One of the world’s rarest types of bear has suffered a setback after three of the animals were found drowned in a water tank in the Apennine mountains of Italy.
Three Marsican bears – a mother and her two cubs – fell into the concrete tank and were unable to scramble up its steep-sided walls.
The criticially endangered Marsican bear (Ursus arctos marsicanus) is a sub-species of the Eurasian brown bear and is found only in the mountains of central Italy, with the population estimated to be less than 50.
“This is a serious loss which risks cancelling out efforts to reduce mortality rates and to have the highest possible number of females of reproductive age,” said Antonio Carrara, the head of the national park where the bears live.
The national park covers a vast area of mountains, valleys and forest bordering the central regions of Abruzzo, Lazio and Molise.
Conservationists criticised the fact that the water tank was not protected by a fence, despite the fact that two other bears had drowned in the same tank in 2010.
They said there had been a lack of coordination between the national park authority, regional and provincial governments and the landowners.
The female bear was believed to be around 10 years old while the cubs, a male and a female, were a year old.
The bodies were taken to the national park headquarters in the village of Pescasseroli, where experts will carry out post-mortems.
National park authorities said the owners of the water tank had been told to take “adequate protection measures” to make it safer but nothing had been done.
“We’re shocked by what has happened. It’s a heavy blow for biodiversity and for a species which is in great difficulty,” the National Organisation for the Protection of Animals said in a statement.
“It is unacceptable and inconceivable that bears should die in the same water tank where others died before.”
Cut off from other populations of brown bears in Europe, the Marsican bear has evolved in isolation.
They have a calm temperament and are not regarded as a threat to humans, although local people complain that they raid chicken coops, orchards and beehives.
To try to prevent conflict with humans, conservation organisations are installing electric fences to protect farms, gardens and orchards from the bears.
The work has been carried out by Salviamo l’Orso (Save the Bear), an Italian NGO, and Rewilding Europe, a conservation network that aims to return large tracts of Europe to their natural state and encourage the return of signature species such as bears, wolves, lynx, griffon vultures and European bison.
“We’re now seeing an increase in bear sightings and subsequent requests for electric fences,” said Mario Cipollone, from Rewilding Europe.
“This is fantastic news, but if the bear population is increasing as we hope, we must also work harder to preempt conflict and ensure the comeback continues.” Despite efforts to conserve the population, Marsican bears are killed in traffic accidents or shot and poisoned illegally by landowners.