Ibexes for the Giulian Prealps
© Christian Stauffer
To reintroduce captive-bred Alpine ibexes into their former range in Italy
Until the 16th century, the Alpine ibex, Capra ibex ibex, was widely distributed from the French Alps through Italy and Switzerland to Salzburg and Carinthia. They were hunted for food, skins, trophies and because of the alleged therapeutic properties of some of their body parts. The development of more efficient fire weapons had a desastrous effect on the ibex populations throughout their range, and by 1850 only one single population survived in the Gran Paradiso Massif between the Piedmont and the Aosta Valley.
In 1821, when the colony was reduced to some 50 or 60 animals, conservation measures were put into place by Thaon di Revel, Count of Torino, and in 1836, the Gran Paradiso was declared a royal hunting reserve. With a view of enforcing the protection of the species, King Vittorio Emmanuele II employed a large number of game wardens, guardie reali. Although illegal hunting continued to some extent, the presence of the guardie allowed the population to increase dramatically. By the end of the 19th century, ibex numbers at the royal reserve had grown to 3000 heads, and the King and his hunting parties could shoot about 100 to 120 bucks per year. In 1920, the King Vittorio Emmanuele III donated 2'100 ha of his reserve to the nation, and in in December 1921 the Gran Paradiso was declared Italy's first National Park. As of today the park covers 70'000 ha.
In Switzerland, there was a strong interest in restoring the Alpine ibex population. As no pure-bred animals were available, several unsuccessful attempts to introduce ibex-domestic goat-hybrids were made as from 1815. The first Federal Hunting Law, adopted in 1875, obliged the Confederation to support the reintroduction of the ibex population. In 1892 the Wildlife Park "Peter und Paul" was founded in St. Gall. Subsequently the Confederation undertook diplomatic efforts to purchase pure-bred ibexes from Italy. As these official requests were turned down by the Italian Government, and illegally obtained ibex kids were regularly placed on the market by poachers of the Aosta Valley, the Park chose to purchase illegal animals from the poacher Gabriele Bérard. In 1906 the first three kids were received and successfully hand-reared. Other kids provided by Gabriele Bérard and his son Giuseppe followed, and eventually Italy officially authorised a number of exports. In total about 100 animals were imported from Italy until World War II.
The fact that the imported kids had to be bottle-fed made them unsuitable for releasing, but the animals bred extremely well in human care. Already in 1911 "Peter und Paul" could make zoo-born ibexes available for the first reintroduction at the Graue Hörner (St. Gall). A second reintroduction initiated in 1914 at the Piz d'Ela Massif (Grisons) failed, probably due to poaching. In 1920 the first seven ibexes were reintroduced into the Swiss National Park (Grisons). These animals originated from "Peter und Paul" and from the Alpine Wildlife Park Interlaken-Harder which had been founded in 1913. Two females left the park shortly after their release and showed up 27 km south at the Piz Albris near Pontresina. Subsequently 11 more animals were released at Pontresina- and they became the most prolific ibex population of Switzerland. From 1921 to 24 the first population was established in the Bernese Oberland by releasing 15 ibexes from Interlaken at the Augstmatthorn, and in 1928 the first reintroduction took place in the Valais, where a very prolific colony could be established at the Mont Pleureur. By 1965 at least 210 ibexes bred in St. Gallen, Interlaken, Berne Animal Park "Dählhölzli" (breeding since 1938), Langenberg Wildlife Park (breeding since 1950), and two small parks at Bretaye and Zermatt had been released. All the 14'000 ibexes living in Switzerland today are the descendants of these zoo-bred animals!
In 1938 the State game wardens of Berne developed an ibex trap which allowed to capture wild ibexes in larger numbers. Reintroductions were successively phased out in the Swiss Alps and replaced by translocations. However, as predominantly males were captured, there was still a demand for females from zoos to balance the sex ratio. In addition, Berne Animal Park also supplied ibexes to the Canton of Neuchâtel for an introduction in the Jura Mountains , where the ibex disappeared already in the paleolithic age.
Reintroductions and introductions into extralimital mountain areas took place also in other countries, and Swiss zoos supplied large numbers of ibexes to Austria, and smaller numbers to Germany, France and Slovenia. Italy undertook the first reintroduction in 1921 when ibexes were released at the former Royal Hunting Reserve of Valdieri Entracque. In Austria the first successful reintroduction was undertaken at Hinterblümbach (Salzburg) in 1924, followed by the establishment of a colony in Styria in 1936 and, subsequently, resettlement in the Tyrolian Alps, Carinthia and Vorarlberg. The Alpenzoo Innsbruck was instrumental in the success of many projects, but other zoos actively participated in the Austrian reintroduction efforts, e.g. in 1994 the zoos of Munich, Salzburg, Vienna, Goldau and Helsinki provided ten ibexes for establishing a new colony in the Rauris Valley which nowadays comprises nearly 100 animals. In Germany reintroductions started in 1936 at Berchtesgaden. In France the first reintroduction took place in 1959/60 at the Massif des Cerces where ibexes from Berne Animal Park and the Mont Pleureur colony were released. In Slovenia a hybrid population was established in 1903 and, more recently, two colonies with pure-bred ibexes originating from German zoos and from wild populations in Switzerland and Italy
Altogether, the wild Alpine ibex populations count nowadays about 40'000 heads (Switzerland 14'000, Italy 13'500, France 7'000, Austria 5'000, Slovenia 400, Germany 300, Liechtenstein a few), and measures to stabilize the stocks have become mandatory in many areas, e.g. in Switzerland about 1000 animals have to be culled annually. In spite of this, reintroduction operations are still undertaken, as ibexes do not spread easily because major river valleys or plains constitute obstacles to their dispersal.
The massif of Monte Canin is part of the 10'000 ha regional nature park "Parco Naturale Regionale delle Prealpi Guilie" in the Julian Alps, Italy, near the Slovenian border. Although an excellent ibex habitat, the area was not populated by Alpine ibex through migration from nearby wild colonies. Having made positive experiences with the reintroduction of the Alpine chamois (Rupicapra r. rupicapra), released in 1998-1999 and the Alpine marmot (Marmota marmota), released in 1999-2000, the director of the Park and the scientific consultant Dr. Fulvio Genero therefore took the initiative to reintroduce the ibex to the Monte Canin. The project has two goals: the development of a self-sustaining population of Alpine ibex at Monte Canin, and to connect the up to now isolated ibex populations of Tarvis (established in 1978, 240 animals), Monte Plauris (established in 1985, 60 animals) and Triglav/Tricorno (Slovenia, established in 1964).
After a first release of six animals translocated from the Alpi Marittime Regional Park in 2002, a total of 13 ibexes from the breeding groups of Salzburg Zoo and Wildpark Langenberg Wildlife Park were brought to Monte Canin in 2003 and 2004. Zoo-bred animals may not only considerable boost the colony size, but also increase genetic diversity. The introduction was successful, some of the animals introduced the year before were already breeding in 2004. A few animals are radio-collared and their spatial behaviour is monitored. Additional releases are planned in 2006 with additional animals provided by the Goldau Landscape and Animal Park.
WAZA Conservation Project 05013 is implemented by the Administration of the Parco Naturale Regionale delle Prealpi Guilie. Animals were provided by Langenberg Wildlife Park, Goldau Landscape and Animal Park and Salzburg Zoo. Scientific follow-up is conducted by the Research Institute of Wildlife Ecology of the Vienna University of Veterinary Medicine.
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© Christian Stauffer