“Oh my god. It’s a bear, I’m almost sure of it,” whispers wildlife guide Andrea De Angelis, handing me his thermal monocular and pointing to a spot on the adjacent hillside. The morning is ice cold and dawn still blankets the lumbering central Apennine mountains, which are a muted winter brown. We have set up on a treeless hillside a few miles from a farm; somewhere far away, cows are lowing in the lightening air. I pull off a glove and put the monocular up to my eye, scanning across the valley.
“It’s too big to be a wolf and it doesn’t move like a deer. Definitely bear,” says Andrea confidently. I scan around until I see the ghostly white outline of a large animal loping through the black-and-white frame. Suddenly the animal stops and turns sideways, and there it is: the distinctive outline of a Marsican brown bear.
I’ve come on this wildlife-watching trip in central Italy with Wildlife Adventures, a tour agency that works closely with Rewilding Europe, the NGO working to boost rewilding conservation across the continent. The concept of rewilding is fairly new within nature conservation – it is a non-traditional approach focused on managing nature in such a way that it can begin to take its own course, so that natural processes will reshape and repair degraded ecosystems and landscapes.
The idea is that, through rewilding, Earth’s natural rhythms create freshly wild and newly biodiverse habitats on their own. The NGO’s local branch, Rewilding Apennines, is tasked with tracking and populating several endangered and threatened species – animals that once roamed freely across central Italy – and works toward human-wildlife coexistence in these rural communities.
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Abruzzo, Lazio and Molise National Park, where we are standing, was founded in 1923 and protects the Apennine wolf, Apennine chamois (a type of antelope), gryphon vultures and the endemic Marsican brown bear, a critically endangered variety of the Eurasian brown bear that survives in and around the park. We’re lucky to spot one – Rewilding Apennines estimates only 60 to 90 individual bears are left. They typically start hibernating around December or earlier, but their habits are shifting due to global warming.
Tourism is a powerful aid to rewilding efforts here. The presence of wildlife draws visitors, who stimulate the economy and provide new livelihoods for locals in otherwise under-visited, rural mountain communities. Valerio Reale, enterprise officer for Rewilding Apennines, tells me that they have formed a small network of tourism providers – local artisans, small enterprises, brewers, cheesemakers and accommodation owners – who support the rewilding efforts and enrich travellers’ experiences with, for example, small-batch cheese-and-beer pairings, boutique B&Bs, Montepulciano vineyard tours (where you might just spot bear tracks) and markets that sell local honey, craft cider and prized black truffles.
“One of the main strengths of this area is the combination of interesting products and the coexistence with wild animals,” says Reale. “We’re driven by this idea that there is more to this region than the ski destination. And so we do lots of community events and we organise rewilding weeks and weekends, which are all tools for us as an NGO to raise awareness on rewilding in Italy and to support the local economy, support local jobs and give visibility to some interesting products.”
Rewilding Apennines also runs Rewilding Experiences – weekend and week-long tours that include hands-on conservation science and education, alongside wildlife watching and visiting local artisans. Activities usually involve checking camera traps, building electric fences or tracking and cataloguing wildlife movements.
Reale tells me they are finding that more and more, people want to get their hands in the soil. “They don’t want to hear the story, they want to see the story,” he says. “Many want to spend time in the mountains removing barbed wire and things like that.” Rewilding Apennines only hosts a few such experiences per year and these often sell out quickly – it’s worth keeping an eye on its website for dates and registration.
Back on the hillside, I am shivering while dawn has started to break in a sweep of magentas over the eastern horizon. The bear has moved on but Andrea has spotted something else. Something smaller this time. Something four-legged and wiry. Something I came here desperately hoping to see: a wild wolf.
He hastily trains the spotting scope onto the area while I keep watch through the thermal monocular. The wolf is on the move, heading up the hillside in search of higher ground.
“It’s likely been out hunting all night and looking for a place to rest,” says Andrea, and sure enough, a few minutes later, the wolf comes to a halt on some boulders. It takes some serious skill with the scope but eventually, Andrea locates the wolf, its ruddy hackles, stone-grey fur and black-tipped tail blending in perfectly with the Abruzzan landscape.
I fall immediately in love with this creature, whose floppy ears and cute, grinning snout stand in stark contrast to the ideas that society has ingrained us to believe about wolves. I know in theory I probably wouldn’t survive an attack by this animal but… if not friend, why friend-shaped? In reality, wolves in this area present very little risk to humans and will shy away from people, thanks largely to the work that the National Park and Rewilding Apennines do to keep wolf territories secluded from hikers and hunters.
Andrea and I stand together, taking turns peering through the scope watching the wolf nest in the rocks, occasionally sniffing the air or standing to reposition. Eventually, Andrea spots two more wolves trotting down a hillside farther away, musing that they are probably all part of the same pack, which prowls this specific ridgeline as its home territory.
The following day, we take a short but steep hike up the adjacent spine of mountains away from the pack’s territory. We don’t spot any wolves in this part of the park, but there are several herds of red deer orbiting around us, including a magnificent group of stags, their giant antlers bobbing as they trot through a cluster of thick pines. There are also gryphon vultures and two golden eagles circling quietly overhead. At the top of the climb, on a saddle between two peaks, we toss our backpacks on the ground, fix our eyes on the mountainsides, and munch silently on local bread, salami and cheese – all made within a few miles of here.
Sitting here, where it feels remote and with wild animals roaming freely all around, it seems unfathomable that one of Europe’s biggest and most ancient cities – Rome – is only a 90-minute drive away. And that is the whole point of rewilding conservation: rather than aiming to restore an arbitrary baseline from the past, it seeks instead to allow nature to become wild anew in its own way, alongside humans – and to re-teach humans how to live alongside wildlife, too. The aim is a balanced ecosystem that allows communities and nature to coexist harmoniously. Spending time out here, in this small patch of re-flourishing biodiversity in the heart of Europe, seems a great way to get started.
Make it happen
Wildlife Adventures offers three-day, two-night trips for €240 (£206) per person, which includes self-catering accommodation in a historic house in Pescasseroli. It also offers coordinated bespoke trips to visit local artisans or treks with an overnight stay in a mountain hut. You should be reasonably fit for mountain hiking and early morning excursions.
For an all-inclusive trip, Exodus Travels offers a longer six-day trip designed in partnership with Rewilding Apennines, including a 4-star hotel stay, hearty meals in local restaurants and trekking guides.
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