The Marsican brown bear is teetering on the brink of extinction — its numbers brought perilously low due to human interference. But rewilding and conservation initiatives in Italy’s Abruzzo National Park mean the animal’s numbers are finally on the rise.

When Umberto Esposito was 14, he left his home in Pescasseroli to go for a hike with two friends. It was September, and the boys, who’d grown up in the mountain town in Abruzzo National Park, wanted to see deer during the breeding season. Esposito took with him an old film camera and some binoculars.

As the trio reached the edge of a high mountain meadow in the Central Apennines, heavy rain forced them to stop. Beneath beech trees, blueberry bushes were laden with fruit. The wind that had carried the rain was approaching from the trees, taking their human scent with it. “It was then that I saw them,” Umberto recalls, as we hike in the same range, almost 25 years later.

The boys had disturbed a family of bears gorging on berries before their hibernation. There were three adults, one of which had two cubs. “She was standing up facing me, only 10 metres away, with a cub each side of her,” Umberto says, recalling being rooted to the spot while his friends ran away. “I knew that if I didn’t have pictures, nobody would believe me. I took the last two frames on my film and prayed.”

Realising the teenagers posed no threat, the bears retreated into the woods. Umberto had never seen a bear and eyeballing a predator twice his size was to change his life. “I said in my mind then, ‘I need to make something of this because it’s one of the most magical things I have seen’,” he adds. “Thinking back, it was the moment I decided I had to do something to protect them.”

Abruzzo’s bears remain in great need of protection. The Marsican brown bear (also known as the Apennine brown), a subspecies of the more numerous Eurasian brown bear, is critically endangered. There are no more than 60 left across a patchwork of national and regional parks, villages and farmland, with most found in the Abruzzo National Park, in central Italy. I’m hiking in its northeastern quarter with Umberto, not far from Pescasseroli — a town with a renowned pastry pit stop, Bar dell’Orso, named for the local bears.

In the middle of October, a few weeks before hibernation begins, the leaves of the centuries-old beech trees that cover the high valley are turning a glorious gold, which the autumn sun only burnishes further. Umberto, a guide with Wildlife Adventures, a company he cofounded in 2009, puts my chances of seeing a bear at “about two in five”. To increase these odds, we’ll be staying overnight in a rifugio, a mountain cabin that his company created on the site of an abandoned shepherd’s hut.

Although Marsican brown bears pose little threat to humans, they’ve reason to fear us. In the past, the animal was treated as a pest due to its tendency to raid apiaries, as well as orchards and other crops. Dozens have died as a result of poaching, poisoning and encounters with cars, cattle and stray dogs. Their dwindling numbers have only compounded their peril, with a high level inbreeding often resulting in depression and disease.

In 2011, when conservationists here spotted only one mother with cubs, extinction loomed like a storm cloud. In 2013, the Italian newspaper La Repubblica ran a story detailing a plot to kill dozens of bears with poisoned bait.

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