.
This suggests that animals which visit human neighborhoods mustn’t be considered casual hosts. An in-depth ethological research reveals indeed that animals consciously and cleverly choose to cohabit with the man since proximity to human communities entails many advantages: generally better climate conditions in the urbanized territory compared to forestry areas, less predators and, of course, much more accessible trophic and water resources.
This implies that, when animal-human coexistence becomes conflictual, such favourable conditions make the permanence of wildlife very difficult to eradicate, and short-term interventions merely based on dissuasion (e.g. the use of firecrackers) useless in most of the cases as animals tend to keep on frequenting their chosen storage.
An emblematic example is the one of the so-called “confident bears” in the National Park of Abruzzo, Lazio, and Molise where an endangered, endemic population of approximately 50 Marsican bears (Ursus arctos marsicanus) live.
Although very common, the term “confident” is inappropriately used to address those bears which no longer show fear of man and seem to have overcome the natural instinct of wariness when visiting human neighborhoods in search for food. Nevertheless, this oversimplification doesn’t take into account important eco-ethological considerations that reveal, on the contrary, the perfect consistency that such a behaviour has with natural rules.
Confident bears are, in fact, animals which have developed a successful and convenient survival strategy in response to changing environmental conditions. Over the last century, the abandonment of mountain pastoral and agricultural activities, along with the growing wild of fruit trees often suffocated by stronger wild species, brought to the perceivable reduction of trophic resources available for Marsican bears within the forestry area of the National Park.
As a consequence, weaker bears, often young females, necessarily have to resort to second-class resources while the fewer but more undisturbed and better ones are prerogative of stronger individuals. When the fruit ripens then, these plantigrades become assiduous visitors to human orchards, sometimes overstepping fences and ignoring, when possible, human presence. This strategy is, therefore, nothing more than an example of the responses of wildlife to ecological changes associated to human activity and natural processes and proves the inconsistency of a term such as “confident”.
Within the local reality of the park though, the visit of marsican bears to towns has always been perceived as problematic, and dissuasion therefore employed as a deterrent. In cases such as the one of the marsican bear nevertheless, emergency-based interventions do not work. Many bears addressed as “confident” subjected to dissuasion with petards or captured and released in distant mountain areas, have (not surprisingly) made the return to the exact same orchard or fruit tree few days after, proving this kind of management unsuitable in the face of complex and rooted behaviors.
In fact, prevention is better than the cure: picking ripen fruit, securing the perimeter of urban orchards with electrified fences and working on the creation of environmental corridors to promote the expansion of the forestry area where bears can go in search for food would be much more effective.
What is more, the object of urban wildlife management should be the one to evaluate the importance of preserving urban environmental biodiversity and to stress the mutual advantages that the sustainable coexistence of human and animal population entails.
What about bats and swallows that keep mosquitoes under control? Or birds of prey, often trained and employed in ample areas such as airports and industries to remove infesting populations of birds? Not to mention the role that wildlife has in terms of tourism: every year thousands of people come from every corner of the world to visit our Regional and National parks.
Last but not least, the role of environmental education is fundamental. Citizens are the first to have a huge impact on wildlife management and their behaviour can actually determine if coexistence is positive or conflictual. Making UWM a “citizen science” could be the best way to raise awareness, promote wildlife-smart practices and shift the overdramatized perception that generations of citizens have contributed to share, remembering that we are all inhabitants of the same planet and we live in a changing environment which needs tolerance to find its own, delicate balance.
To conclude, the point does not revolve around the “return of wildlife” to urbanized areas, it’s all about finding the right way for the sustainable cohabitation of animals and humans, fellow occupants of the same environment and, curiously, exploiters of common resources. We are animals too, after all.
Article written in collaboration with Gianluca Damiani, naturalist and wildlife photographer.
- Adams, Clark E., Lindsey, Kieran J. (2010). Urban Wildlife Management, 2nd ed. Taylor and Francis Group, LLC.
- Bologna, M.A., Carpaneto G.M., Cinignini, B. (1998). Atti del 1° Convegno Nazionale sulla Fauna Urbana, Roma, Fratelli Palombi Editori.
- Battisti, C. (2004). Frammentazione Ambientale, Connettività, Reti Ecologiche, Un contributo teorico e metodologico con particolare riferimento alla fauna selvatica, Roma, Provincia di Roma, Stilgrafica SRL.