Transboundary challenges – the bear M13

Image: UNECEUnited Nations Economic Commission for Europe

Image: UNECE
United Nations Economic Commission for Europe

I’ve talked before about the challenges of transboundary parks  in relation to southern Africa and Yellowstone Park. Wildlife conservation and reintroduction programs  introduced on one side of a shared territorial line can’t always control what happens just across the often invisible lines that we call international or regional borders.

A new case in point is that of the bear reintroduction program that has been working since 1999 in the Trentino region of northern Italy. Between 1999-2002, ten adult bears were captured in Slovenia – which has a healthy bear population – and introduced into the mountain region south of the Swiss border. Over the past decade, these ten individuals have produced around over a dozen bear cubs. Native bears had not been sighted in Switzerland in almost a hundred years. A handful of the Italian cubs, once they had become independent, left Italian territory and wandered into Switzerland. Most of them wandered back into Italy at some point.

Switzerland is a signatory to both the Bern Convention and the Alpine Convention. The  Bern Convention regulates species conservation by imposing restrictions on taking species from the wild and on exploitation. It constitutes a commitment to protect species’ habitats. Particular emphasis is given to endangered and vulnerable species.

The Alpine Convention is an international treaty between the Alpine countries and the EU, aimed at promoting sustainable development in the Alpine area. The aim of this Convention is the long-term protection of the natural ecosystem of the Alps and sustainable development in the area. This aim includes the protection of residents’ economic interests. A guiding principle of the Convention is trans-border cooperation.

Following the culling of bear M13, an offspring of the Trentino bears that wandered into Switzerland in 2011 and then stayed, one of Italy’s largest environmental organizations, the Legambiente has filed formal charges against Switzerland with the Council of Europe in Strasbourg for systematic violation of these international treaties with regards to the bear conservation program – which Switzerland itself agreed to support. Letters have also been sent to the offices of the Bern Convention and the Alpine Convention (Innsbruck) demanding sanctions be placed upon Switzerland for not adhering to strict regulations when it comes to the bear program. “The bear reintroduction program is financed by the European Union, and it is not acceptable for a bear from this program to simply be killed (by unilateral decision),” according to Legambiente spokesperson Antonio Nicolette.

The leadership and communication challenges facing international treaties is well illustrated by the fact that the Swiss Graubünden region – the border region in which M13 was killed by authorities – had to block local attempts to have the entire area officially declared a bear-free zone back in 2007. By default, this goal was achieved with the destruction of M13, but it is probably only a matter of time before another protected bear crosses the border. The culling has received almost universal condemnation in the press.

The goals of the national and international treaties may be clear, but the implementation is faltering at the local and regional level, which is where the bears actually live. And these challenges are shared by many conservation projects around the world.

The Life Ursus Project website.

Spiegel article (2005, in English) on European bear reintroduction programs.