Bears avoid humans when they can
Living in areas that have been changed by human beings means having to weigh up the pros and cons
Humans have significantly altered the lives of many animals in just a few hundred years, a very short length of time from an evolutionary point of view.
The results of many studies agree that animals perceive a human presence as a disturbance, or rather a potential danger. What is their immediate reaction? For example, they may react by manifesting alertness and fear: heart rate and breathing increase (due to the release of hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol), muscles become more toned and contract ready to snap into action, pupils dilate to increase the ability to observe. What might they do? They might flee and avoid the disturbed areas for hours, days or even weeks. Although potentially adaptive, these alterations may actually affect the animals’ ability to feed, breed and care for their offspring, for example, forcing them to concentrate in preferred areas. That’s not all. If the stress induced becomes chronic, it could promote the onset of diseases (reduced immune defences, weakened physical condition, depression and lower reproductive capacity).
The more individuals are affected, the greater the impact on the whole population to which they belong. And since all animals live within communities, the knock-on effects will also cascade down. Although the reactions of animals are very similar, whether we are talking about infrastructure (such as a village) or hikers, not all disturbances are the same. The more frequent, unpredictable and rapid the disturbance, even more so if it occurs in areas critical for the animals (refuge, feeding, or offspring care areas), the greater the potential impact on their health and survival. A person walking along a path will certainly have less impact than a squad of hunters on a beat or a group of fifty walkers, but a group of people off the path near a den could have a comparable if not greater impact on, for example, a bear.
A startled bear rises up on its hind legs to assess with its senses the source of a noise.
Female F05, also known as Marina, is a very shy female. Her territory is located in a decidedly secluded mountainous area in the north of the Park. It was 6.30 in the morning on 4 September and I was observing, as I have been every summer for over ten years. Covered from head to toe and hidden by a rock, I could hardly contain my joy. Marina had a cub with her, a female, although we only found this out later, thanks to genetics. The female had been eating quietly from the first light of dawn on a bramble bush about 800 metres below me. Despite all the attention, I remember that day I hadn’t studied the wind well in relation to my position. All it took was a turn of the wind, a hair that lifted almost imperceptibly on my forehead and the family disappeared at such a speed that I wondered if they had ever been there, leaving behind a sense of guilt and frustration.
Animals can get used to a disturbance, providing it is predictable and they have no negative experiences. Habituation is in itself nothing more than a reflection of the intelligence and adaptability of many animals, including bears, qualities that help them access all kinds of food, even in environments highly modified by humans. However, habituated animals reduce their flight distance, become less reactive and are easily approached, making them more liable to poaching. They cross populated areas more frequently, with a higher risk of being run over, and may become involved in unpleasant episodes of human-bear interaction (attacks and injuries). Furthermore, the lack of reactivity (for example, flight) does not necessarily mean the animal is calm. Such behaviour could, in fact, still be associated with a state of stress and tension. How many people seem serene and calm, but in reality, on closer inspection, they are biting their fingernails or tapping their toes, revealing a state of nervousness. This can also be the case with animals. Research in North America and Northern Europe has shown that bears in populated areas are more stressed (elevated heart rate or high levels of stress hormones) than bears in remote areas, despite their apparent calmness as they move among the houses. Research in North America and Northern Europe has shown that bears in populated areas are more stressed (elevated heart rate or high levels of stress hormones) than bears in remote areas, despite their apparent calmness. Everything can have a cost for a wild animal and choices motivated by food are not always the best.
Watching bears, as with all species of Apennine fauna, is an instructive and exciting activity, but it is essential to observe the regulations of the protected areas and, above all, the safety and well-being of the animals.
Bears easily find ways to live in areas altered by people’s presence, but they are not good at weighing up the pros and cons.
Bears do everything they can to avoid humans. In the Apennines and in Europe in general, bears avoid densely populated areas and have predominantly crepuscular and nocturnal habits. But what happens if people venture among bears? Some studies offer interesting insights.
On the Scandinavian peninsula, female bears double their weight from spring to when they enter the den, feeding mainly on berries. In order to feed properly (it takes time to fatten up on such small fruits!), bears search for the most berry-laden bushes even during the day. Every hour is indispensable. However, these areas are frequented by tourists, berry pickers and hunters. When surprised, especially by people off the path, bears react by refusing to feed during daylight hours, even for several days.
In some areas of North America, there are certain moths that accumulate during the day in great numbers on open, hard-to-reach rock walls. Bears can eat up to 40,000 moths a day in the summer season (about 20,000 calories), but they can only do so during daylight hours, the same hours used by climbers for recreational purposes. In their presence, bears exhibit stress reactions, continually interrupt their meals and consume up to 12 kcal/minute. Several studies also document the greater impact of forestry, mining or recreational activities in bear hibernation areas, even leading to abandonment and death of the cubs.
Many hunting practices, such as the hunts themselves or dog training, take place in areas and periods that are critical for bears. Wild boar hunting, for example, usually involves numerous dogs and people for 2 or 3 days a week from October to January. The disturbance is not, therefore, limited to the moment the shots are fired, but is also associated with increased activity in the whole area concerned (presence of vehicles, chases, barking dogs, transport of the dead animals etc.). What are the risks for bears? Certainly there is a possibility they will be mistakenly hit instead of a wild boar, a critical issue documented throughout Europe. But that is not the only problem. Especially fearless bears can learn to associate the possibility of finding a carcass or an injured animal during and after a hunt and take risks, creating even greater risks and opportunities for conflict. As confirmed by a study conducted in Sweden, bears can also associate this activity with a disturbance, giving up feeding and taking refuge, especially in the early hours of the morning and with effects that may last for several days. Reducing the time window in which they feed during a season when bears have to fatten up to spend several months fasting can compromise their health and, in females, their ability to reproduce.
Forest exploitation, sports and recreational activities, hunting, collecting mushrooms, truffles and other forest products are important activities for those who live in and frequent the Apennine mountains, but they also represent situations of possible interference with the life of bears and other species. Common sense and respect are the basic ingredients for a harmonious coexistence.
In environments with an ever greater human pressure, bears need time windows to carry out their activities in peace.
Research carried out in various study contexts now offers a great opportunity for management bodies to determine how and when to intervene and for everyone to understand what lies behind the restrictive regulations applied mainly within protected areas. Regulation of access to certain areas and seasonal closure of certain paths are examples of the measures imposed to guarantee bears time and privacy.
In recent years, tourism aimed at photographing or observing bears has increased dramatically (in Europe as elsewhere in the world). Faced with this new pressure, bears have little margin to adapt if they are not helped by more conscious behaviour on the part of people. In protected areas, the challenge is particularly high, because some bears become more and more accustomed to people and thus easy to spot – a real magnet for enthusiasts. Observing a bear up close is a unique experience and can benefit the image and conservation of these animals. However, the problem is that people also become accustomed to bears, underestimating and not fully understanding the risk of non-neutral and unpredictable behaviour, getting closer and closer or giving them food, to the detriment of their own safety and that of the bears. A bear attack on a person could dramatically reduce the degree to which these animals are accepted, as well as support for their protection and conservation. Institutions, authorities and the general public should therefore work together to achieve a new level of nature management, based on respect and distance.
A series of images recorded by a camera trap aimed at a ‘special’ tree in the ALMNP shows how bears and other wildlife frequent the same areas used by people, but at different times to avoid unpleasant encounters.
Bears attack infrequently and only under certain conditions, but with the right information and behaviour, together with a dash of genetics, the risk could be negligible.
But are bears dangerous? In most situations, bears avoid encounters and disappear if they can. This is demonstrated by several studies in Sweden, where individual bears or family groups equipped with satellite radio collars were intentionally approached by people on foot on hundreds of occasions. The things we do for research! So, on 80-95% of these occasions, the bears moved away and were visible on only very few occasions. The attack statistics play in our favour. In Europe as a whole, brown bear attacks do not exceed an average of ten cases per year. In most cases, they involve females with cubs, as a result of their apprehensive nature while defending their young and “special” situations: bears caught at close range and at night, bears in dens or defending a carcass, bears injured or conditioned by “human-derived” food and bears chased by dogs off the leash.
What news do we have about Marsican bears? In the Apennines, there has never been a documented case of attack or injury to people. Genetics tell us that the bears are by nature less aggressive. According to some researchers, bears living at high densities, as can be the case in the PNALM, are more likely to be tolerant not only with others of their own species, but also with other animals, including humans. Bears are, however, still wild animals and endowed with extraordinary strength and powerful claws. That is why it is essential to follow a few useful rules in case of an encounter. Do not approach the bear, do not shout, move away calmly and always leave an escape route between yourself and the animal. It is also advisable to avoid situations where you might surprise a bear, ideally staying on a path (better still, if marked and authorised) and discreetly making your arrival known (noise should be avoided in any case).
The question everyone wants answered is how close can you get to a bear without eliciting a reaction. A million-dollar question. The distance at which an animal reacts depends on many factors: age, sex, individual history, temperament and context. Some studies suggest that bears can sense the presence of humans even more than a kilometre away, especially if the bears are active and alert. Other research claims that bears used to people can be approached as close as a few dozen metres. However, most researchers suggest keeping at least 100 to 200 metres away, to avoid any risky situation.
It was a mid-July morning in 2008. I was wearing my field-worn jeans and a check shirt. A backpack strapped on my shoulders and antenna and radio in my hand. I was on a bear control round. The radio signal was weak and bouncing all over the valley. Better to climb to the top to understand the direction of the signal. When I reached the ridge after a 600 metre ascent, my only thought was to sit down and catch my breath. My vision was blurred, partly from the heat and tiredness, partly because I was looking into the light. A slow but steady wind cooled my face. Sitting down and moving my body to the left and right, I began to study the place. A few metres away from me among the leaves, something more than shade was doing the same thing. Time to focus clearly: a sitting bear was watching me. It was the male M10, known among us colleagues as Ciccio, captured a few days ago. The green collar was clearly visible. First thought with my heart racing: what is the percentage risk of attack? Second thought, breathing fast: if he attacks, it would be a disaster, everyone would start being afraid of bears. Third thought with a dry throat, heck, I’m wearing the same trousers as when he was captured… will he take revenge? Fourth thought with a long breath: calm down, distract him, don’t scare him, speak with a friendly tone and above all don’t run away. And that’s what I did. I don’t remember the exact words, but I said something and slowly threw one or two pebbles, I think. And it worked, the bear stood on a stone to observe me better – I made myself smaller and smaller – and then he left. Fear, fascination, emotion. I only remember that over a period of what seemed like hours, I retreated out of sight and walked away quickly, very quickly.
PEOPLE AND BEARS: SLIDE A BIT
Bears can live in areas that have been changed by human beings, but they are not good to weigh up the pros and cons. People have a low perception of the disturbance they cause. Yet, with small, conscious gestures, it is possible to contribute more to nature conservation than any Institutions or Administrations, whether outside or inside a Protected Area.
Many studies show that people have a low perception of the disturbance they cause and find it difficult to give up their habits. Regulations or sanctions may help, but respect for animals should be a voluntary choice of responsibility that should not require regulations.