National Geographic : 2015 Feb
98 national geographic • february 2015 wildlife. Using GPS, computer tablets, telescopes, and thermographic cameras, Bracotto and his crew help the park’s scientists tag, collar, and tally ibex and chamois, the park’s other wild goat. Last September their ibex count—2,772—confirmed a 20-year trend: When it comes to the park’s spirit animal, there’s trouble in Gran Paradiso. As dusk cloaks the Alps in shadow, Achaz von Hardenberg lowers his binoculars. The park’s fair-skinned, German-born biolo- gist is standing on the rim of a peaceful valley called Levionaz, waiting to weigh ibex. Earlier, during the fine warm day, herds of four and five were loping elegantly across the plateau and grazing high on the cirque’s slopes. But tonight they’re ignoring the salt lick von Hardenberg has set up next to an electronic scale. “I don’t know where they could be,” he mutters. indicated that ibex meat was part of his last meal. “Yet after all this time they’re still not well adapted to life up here,” says von Hardenberg. “ They were hunted in the lowlands during prehistoric times, which may have been what pushed them to the highlands. Over thousands of years they’ve adjusted to the harsh climate, but they still don’t thrive in deep winter snow.” As the night wears on in Levionaz, the valley stirs. A marmot sips from a rushing stream. A fox finds a dead chamois in a crevasse and enjoys a hasty dinner. But ibex are nowhere to be seen. Ibex are Gran Paradiso’s raison d’être, but they aren’t the only inhabitants of note. In the gneiss hills above Nivolet, a researcher named Luca Corlatti is tracking chamois, less famous but more populous than ibex—latest count, about 8,000—with numbers remaining Some call the wolves a monstrous threat to livestock. Others sell cute wolf T-shirts alongside prosciutto. In 1993 you couldn’t miss them: There were nearly 5,000 in the park, a high-water mark. Their numbers have been dwindling ever since. No one is sure why, but theories abound. Von Hardenberg has two of his own. One is that old- er females are breeding now, producing weaker kids that are less equipped to thrive. His other theory is rooted in climate change: Grass used to peak here in high summer, when ibex kids are born. Now, because there’s less snow, the grass grows earlier in the year. That means newborns have less to eat, less nutritious milk to drink— and less chance of living long enough to claim mates and have kids of their own. Von Hardenberg is hoping an analysis of satel- lite data—showing how alpine-meadow vegeta- tion has changed over three decades—will help solve the mystery. But ibex are an age-old puzzle, he says. In coastal Puglia, the heel of Italy’s boot, fossil remains reveal the animals’ ancient pres- ence. So did the guts of Ötzi, the 5,300-year-old preserved mummy found in 1991; DNA analysis stable. On the green slopes of Orvieille, Cateri- na Ferrari is deciphering the personalities and social structures of marmots—furry, bearlike rodents that lumber comically through the tall grass, whistling coded warnings to each other. And on a raft in Lake Djouan, Rocco Tiberti has netted thousands of brook trout, removing a species that’s gobbled up insects and other native organisms since it was imported in the 1960s. Then there’s the wolf. In 2007, more than a century after the species was exterminated here, a pack of seven appeared in Aosta Valley. When a few shepherds lost sheep, the wolves were blamed. In 2011 the pack vanished—“probably shot,” says von Hardenberg—but the next year another pair arrived, this time in the lush Soana Valley. By last fall there were at least five again. Bruno Bassano, the park’s veterinarian and scientific manager, says the wolves are a boon: They cull foxes and wild boars, balancing the ecology. But locals are divided. Some call the animals a monstrous threat to their livestock.