How Did The Marmolada Ibex Project Begin?
The Alpine ibex colony in Marmolada was started in 1978 with eight individuals from the Gran Paradiso National Park released in the municipality of Pozza di Fassa. In 2004, its numbers exceeded 500 animals, living mostly around the province of Belluno. However, the following winter a sarcoptic mange epidemic, together with particularly severe weather, caused its numbers to decrease dramatically. The Province of Belluno, the State Forestry Corps and the University of Turin started a project of capture and drug treatment that managed to limit the impact of the disease. In the summer of 2006, just over 110 animals were counted (see Box 1), but at least the emergency situation had been resolved and the colony saved.
In this context, the Marmolada Ibex Project was started with decidedly innovative goals. Instead of just supporting the immediate restoration of the colony, the project aimed to improve the animals’ chances of survival and growth in the medium to long term. Accordingly, males of reproductive age were transferred from the colony of Jôf Fuart-Montasio, which had already undergone natural selection because of this disease, and with which, at the start of the project, it was in equilibrium without major consequences regarding population. It was intended that these males' genetic makeup be used to transfer both new genetic variability and greater resistance to the mange.
The project was also innovative on account of the cooperation between different institutions and associations. The Italian Chapter of Safari Club International participated in its conception and financed its monitoring. The Province of Belluno and the State Forestry Corps secured the logistical support and the capture of the animals, for which permission had been granted by the Friuli Venezia Giulia region, and the Animal Science Department at the University of Padua and the Department of Animal Production, Epidemiology and Ecology at the University of Turin guaranteed the scientific supervision and monitoring of results.
The Project's Results
The first release took place on May 25, 2006, with nine males between the ages of 5 and 9 introduced in and around Malga Ciapèla, in the municipality of Rocca Pietore (BL). In view of its success, five other males 6-9 years old were released on May 15, 2007. All the animals were fitted with radio collars to track their movements and survival rate, also in comparison with local males already tagged or specifically caught and tagged in 2007, and to facilitate individual observation on a weekly basis until May 2009.
One of the first essential aspects for all translocations is to ensure short-term success, namely the survival and adaptation of the animals transported. From that point of view, the Marmolada Ibex project was a success. In the three years after the first release, the survival rate of the males released was very good (two subjects died, but because of an avalanche) and none left the area (this fact is very important, because in the case of releases in areas where the species is absent, abandonment of the area, sometimes permanent, has often occurred, as also happened with the foundation of this particular colony).
The animals transferred in 2006 took three years to integrate seamlessly with the local males, both socially and in using the same areas and habitats. It was interesting to observe that the males moved in 2007 adjusted in just two years, perhaps taking advantage of the experience of their companions that had been transferred in the previous year.
It is a much more complex matter to understand the outcome in the medium and long term, beyond the scope of the three-year monitoring agreed at the time. But what can we say 10 years later? First, the colony has recovered, although more slowly than expected. In turn, the disease has not recurred, as often happens, with a second occurrence with a less aggressive epidemic peak. The question of the extent to which the transfer of males from the colony of Jôf Fuart-Montasio contributed to the colony’s genetic variability and resistance to disease will be determined in the coming years by an international project (Interreg-ALCOTRA Lemed-Ibex) which involves the capture and genetic sampling of ibex specimens from various colonies on both sides of the Alps. The fact that it has led to a series of subsequent studies is another highly important result of the Marmolada Ibex project, albeit an indirect one.
Before the Interreg project, which aims to shed some light on how to handle future ibex colonies affected by the limiting effects of sarcoptic mange, a study began in 2010 that, using GPS satellite radio collars, allowed the recording of the location of more than 30 lactating and non-lactating females on an hourly basis. The high frequency of monitoring, made possible by the new technologies available, helped further the understanding of these animals’ strategies for adaptation to the extreme environment in which they live, and in this way helped us better predict the species’ resilience to current climate changes.
Alpine Ibex Conservation Issues
With more than 15,000 animals estimated to be living on the territory of our country and at least 47,000 in the Alps, the ibex is certainly safe from the risk of extinction, at least in the short to medium term. Despite that, its conservation status is far from optimal, especially in the Eastern Alps. Its genetic variability is among the lowest found in nature, due to the “bottleneck” that the species experienced with a record population low in the early 19th century, amplified by the fact that all the populations in the Alps have arisen from a few individuals, originating directly or indirectly from Gran Paradiso.
In the Eastern Alps, in particular, the species occupies only a small part of its potential range and is fragmented into colonies that, besides being small in terms of numbers, are also isolated or very little connected, and therefore quite vulnerable to events like epidemics. The impact of sarcoptic mange means that the number of ibex in the Eastern Alps has not increased for about fifteen years. And, while the Marmolada colony was saved thanks to the interventions that took place, other initially much less numerous colonies were literally decimated by the disease. It is therefore a priority to help these small populations to survive, grow and connect with each other. It is equally clear that cannot be done without adequate knowledge, such as that obtained within the Marmolada Ibex Project and later research building on it. In a current national climate in which private institutions seem little inclined to support the necessary advancement of life sciences applied to the conservation and management of our precious wildlife, the Italian Chapter of the Safari Club International has managed, with the Marmolada Ibex Project, to set a very different example.--Profs. Maurizio Ramanzin and Luca Rossi