A boy out gathering in the mountains with his family finds himself followed – seemingly out of curiosity – by a great shaggy bruin. How many times throughout the long, intertwined, Holarctic histories of human beings and brown bears has this scene – which sounds straight out of a folktale – played out?

Exactly this scenario took place last month in the Italian Alpine province of Trentino, and in line with the way storytelling works in our time it was (a) captured on video and (b) went viral.

The footage shows 12-year-old Alessandro Breda strolling downslope through scrubby pines with a stocky, big-eared Eurasian brown bear tracking along a little behind. The impressively even-keeled boy confirms with his family that they’re filming, and steals some quick glances back at the bear, which at one point rears up on its hind legs.

According to this New York Times article, Alessandro attributed his calm demeanour to having recently seen a video covering basic bear-safety protocol. "I’d learned that if you yell, the bear becomes agitated and becomes much more aggressive," the Times quotes him from an interview on Italian television.

The same article quotes Claudio Goff of the Forestry and Wildlife Department of the Autonomous Province of Trento – the agency responsible for local bear management – commending Alessandro’s nervy actions. Goff said that "the bear was clearly not aggressive, and the boy behaved well."

Alessandro and several others, including his mother, grandmother, and his mother’s boyfriend, were up above 1,980 metres (6,500 feet) in the Adamello-Brenta Nature Park to gather buds of the mugo pine. According to the Times, the group had not noticed the bruin on the hike up, and suspected it had been bedded down; brown bears commonly spend many of their diurnal hours in daybeds, especially in areas well frequented by people.

The nature park sprawls across about 620 square kilometres (240 square miles) of two subranges of the Central Italian Alps in Trentino: the Adamello-Presanella Alps in the west, and the Brenta Dolomites in the east.

The Adamello-Brenta Nature Park is the largest protected area in the province of Trentino. 

The broader landscape the park falls within – characterised by sloping pastures, conifer and hardwood forests, and high rock and ice – is hugely significant for European brown bears. By the latter half of the 20th century, the bear population in the Alps – once a great, continuous bruin dominion – had shrunk primarily to this stronghold. Although Italy granted the brown bear protected status in 1939, habitat fragmentation and direct killing of bears by both farmers and poachers hammered this remnant population, the range of which is estimated to have contracted by about 10 percent per decade between 1850 and 1995. 

By the late 1990s, the Adamello-Brenta brown bears, represented by a handful of old males, were considered functionally extirpated. A reintroduction effort was then launched, bringing bears from a burgeoning population in Slovenia to the Trentino park. In 2019, biologists reckoned the growing bear population centred on the park at 82 to 93 individuals; about 50 bears is considered a minimum viable population. The core of this bear range, the area inhabited by females, is about 1,516 kilometres (585 square miles) in western Trentino, including the Adamello-Brenta Nature Park; male bears roam much more widely, and have lately wandered as far as Switzerland. 

Nonetheless, there is not yet a firm connection between the western Trentino brown bears and the more numerous bears of the Dinaric Alps in Slovenia and Croatia, a conservation goal considered vital to ensure the long-term vitality of the Central Italian Alps population. (Bear range in the Dinarics extends continuously into the Pindos Mountains running into Greece, forming a Dinaric-Pindos population estimated at some 2,500 brown bears.) That said, bears from both western Trentino and Slovenia have been straying into Italy’s Eastern Alps in between, suggesting the potential for mountainous corridors linking the Alpine and Dinaric-Pindos populations.

In the late 1990s, the Adamello-Brenta brown bears were considered functionally extirpated, but a reintroduction effort has helped bring the bears back.

Trentino’s Forestry and Wildlife Department compensates local people for proven bear depredation on livestock, crops, and beehives, which has been an issue in recent years as bear numbers have risen. Bear attacks on people, though, are – as elsewhere in Europe – extremely rare. In the Adamella-Brenta area, three non-fatal attacks have occurred since 2014 and each was a defensive incident, carried out by a mother bear protecting her cubs. Both of the bears implicated – one sow was responsible for two of the attacks – were killed by authorities.

In North America, similarly, the grizzly bear – a subspecies of brown bear generally more aggressive than its European relatives – is statistically most dangerous to humans in the form of a female bear with cubs. The only comparable situation arises when a person stumbles upon a grizzly defending an animal carcass.

Alessandro correctly kept his gait to a steady walk rather than a run, which can provoke a charge from brown bears. Calmly exiting the scene while talking in a measured voice is the basic rule of thumb (though doing so walking backwards and/or sideways, facing the bear, is recommended). A bear rearing up on its hind legs, as the one in the video does, is not – despite all those taxidermy-mounted specimens posed standing up with slashing front paws and a roaring grimace – acting aggressively, but rather attempting to get a better look at whatever’s caught its attention. 

Even most bear charges are bluffs, typically aborted before the animal actually contacts a person (who, in such an event, should be holding his or her ground). In those rare instances where a brown bear does actually assault you, the best course of action is playing dead: lying on the ground quietly, clasping hands behind your neck or head. In these cases, a bear will likely leave you alone once it recognises you’re no longer a threat. (Learn more about bear safety 101 in this primer issued by LIFE DINALP BEAR, a project focused on bear conservation in the Alps and northern Dinaric Alps.)

It's worth noting that the brown bears of the Italian Alps are actually but one of two scanty, isolated populations of Ursus arctos holding out in Italy. Farther south among the beech and oak woods of the central Apennine Mountains, a comparably small stock of about 50 brown bears survives mainly in Abruzzo, Lazio, and Molise National Park and its hinterland.

These Apennine bears are thought to have been isolated from Eurasian brown bears in the Alps for many centuries, perhaps millennia, and show some unique morphological characteristics; many consider them their own subspecies, the Marsican brown bear. Distressingly, these Marsican brown bears – especially vulnerable, as is any small remnant population cut off from others, to genetic deterioration, disease, and other threats – have lately been dwindling.

The Italian Alps and Apennine bears are among several very small "island" populations of brown bear in Western and Southern Europe. The others include disjunct western and eastern populations in Spain’s Cantabrian Mountains as well as one in the Western Pyrenees straddling the Spain-France border. 


Header image: Frank Vassen