Our Journey into Italian Wilderness

Our Journey into Italian Wilderness

At Ugo Foods, we feel it is our duty to make sure that every cause we support shares our core values. We want to know the people behind these organisations and understand why their work is so important. That’s why we decided to go to Italy to meet the minds behind Salviamo l’Orso (SLO), an NGO we have begun supporting that helps protect the Marsican Brown Bear, a critically endangered bear species native to the Apennines.

Just a 2-hour drive from Rome, nestled in the Abruzzese mountains, is a village called Pescasseroli. In the heart of the Abruzzo, Lazio & Molise national part, this is where we would call home for our trip. Upon entering, you get an immediate sense of what the bear means for locals: sculptures, shop signs, stickers all adorning the charming face of this iconic species. Pescasseroli is also the home of Umberto Esposito, a guide in the national park that has dedicated his life to observing the amazing fauna of the Apennines. His insight into the park and nature was invaluable to understanding what role bears play in this complex ecosystem.

Mario, Serena and Umberto help us with spotting Griffon Vultures in an area that we hope will become a wildlife corridor

“To see wildlife” Umberto explained to us “you need to be there when they are most active – sunrise and sunset”. So, for the next four days, we would be waking up at 5am to trek into the wilderness to see what we could find. Each day was a new adventure: mountainsides, meadows, lakes. We saw herds of red deer, families of wild boar, and endless signs of bears and wolves, from scratch marks on trees to hair caught in bushes. Thunder bellowed across the valley, as clouds rolled over the mountains, showering us with rain – a truly lived experience of all this environment had to offer. The unperturbed beauty of the national park sprawled on for miles and the reach of wildlife always felt endless. But it is not endless, and this is where the heart of the issue lies.... On our third day in Abruzzo, we met Mario and Serena, two key members of SLO who showed us why their mission is so important.

The seemingly continuous landscape of rolling hills covered in forest extends only to the edge of the national park. Mario and Serena took us beyond this where roads, deforested hills, and farms make for near untraversable terrain for wildlife. This means that the wildlife of the national park, bear or otherwise, is confined and cannot spread without great risk. Seeing this makes one understand the plight of the bear. Being confined in one area means that the chance for genetic inbreeding grows year on year, and the threat of traffic collisions is an ongoing issue with every recent bear casualty being from a car accident.
Freddie and Paul Ugo trek at 2000ft on their way to the mountain hut.

“To save the bear, we need to connect to other parks through what we call ‘wildlife corridors’” explained Mario. These corridors are networks of protected areas, with native trees, electric fencing and many warning systems on roads that provide as safe a travel as possible for the bears. This allows the population to traverse the landscape between parks and spread out, increasing their reach and, eventually, their population. In theory, this is easy to do – provide the right circumstance and the bears will move. But the real issue comes with funding. With such a small team at SLO, there is only so much they can do, and building these corridors takes time.

We had the chance to meet some of the many volunteers that work with SLO – without their help a fraction of the work that is done could be completed. Young people from all around Europe have come to Italy to help restore the landscape, from removing barbed wire to collecting data on wildlife density. As we walked in, they were having a meeting about griffon vultures – a newly reintroduced species to this part of Italy that is proving to be quite the success story. They explained to us how vultures are one of a plethora of species that co-exist and keep the ecosystem functioning. By getting to carrion first, they cleanse it of deadly diseases, meaning that when bears, or wolves, get to it later, it is safe to eat.

It was clear from this trip that everyone involved has a level of understanding far beyond what you can simply read in a book. Education and outreach to local communities, another mission of SLO, is so important. It is one thing to have select individuals understand the importance of natural space, it is another entirely to have fully ‘Bear Smart Communities’. The passion for the environment can be seen on the faces of volunteers, park rangers and NGO leads alike: as they speak, their eyes are always sparkling at the thought of a better future. Their belief that the Mariscan Brown Bear can be another success story of rewilding is inspiring and left us wanting to do anything we can to help.

On our last day, we stayed in a mountain hut. While only a two hour walk from civilisation, it felt as though no one else existed at all. This was a time for reflection on everything we had seen and everyone we had met. There are lessons that nature teaches you, that cannot be explained. Humility, gratitude, patience. A level of oneness with nature that we don’t get to experience in the hustle and bustle of daily life. This is worth protecting, I thought, not just for the bears but for the people who also call the Apennines home. To live in harmony with nature is to be human. The bear, like many other species, is so key to the functioning of the ecosystem. The largest omnivore in Italy maintains populations right through the food chain, whether that be through predation or the spreading of seeds from food it eats. This balance is something which is fragile, and like any fragile thing, needs protecting with care.

It is clear from the people we met that the area is in the right hands – they just need support on their already admirable and successful mission. To protect the bears is to protect what makes us who we are. It is the protection of nature, but also the protection of the tradition and culture of those that call the mountains their home.

Join our mission to save Italy’s Marsican brown bear from extinction, as we partner with the visionary conservationists behind The European Nature Trust and Salviamo l’Orso.