The Power of Preservation

Gran Paradiso is a 4061m high mountain in the Italian Alps. It is not the highest peak in Italy, but all of the country’s higher mountains are shared with its neighbors, such as the Mont Blanc with France and the Matterhorn with Switzerland. Gran Paradiso can therefore be considered the highest mountain that is entirely within Italian territory. But a far more important claim to fame is that it was once host to the only surviving population of Alpine ibex.

A male Alpine ibex, with its typical long and curved horns.

Surrounding the mountain is Parco Nazionale Gran Paradiso, which protects 700km2 of Alpine terrain, and the many plant and animal species that live there. It is a biodiversity haven, with several preservation success stories.

The park is just south of the town of Aosta in the northwestern corner of Italy. Founded in 25BC as the Roman settlement Augusta Praetoria Salassorum, Aosta quickly became the capital of the Alpes Graies (“Grey Alps”) province of the Roman empire. Because of its location at the junction of major Alpine routes into what is now France and Switzerland, it became an important military outpost. There are still several ancient remains to be admired here, such as large parts of the original city wall, a Roman theater, and beautiful medieval churches.

The remains of a Roman theater in Aosta, Italy.

The national park itself started out as a royal hunting reserve, declared as such in 1856 by Vittorio Emanuele II, then king of Sardinia and soon to become the first king of a united Italy since the 6th century. It originally formed a 21km2 protective area for the Alpine ibex, a species of mountain goat. Due to excessive hunting in the Alps during the first half of the 19th century, the Alpine ibex only survived in this particular area, with at some point fewer than 100 individuals remaining.

In 1920, king Vittorio Emanuele III (grandson of number II), donated the reserve to the Italian government. Two years later it was expanded and converted into a national park, Italy’s first. It currently has a population of around 4000 ibex. Furthermore, other areas of the Alps were successfully repopulated with individuals from the Gran Paradiso population, with a current total population of over 30,000.

A female Alpine ibex.

The national park also protects many other animal and plant species. For example, there are over 100 bird species in the park, and many species of butterflies. The park’s woods are also important, as they provide shelter for various animal species, and they form a natural defence against landslides, avalanches, and flooding. More than a 1000 native Alpine plant species can be found at the park’s botanical gardens.

Recently another wildlife preservation success was celebrated here. The bearded vulture had been extinct in the western Alps since 1913, but was reintroduced in the area in the 1980s. Several years ago, the first bearded vulture born in the wild since that reintroduction hatched from its egg inside the park. The young bird was called “Siel”, which means “sky” in the local dialect.

Two juvenile (and curious) Alpine ibex.

So, thanks to Vittorio Emanuele (both number II and III), we can still enjoy the presence of the majestic Alpine ibex in the Alps. If it wasn’t for these kind kings, the ibex would have been long extinct. And who knows, perhaps by now Siel’s offspring is flying around in these mountains as well.

With these success stories, Gran Paradiso National Park is an important example of wildlife and biodiversity preservation, crucial for the proper maintenance and proliferation of ecosystem networks, and of life in general. Let’s take this as a beautiful example of how the future is (or at least can be) in our own hands…

A view of Gran Paradiso mountain from one of the many hiking trails inside the national park.

All photographs © Wim Hordijk

This article is part of the Beauty and Science of Nature series.