IMAGE: DEAD BEAR
Abruzzo National Park via AFP-Getty Images
Italian officials released this photo of the carcass of "Bernardo," one of three Marsican bears found dead in Abruzzo National Park.
updated 10/3/2007 12:56:39 PM ET 2007-10-03T16:56:39

Three bears from an endangered species — including a male known as Bernardo, notorious for raiding chicken coops — have been found dead of suspected poisoning in central Italy, authorities said Wednesday, calling it foul play.

Researchers monitoring Bernardo alerted authorities when they realized he wasn't moving, officials said. His body was found Monday, and a female bear and a cub also were found dead.

"One death could have been by natural causes, but with three dead bears in the same area at roughly the same time, it's clear that there has been foul play," forestry official Luciano Sammarone said.

Italy's forestry service dispatched a team to investigate, and the local chapter of the World Wildlife Fund offered a $14,000 reward for information.

"These criminals must be arrested and sentenced," Environment Minister Alfonso Pecoraro Scanio said.

The animals were among the world's 30-50 surviving Marsican bears — a brown bear subspecies that lives almost exclusively in the mountains of Abruzzo in central Italy.

The deaths of the young cub and a female still able to bear offspring is a "very serious blow" to the endangered species, Sammarone said.

The bodies were still undergoing autopsies, but officials believed the bears had been poisoned. Investigators found several dead goats in the area, and Sammarone said leaving poisoned carcasses in the forest is a common method used by farmers to kill predators that threaten their livestock.

Bernardo — a symbol of the region's national park — had been targeted by farmers seeking revenge for his repeated raids of nearby villages.

Sammarone said the bears generally were tolerated by locals, and that the poison most likely had been intended for more dangerous predators such as wolves. The bodies of two wolves also were also found in the area.

In Italy, killing an animal from a protected species can carry a sentence of up three months in jail and a fine, but politicians and environmentalist are calling for a harsher response.

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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