At Frisco talk, author relays World Cup, mafia and national park connections to Italian grizzlies
In the midst of the 2018 World Cup, a Long Island professor and author spoke on Tuesday at Next Page Books & Nosh in Frisco of what might have been the most interesting storyline of the 2006 World Cup.
And it centered around, of all topics, brown bears. And they’re rare grizzlies from more than 5,000 miles away, at that.
Stony Brook University professor Roger Thompson relayed to listeners at the Frisco bookstore of how a dozen years ago, just 10 days before the first soccer team arrived in Germany for the 2006 World Cup, a bear nicknamed Bruno made his presence known in the valleys at the foot of the Bavarian Alps.
It was there, in a pasture flanked by limestone cliffs on one side and a small creek on another, where a single farmer found three of his sheep slain. It was Bruno. And the bear from northern Italy, one who traversed past Austrian ski resorts and mountain villages to the south, was still at-large.
Not soon after, German officials ordered the missing Bruno killed, a mandate that instantly made Bruno an international celebrity. He was on the cover of European publications during the same time Germany was supposed to be lauded for hosting the world’s grandest sporting event, the World Cup. And to top it off, weeks later, there was the dramatic Germany vs. Italy semifinal World Cup match, which the eventual-champions Italy won. There, peppering the stands at Westfalenstadion in Dortmund, were signs and pictures of bears paying homage to Bruno, and his home country of Italy.
“In the audience you could see signs, ‘Avenge Bruno!’ Thompson said at the Frisco bookstore on Wednesday evening. “It was amazing.”
This story of soccer, the German-Italian rivalry and brown bears colliding was one part of Thompson’s presentation at the Next Page Books & Nosh in Frisco on Wednesday. And the story of Bruno was just one of several interesting Italian brown bear subplots Thompson shared.
His stories were from his new book, “No World For Wilderness,” which is focused on the two different kinds of grizzly bears currently living in Italy. They are the reintegrated Slovenian bears to the north and native bears to the south near Rome. And Thompson’s book details the efforts to prevent them both from extinction.
But more than that, and more than just a funny story about the World Cup, Thompson’s presentation on Wednesday provided a glimpse into the differences between conservation, wilderness and national parks in Italy compared to his homeland of the United States.
Namely, how the Italian people view wilderness in a completely different way. Hence, the book’s title.
“Regardless of certain people here who really don’t care about the concept of wilderness, at least in the American mind there is still an idea, right?” Thompson told the crowd. “A long tradition of thinking of wild places as valuable for their own reason. This simply is completely foreign to the minds of most Italians. So when people come in and re-settle that land, they have no sense of relationship. They just see a nuisance. To their mind it makes sense. So there is this real interesting kind of cultural fight going on now: How do you live with this bear?”
As opposed to the reintegration of the Slovenian bears in northern Italy, Thompson with this statement was referring to the bears of Abruzzo National Park near Rome. Thompson relayed how, in Italy, parks are run by provinces. And considering Abruzzo is one of the poorest ones, sects of the Italian mafia have, according to Thompson’s research, poisoned the native Abruzzo bears in order to protect their cattle-running interests within the park. Like anything with the mob, it’s big business.
According to Thompson, the Neopolitan mob’s strategies to poison the bears put the native animals on the brink of extinction, with just 50 estimated still in the wild. Thompson discovered this information after speaking with several park directors from Italy.
Thompson also drew the following connection between the U.S. and Italy: The debate about the threat of the Abruzzo bears to cattle in the Italian national park compared to the ongoing debate about how the reintegrated wolves in Yellowstone may pose a similar threat to livestock.
“Some of those cattle ranchers raised concerns all the time about bears attacking cattle, but in fact there is no record of any Abruzzo bear ever attacking even a calf,” Thompson told the crowd in Frisco. “It’s not unlike some of the debates around Yellowstone around the wolves. It’s very, very similar. The question is: Are they an actual threat? Those wolves probably are more of a threat than the Abruzzo bears to the cattle ranching. But, again, it’s the question of the degree.”
In describing the connection between the mafia, Italian public lands and bears, Thompson also shared a story of how one national park president, Giuseppe Antoci of Nebrodi National Park in Sicily, was nearly assassinated due to his research.
Thompson described the attempted hit on Antoci almost like something out of The Godfather Part II. There was a staged rockslide in the Sicilian mountains before gunshots rang out on Antoci’s armored vehicle whilst stopped on a mountain road.
And the incident occurred on May 19, 2016 — just about a decade after Bruno romped through the Alps from Italy to Germany.
Antoci ended up dodging the two Molotov cocktails intended to incinerate him inside the vehicle. But despite narrowly escaping the close call, the Sicilian mob had sent another loud and clear message to yet another national park official.
The $86 million in Euros worth of business the Sicilian mob was conducting in Nebrodi? No matter Antoci’s efforts to clean up the park, the mafia was willing to kill one official after another in order to protect their interests.
“The burning would have been a gruesome demonstration of their power and would have sent an unmistakable statement to other park officials,” Thompson said, reading from his book. “The mafia controls the park.”
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