We are now in our third month of lockdown in a tiny, deserted ski resort in Monte Rosa, Northern Italy.
One of the highlights of lockdown life has been wildlife sightings in deserted cities and boy, do I have a treat for you! Here in Staffal, Mother Nature has bestowed upon us some very rare and beautiful gifts.
I have already mentioned the adders and the bearded vulture – il gipeto, who gave us a private airshow on his nine-foot wings.
A few summer migrants have arrived in the Alps; house martins are getting busy under our eaves, while the meadows are a-flutter with crag martins and wheatears. Wheatears are one of my favourite birds, mainly because I love a rude name. Tits, bustards and wheatears all fall into the same pleasing category. The term ‘wheatear’ has nothing to do with cereal crops. It actually derives from the 16th-century term ‘whiteers’, meaning ‘white-arse’. Certainly, in flight, its distinctive white rump makes it very easy to spot, while at the same time providing a secret snigger to those of us with a childish sense of humour.
When the news reported that Donald Trump had recommended injecting disinfectant and irradiating people to combat coronavirus because although he’s not a doctor, he knows stuff, I didn’t think that my day could get any better*. However, we got our most amazing wildlife encounter yet, and it happened just across the river from our garden.
At village level, the thaw is well under way and the vibrant, spring grass is starting to come through. Had the remains of the avalanche that formed the snow bridge across the River Lys not been there, we might never have seen them, they are so well camouflaged. But a herd of stambecchi (Alpine Ibex – Capra ibex) walked straight into the village.
This is our fourth season in Monte Rosa and I had my first and only stambecco sighting just a few months ago, back in February. From a ski lift, I saw a few black dots crossing a snow field on the mountainside. I was thrilled!
I have seen ibex in other resorts, but only ever from a distance. I often wondered how such a large animal could be so difficult to spot, but their golden coats render them invisible among the grass and rocks. We would not have seen this small herd had we not looked up at the moment they crossed the snow.
Lo stambecco, the Alpine ibex, is revered in these parts. There are bronze statues of them everywhere. In the 18th century, they were believed to have magical powers and the tenth sign of the zodiac, Capricorn, is often represented by the form of Capra ibex.
Their sharp-edged, concave hooves allow them to cling on to impossibly steep terrain. The footage of mountain goats defying gravity to lick salt from the stones of the near-vertical face of the Cingino Dam in Piedmont are ibex. They justifiably take the title of ‘the greatest rock climbers in the Alps’.
I was shocked to learn that, in the 18th and 19th century, this iconic creature was hunted to the extent that it was extinct throughout most of the Alps. Their habit of seeking refuge on steep terrain rather than running away made them easy targets, particularly with the advent of firearms. Ibex were hunted for meat, although unsurprisingly, their magnificent, curved horns, which can be up to a metre long, were sought as trophies. Carved ibex horn tobacco and snuff boxes were highly prized, but in folk medicine, the stambecco was also a walking pharmacy. Many of its body parts were credited with extraordinary properties.
In a small proportion of ibex, the arteries leaving the heart form a cross, which ‘ossifies’ with a bony deposit in older animals to make a ‘heart cross’. This was a charm believed to improve male virility and protect soldiers from a violent death. Powdered ibex horn could allegedly cure hysteria, cramps and poisoning. An ibex heel bone was thought to be an aphrodisiac, while ibex blood supposedly cured bladder stones. A drinking vessel made from ibex horn shared an attribute with the horn of one other creature; it could protect the drinker from poison. The other animal is the unicorn.
Ironically, ‘The King of the Alps’ was saved by a hunter and a poacher. By the end of the 19th century, the only remaining ibex population in the world was to be found in the Gran Paradiso, the royal hunting reserve of King Vittorio Emanuel II. Vittorio Emanuel became the first king of a unified Italy since the 6th century, but he was no conservationist. Known as the re cacciatore – The Hunter King, he slaughtered many an ibex in his time. The interior of his castle at Sarre, for example, is decorated with hundreds of ibex horns.
However, the few remaining animals in his royal reserve were protected from poaching, apart from three kids, two female and one male, sneaked into the St Gallen zoo in Switzerland by professional poacher, Gabriele Bérard and his son Giuseppe. Ibex had been extinct in Switzerland for a century but when asked, the Italian authorities refused to supply the zoo with any pure-bred ibex. So, these three stolen babies form the basis of the reintroduction of ibex into Switzerland.
In 1922, Gran Paradiso became Italy’s first national park. The park’s symbol is the ibex.
Now, thousands of ibex roam the Alps, descended from the sixty or so stambecchi which were the sole survivors in the Gran Paradiso. Unfortunately, this near-extinction and re-population from such a small number of animals means that the genetic diversity of ibex is not as robust as it might be.
The ibex is also particularly sensitive to climate change. Stambecchi are adapted to the extreme cold of a high, mountain climate and struggle to regulate their body temerature in the heat. Research shows that the need to keep cool by ascending to higher altitudes, where the quality of the vegetation is poorer, outweighs the ibex’s drive to find food. This adversly affects their ability to build up the reserves they need to survive the harsh, Alpine winter.
I hope that the changing climate is something that we can address. After returning this magnificent creature from the brink of extinction, it would be such a shame to lose The King of the Alps once again.
I am still buzzing from this amazing wildlife encounter, so I hope beyond hope that there will still be stambecchi in Staffal for future generations to enjoy.
*DON’T do this! I thought that a small child, never mind the US President, would know that disinfectants suitable for surfaces, such as irradiation and bleach, are very harmful just in contact with the skin, so are certainly not safe to inject. But evidently I was wrong…
Join me next time for a trip down memory lane (and some Grade V rapids!) to find out how travel changed my life.
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