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Top destinations for wildlife spotting in Italy
Given its variety of landscapes, it comes as no surprise that Italy is home to an incredible richness of wildlife – most of which has found refuge in its protected national parks. From wolves in Abruzzo to bears in the Alps, wild creatures need our help to not only survive but to thrive.
Take a look at a few of these amazing species found in Italy.
Related article: The Most Poisonous Animals in Italy
The National Park of Abruzzo, Lazio, and Molise is one of the richest Italian parks for wildlife, and the small Abruzzo town of Villetta Barrea within it has been renamed “The Village among the Deer”. Here the deer in search of food enters the green areas of the village and you can often see them walking on the roadside or peeping into the gardens of the houses.
Currently, in Italy, there are about 100 bears, but in the past, they seriously risked disappearing from Italian woods. Much of the credit for this repopulation is due to the operation “Life Ursus”, which took place between 1999 and 2002, through which Italy was able to capture ten bears (7 females and 3 males) on Slovenian territory and then release them in the country. The operation was carried out thanks to the funding of the European Union and in collaboration with Slovenia, where bear hunting is allowed in order to keep the population of the animal below 450 units. In Italy, there are three areas of distributions: one is in Trentino, in the Central Alps; another one is in the Eastern Alps, on the border between Friuli-Venezia Giulia and Slovenia; and the last one is in the Central Apennines, mostly inside the National Park of Abruzzo, Lazio, and Molise. The First World War and poachers had decimated the population in the Central Alps and in the nineties of the last century there were very few specimens left, including old and sick ones. Currently, the population in the Central Alps is between 35 and 40 specimens. About 60 Marsican bears live on the Central Apennines, in particular in the National Park of Abruzzo, Lazio, and Molise. About twenty are instead those living on the border between Italy and Slovenia, with some of them having moved permanently to Veneto.
The gray wolf of the Apennines (Canis lupus italicus) is Italy’s national animal due to the legend of the founding of Rome that told of how two brothers, Romulus and Remus, after being raised by a she-wolf, founded the city. The Apennine gray wolf or Italian wolf is a subspecies of the gray wolf indigenous to the Italian peninsula. Thanks to some conservationist policies adopted in recent decades, the population of the Italian wolf has increased from 300 individuals in 1968, to over 2500 in 2020. The Italian wolf population is subject to high human-induced mortality (about 20%); the most important mortality factors are road accidents (about 50%) and illegal killing (about 20%). In Italy, the wolf permanently occupies an area of about 74,000 km², from the Gran Paradiso National Park in the north to Aspromonte in the south, including the Gargano.
The largest number of packs and specimens is present in Abruzzo, with the main nuclei in the area of the National Park of Abruzzo and in the sectors between the National Park of Gran Sasso and Monti Della Laga, the Majella National Park, and the National Park of Monti Sibillini and, in Calabria, in the Sila National Park in the Pollino National Park, in the Aspromonte National Park and in the Regional Natural Park of Serre; the territory of Abruzzo, moreover, thanks to the presence of effective wildlife corridors, is the only one in the entire Apennines to allow movements by the wolf on the West-East axis and vice versa. In Lazio it is present on the Apennine ridge: in the Park of Monti Simbruini, Monti della Tolfa, Monti Lepini and Monti Ausoni. Since about 2010 has been recorded its return also in the Natural Park of Monti Aurunci. There have also been sightings in the Roman countryside, with a pack of 4-5 wolves. In recent years some specimens have settled within the territory of the Regional Park of Castelli Romani. In 2010 there have been sporadic sightings of 3-4 specimens in the woods of the Monti Della Daunia in northern Apulia and 5 specimens on the Murge. In 2011 it has been determined the return of the Apennine gray wolf in the Gargano National Park where some researchers have confirmed the presence of at least one family nucleus.
Native lynx populations in Italy disappeared between the end of the 19th century and the first quarter of the 20th century. The last evidence of lynx in the eastern part of the Alps dates back to 1837 in Cadore and 1872 in Alto Adige, while in the western part of the last century to the 1920s. The reasons that led to a dramatic decline in European lynx populations between the 1800s and 1900s must be attributed to direct or indirect anthropic factors. In fact, the lynx in Italy and Europe has been subjected, as well as other large carnivores, to long persecution by man, which has caused a significant reduction in its population. In the ’70s, after some first attempts, several European governments have tried to reintroduce some specimens. The two most successful projects have remained the Slovenian and Swiss ones, thanks to which two lynx populations have been established: one in the Dinaric mountains and in the South-Eastern Alps and one in the North-Western Alps. In Italy, there are some specimens in the Alps (10-15 in 2007) and other very few specimens in Friuli – Venezia Giulia and Trentino. In Italy and in the Alps, between the last decade of the XX century and the first of the XXI century, the Eastern Alps have been interested in a natural phenomenon of recolonization by specimens probably coming from the Slovenian and Swiss populations. Sporadically some individuals have been reported also in Lombardy, Aosta Valley, and Piedmont, probably coming from Switzerland.
Cagliari, the capital of Sardinia, is the only place in Italy where flamingos nest in a stable way and can be seen mainly near the pond of Molentargius and that of Santa Gilla. The best period is the first weeks of June when these beautiful animals stop to nest. In autumn in some parks arrive populations of common and coral gulls and pink flamingos that stopover before continuing to the reproduction areas in Tunisia. Flamingos can be easily sighted also in the Salina dei Monaci of Torre Colimena (Puglia), in the reserve “Oasi Faunistica di Vendicari” (Sicily), in the natural Oasis of Pantano di Saline Joniche (Calabria), Lago Patria (Campania), in the nature reserves of “Diaccia Botrona” and “Padule Orti-Bottagone” (Tuscany), “Saline di Tarquinia” (Lazio), in the Po Delta Park and Comacchio Valleys (Emilia Romagna), in the Palude della Rosa of Torcello Island (Veneto) and in Villa Invernizzi in Milan (Lombardy).
Comacchio hosts every year the International Birdwatching and Nature Tourism Fair, the only event of its kind in Italy. The reason is simple: the Po Delta Park, with its almost 400 species of birds observable in all periods of the year, is, in fact, the most important ornithological area in Italy and is, therefore, the ideal destination if you want to get closer to birdwatching and nature photography in the country.
The species present in Italy are four: griffon vulture, monk vulture, lammergeier, and Egyptian vulture, considered by the ancients as an animal sacred to Isis. Only a few decades ago in Italy, the situation was very serious. In 1960, the famous monk vulture, illustrated by Frederick II in his book on falconry, was already extinct, as was the bearded vulture, the most beautiful and famous, in 1912, while the griffon vulture survived only in Sicily and Sardinia. Few specimens were left of the Egyptian vulture in southern Italy and Sicily. On the Nebrodi (Sicily) the last griffon vultures disappeared in 1965, due to a campaign of fox hunting with poisoned bait. In recent times, the creation of numerous protected areas has allowed these powerful birds of prey to recover their space in nature. The griffon vulture has reappeared in Sicily in about a hundred different specimens, where it has been reintroduced in the Nebrodi Park, while the griffons of the western coast of Sardinia have sustained thanks to the release of external specimens donated by the Spanish government. In the Eastern Alps, many griffon vultures arrive from the nearby former Yugoslavia and sometimes the rare monk vulture observed in the Cornino Lake Reserve. In Abruzzo, in the Corpo Forestale Reserve on Mount Velino, a population of griffon vultures has been recreated after an absence of 500 years and is spreading to the surrounding mountains and the nearby national parks of the Apennines. Other imported griffons are protected in the gorges of the Pollino National Park in Basilicata and Calabria.
The Pelagos Sanctuary is a marine protected area that is home to many specimens of marine mammals. It is located off the coast of Liguria – and touches the coasts of Tuscany, Sardinia, Corsica, and mainland France.
Thanks to the tireless work of experts, associations, and volunteers, in this place it is possible to enjoy guided tours on the high seas where it’s possible to admire these beautiful cetaceans. Another place that hosts dolphins in freedom is the Gulf of Taranto. It is also possible to see dolphins off the Tremiti Islands in Puglia, in the Gulf of Trieste, along the coasts of Sardinia, Marche, and Campania.
Off the island of Elba live many marine mammals and cetaceans, such as dolphins, fin whales, and sperm whales. The Tyrrhenian Sea is in fact known as the International Cetacean Sanctuary. During excursions in the Tyrrhenian Sea, it’s possible to meet other marine animals: turtles, Spinetail devil ray, swordfish, sunfish, seabirds, pilot whales, grampuses, zephyrs, stenellas, and bottlenose dolphins. Established in 2001 in the upper Tyrrhenian Sea, the International Cetacean Sanctuary covers a marine area of 96,000 hectares in the triangle between the tip of Hyères (France), Punta Falcone and Capo Ferro (Sardinia), and Fosso Chiarone (Tuscany). The best time to spot whales is from late April to early October.
The Gran Paradiso National Park, in Valle d’Aosta, is the oldest national park in Italy. Here you can admire the ibex, the park’s iconic animal. In the park, there are numerous chamois and other animal species as well.
Pollino National Park is the largest natural park in Italy and it is quite easy to come across foxes. The park is also home to wolves, roe deer, wild cats, numerous birds of prey (including the golden eagle and peregrine falcon), otters, skunks, badgers, porcupines, and a very rare species of rodent, the Calabrese dormouse.
In Val d’Aveto, between the regions of Liguria and Emilia-Romagna, there is a herd of wild horses that have not had contact with humans for about fifteen years. These are generations of free-living, autonomous horses that have found a favorable habitat rich in vegetation in which to live. The breed is mixed and comes from several crosses. They were probably abandoned by their owners. According to observers, the horses move in a territory of about 25 square kilometers. There are 5 stallions while there are 3 females for each stallion with an average of 3-4 foals per herd. Wild Horsewatching deals with the protection and welfare of horses, their preservation in respect of natural and ecological balance and rural life and the enhancement of the territory in which they live.
In Sardinia, in the plateau of Giara di Gesturi lives the Cavallino della Giara, a breed that is now endemic to the region. Some theses date their arrival to the Phoenicians or Greeks in the V-IV century B.C. Alternatively, they might be domesticated by the Nuragic populations.
The San Fratello horse is a breed that lives in the Nebrodi mountains, in Sicily. Some herds still live in the wild, within a wooded area of 11,000 hectares between San Fratello, Acquedolci, Caronia, Militello Rosmarino, Sant’Agata Militello and Mistretta.
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