A highlight for any Alpine hiker is to spot an ibex on the trail. These proud and agile goats are often found on the crags of rocky mountain slopes. They generally inhabit terrain in which they are safest from predators — usually between the treelike and glaciated zone from 2,500 to 3,000 meters above sea level. They are surefooted climbers with hoovers designed to prevent them from slipping and to be perfectly steady on uneven rock surfaces.
Although today, 17,000 Alpine ibex (Capra ibex) live in Switzerland, their stable population and protected status hasn’t always been the case. About 200 years ago, they were completely extinct in the Swiss Alps. Horns, blood, hair, and even excrement were believed to have medicinal properties, leading the species to almost die out in Europe.
How did the ibex return to Switzerland?
The ibex were smuggled in. These majestic creatures were admired by St. Gallen hotelier Robert Mader. He knew that some of these mountain goats still remained in the wild in the Valle d’Aosta, Italy. They had been placed under the protection of Italy’s King Vittorio Emanuele II in a region used as his private hunting reserve.
Mader attempted to collaborate through official channels to reintroduce the ibex into the Swiss Alps, but his negotiation efforts proved futile. Then, he contacted a poacher in the Valle d’Aosta. Starting in 1906, the poacher was able to smuggle 59 ibex kids out of the king’s hunting reserve — both daring and illegal — and across the Swiss border to a captive breeding and release program.
On June 20, 1920 the first of these smuggled ibex were released into the wild in the Swiss National Park. The population flourished and soon expanded throughout the Swiss canton of Graubünden, and ultimately throughout the Swiss Alps.
Where do Alpine ibex live?
Today, the largest herd of Alpine ibex in Switzerland is located in Val Languard, above Pontresina, just a few miles to the west of the park boundaries where they were reintroduced more than 100 years ago. This herd consists of 1,8000 animals — over 10% of Switzerland’s ibex population.
Today Switzerland’s ibex population is carefully monitored to ensure the health of the animals and to protect their habitat. On an Alpenwild tour, your best chance of spotting an ibex is on the Chamonix-Zermatt Haute Route, and particularly around Lac de Louvie.
And what became of the ibex remaining in Vittorio Emanuele’s private hunting reserve? The rapid decrease in the ibex population between 1906 and 1920 led to the establishment of Grand Paradiso National Park. This park was established in 1922 as Italy’s first national park, and it was created specifically to protect the Alpine ibex.
Today, a thriving population of more than 4,000 ibex live in the confines of Grand Paradiso National Park, showing that smuggling for a good cause eventually worked out well for Switzerland and Italy.