National Geographic : 2015 Feb
94 national geographic • february 2015 “ Three nests!” exclaims Jocollè. His friends murmur and nod. “ Three nests in a single kilo- meter! Extraordinary.” They’re talking about their neighbors. A pair of bearded vultures—breeding again in the wild a hundred years after the last one vanished from the Alps—has taken up residence near two pairs of golden eagles. The return of a majestic spe- cies, and the sight of two top predators living so close together, might be cheered in many places. But in Gran Paradiso National Park, where wil- derness and culture live in careful balance, it’s a matter of daily consequence. Gran Paradiso is Italy’s oldest national park. Established in 1922, it’s tiny by American stan- dards: 274 square miles in the Graian Alps, straddling the Piedmont and Aosta Valley re- gions in the country’s rugged northwestern cor- ner. But taken together with France’s adjoining Vanoise National Park, it’s one of the largest protected areas in Western Europe. Drive an hour from Turin and you’ll know when you’ve arrived. Highways become switch- backs climbing steeply into Sound of Music country—snowcapped mountains, alpine mead- ows, larch-forested valleys carved by rivers and glaciers. The sound of water is constant. The scent of pine is everywhere. In the heart of civi- lized Europe, the park Italians call “big heaven” blooms like an earthly Eden. No wonder the past two popes vacationed here. But human hands have shaped the landscape too, leaving fingerprints old and new: Neolithic rock etchings, Roman ruins and medieval cas- tles, solar panels and hydroelectric dams. Since World War II many people have left the area for jobs in cities. Yet some 8,400 still live in the park’s 13 municipalities, sharing space with more than 50 species of mammals, a hundred kinds of birds, and nearly a thousand types of plants and flowers. Plus 1.8 million tourists a year. Dominated by its namesake 13,324-foot-tall massif, Gran Paradiso today is a high-altitude hub of wildlife conservation, scientific research, and cultural preservation. But its ironic story begins in the 19th century. And it starts with a mountain goat. “If there were no ibex,” says Pietro Passerin d’Entrèves, “there would be no Gran Paradiso.” The Turin University zoology professor is a historian of the region, where his family has lived since 1270. On a cloudy day in Cogne, the park’s unofficial capital, he tucks into a plate of gnocchi and unpacks the past. From the 16th century to the 19th, he says, alpine ibex were hunted for their meat, horns, blood (said to boost virility), and a bone from By Jeremy Berlin Photographs by Stefano Unterthiner O n a crisp summer morning in Degioz, a slate-roofed village in northern Italy, Luigino Jocollè is sharing the local news. He and four other gray-haired men are sitting in a tiny café, sip- ping cappuccino as espresso machines whir and pastry sugar perfumes the air. But they’re not discussing sports or politics. Jeremy Berlin is a staff writer for the magazine. Photographer Stefano Unterthiner lives near Gran Paradiso. He’ll publish a book on the park this year.