A Marscian brown bear. There are only about 50 of these bears left and they only live in Abruzzo National Park in Italy.
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A Marscian brown bear. There are only about 50 of these bears left and they only live in Abruzzo National Park in Italy.

These Italian bears survived gladiators and Mussolini

Just two hours from Rome is one of the richest ecosystems in Europe, a little island of mountains that to this day is home to wolves, wild boar and bears.

It's not just wild animals that call this place home: Farms are scattered across the area as part of this ancient mosaic of life here among the wild animals.

It's a place where the excesses of Italian culture mingle with the wonders of nature.


Host Chris Morgan reaching a ridge high in the brown bear country of central Italy with amazing views of Europe's oldest beech forests
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Host Chris Morgan reaching a ridge high in the brown bear country of central Italy with amazing views of Europe's oldest beech forests
Credit: Courtesy of Vittoria Cristofaro

Abruzzo, Lazio and Molise National Park is only 190 square miles – about twice the size of the city of Seattle – and has 63 different protected species.

It’s home to Marsican bears, a population of European brown bears which are smaller cousins of the grizzly.

They’ve been living alongside humans in these mountains for 4,000 years, but they’ve been isolated from other brown bears in Europe. That’s lead to them becoming the world’s rarest subspecies of brown bears.

The bears’ relationship with people has affected their evolution in other ways, too. Brave, aggressive bears disappeared. Only the individuals that learned to avoid humans survived to pass on their genes; so over time shyness is favored.

As a result, they are probably the most peaceful bear in the world. People are in the park every day, but there’s never been an attack.

Bruno Demi sets up a wildlife camera in Abruzzo National Park in Italy in hopes of getting a picture of a brown bear.
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Bruno Demi sets up a wildlife camera in Abruzzo National Park in Italy in hopes of getting a picture of a brown bear.
Credit: Courtesy of Chris Morgan

In this episode of The Wild, host Chris Morgan is joined by biologist and naturalist Bruno Demi as they go in search of the elusive Marsican bear. They’ll tell the storied history of this species, from the days of the gladiators to Benito Mussolini.

“Bears are the story that these mountains want to tell. The story has been kept in their forest, in their corners, like some kind of dust,” Demi said.

The future of these bears is unknown. Their island needs to be bigger and be connected to other protected areas.

They also have a problem of reproduction. The bigger a wildlife population is, the safer it is. The bears of Abruzzo are riding close to the line of a disastrous population crash.

Past episodes of The Wild:

The Wild is a production of KUOW in Seattle in partnership with Chris Morgan Wildlife. It is produced by Matt Martin and edited by Jim Gates. Fact checking by Apryle Craig. Our theme music is by Michael Parker. Additional music by Denis Stelmakh & Icelandic Elephants, Les Hayden and Lee Rosevere. Produced for the web by Kara McDermott. Special thanks to Umberto Esposito for his help with this episode.

Explore where we have gone to report on this season of The Wild. You can zoom, move around and click on the icons for more tidbits: