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Italy's largest animal is on the brink of extinction

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• A local, slice-of-life story from a Monitor correspondent.

They are the largest terrestrial animal to roam Italy’s forests and mountains, but size has proved no guarantee of survival for Marsican bears. A subspecies of the European brown bear, the breed is now one of the rarest types of bear on the planet.

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The population has dropped from around 100 in the 1980s to just 50 today, new research shows, after an increase in the number of animals killed in traffic accidents, illegally shot, or poisoned by bait intended to kill wolves. One bear was found dead on May 3, likely killed by a car.

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The number of bears has fallen “below the threshold of survival,” says Giuseppe Rossi, the head of the National Park of Abruzzo, Lazio, and Molise, where most of the bears live.

A new conservation initiative, the €5 million ($7.3 million) Life Arctos project, partly funded by the European Union, is due to run until 2014. Efforts will include putting electric fences around beehives and vegetable gardens to deter the beasts from foraging for food near human populations. Volunteers will plant fruit-bearing trees to which the bears are especially partial, encouraging them to search for food up in the hills rather than around settlements.

The bigger challenge, though, is to stop the bears’ territory from being continually diminished. Italy’s national parks are poorly protected and development is often allowed within their borders – from ski runs and new roads to hydroelectricity projects.