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Published October 2, 2007 08:19 PM

Three rare bears dead in Italy, thought poisoned

ROME (Reuters) - Police in Italy were investigating on Tuesday whether someone deliberately poisoned three rare bears found dead in a national park, a crime the park head called "an act of barbarity."

One of the dead animals was identified as "Bernardo," around 10-years-old, who was a familiar sight in the Abruzzo region where he would often scavenge for food from local farms and gardens. Another was thought to be his mate.

"The disappearance of Bernardo and his mate represents an incalculable loss for the nature and the culture of the park," said Giuseppe Rossi, head of the National Park of Abruzzo, Lazio and Molise. "It's an act of barbarity not worthy of civilized people."

The mountainous Abruzzo, in central Italy, is home to the country's only remaining indigenous bears and Bernardo had become something of a mascot. Fewer than 50 are thought to survive in the area and they are considered critically endangered.

The initial finding of the two dead bears left some doubt over whether they had been killed deliberately, but the police said the third corpse heightened suspicions of foul play. 

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"The series of findings have reinforced the hypothesis of poisoning," said Livia Mattei of the forestry police, adding that Bernardo was considered by some people to be a "problem bear."

Italians were outraged last year when German hunters were authorized to shoot a bear called Bruno, one of a colony of brown bears imported to the Italian alps from Slovenia, which had wandered over the mountains into Bavaria.

(Additional reporting by Sara Rossi in Milan)

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