Paradise Found

Once a royal hunting retreat, Gran Paradiso National Park preserves a wild side of Italy.

This story appears in the February 2015 issue of National Geographic magazine.

On 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, sipping cappuccino as espresso machines whir and pastry sugar perfumes the air. But they’re not discussing sports or politics.

“Three nests!” exclaims Jocollè. His friends murmur and nod. “Three nests in a single kilometer! 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 species, and the sight of two top predators living so close together, might be cheered in many places. But in Gran Paradiso National Park, where wilderness 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 standards: 274 square miles in the Graian Alps, straddling the Piedmont and Aosta Valley regions in the country’s rugged northwestern corner. 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 switchbacks climbing steeply into Sound of Music country—snowcapped mountains, alpine meadows, larch-forested valleys carved by rivers and glaciers. The sound of water is constant. The scent of pine is everywhere. In the heart of civilized 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 castles, 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 which the superstitious made amulets. By 1821 fewer than 50 were left. So in 1856, after one protective measure had failed, Victor Emmanuel II set aside a royal reserve to save the species—for himself. The Savoy king loved to hunt, and the graceful ibex were his favorite quarry.

Soon paths were cleared, lodges built, villages absorbed into the new territory. Hunters and poachers were hired as game wardens. And locals were paid to organize the king’s annual hunt.

By 1900, when Victor Emmanuel III took the throne, the ibex population had swelled to 2,000. But as war engulfed Europe, the new king was too busy to hunt. So in 1920 he turned the hunting preserve into a true sanctuary, which he donated to the state. Two years later the area was granted national park status.

The park’s creation has led to state-landowner squabbles, but ibex poaching is no longer an issue: There have been just a handful of reported cases in the past ten years. That’s because the local economy is vested in ecotourism—and because the park assigns 58 wardens to patrol 175,553 acres spread over five valleys.

As the sun burns off the last tatters of morning cloud, one of those wardens climbs an old hunting path from the pine-thick Valsavarenche valley to the boulder-strewn Nivolet Plateau. A hulking man with a mournful face, Giovanni Bracotto pauses at the pass to point out stone ruins of cattle barns dotting the slopes and pastures that sit above a tumble of scree.

“A hundred years ago,” he says, “the economy here was agricultural. The grass had more nutrients then, so the milk was better. The summer cheese was too. But many things have changed.”

Including the wardens’ jobs. Working alone from dawn to dusk—14 hours in summer—they repair trails, assist hikers, and monitor the park’s 59 (shrinking) glaciers. They also keep tabs on 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 biologist 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.

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 older 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 satellite data—showing how alpine-meadow vegetation 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 presence. So did the guts of Ötzi, the 5,300-year-old preserved mummy found in 1991; DNA analysis 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 stable. On the green slopes of Orvieille, Caterina 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. Others monetize them. In a delicatessen in the village of Piamprato, T-shirts with cute wolf cartoons hang for sale alongside strips of prosciutto.

Anna Rotella is untroubled. On a bright July morning in Valsavarenche, she and her partner, Claudio Duguet, milk dozens of white sheep and goats, then lead the flock across the turbulent Savara River, where the grass is good. “Only the ignorant people fear the wolf,” Rotella says. “Educated farmers and shepherds know it is not evil. It is just hungry, like anything else.”

Over on the Piedmont side of the park, the ruddy-faced Longo family—Beppe, Lina, and their grown son, Claudio, plus his girlfriend, Licia—say the wolves don’t bother them either. They live in a stone house with a leaning A-frame, ringed by emerald slopes veined with waterfalls and avalanche stains. Everything here is done by hand, as it was a hundred years ago. A cell phone is the only concession to modernity.

As chickens squawk and cowbells clonk, Beppe and Claudio pull six round blocks of cheese from a rusted iron cauldron boiling with freshly drawn milk. Lina scoops softball-size chunks of butter from an old churn, then pounds the yellow globs into a bricklike block. Licia washes clothes in a bathtub, using a scrub, a rock, and water delivered by a Rube Goldberg–esque sluice system that snakes up the hill.

About ten other families in the valley live similarly. It’s a break-even existence: The profit they make from selling their dairy products at market covers rent and little else. But, says Lina, it’s a lifestyle that’s as priceless as it is timeless.

Back at the café in Degioz, Luigino Jocollè says there’s not enough money for national parks these days, and too much bureaucracy. As environmental laws clash with building codes and business interests, it can be hard to maintain the park’s unique blend of culture and conservation. Which is nothing new.

“In Gran Paradiso,” says Jocollè, “we always have to balance social and natural priorities.”