A new generation of 70 animals of the western Spanish ibex (capra pyrenaica victoriae), a cousin of the original Pyrenean ibex (capra pyrenaica pyrenaica) were counted in France in a 2020 census.
Of these, 41 animals were counted in the national park, le Parc National des Pyrénées, and the others in the regional park, le Parc Régional des Pyrénées Ariégeoises.
The total French population of the animals is now at around 400, after they were gradually introduced over the past few years. It is originally native to central Spain and in French it is one of the several kinds of bouquetin d'Espagne.
This marks the culmination of a long-term Franco-Spanish project to boost the animals’ numbers on the French side of the mountain range.
Jérôme Lafitte, manager of the Fauna project in the PNP, said: “Considering the original objective of creating a viable population centre, we can consider the operation as a success.
“[We have seen] very good reproduction over the past few years, and several cases of twins, which we only see in very dynamic populations.”
There has also been “very good survival” among young animals, “which arrive with the passing of winter”, Mr Lafitte said. This is a good sign, as one of the unknowns of the project was whether the animals would be able to “resist the cold of a Pyrenees winter, for animals that are normally used to a warmer and drier climate”.
The species’ decline was first declared after two ibexes of the original Pyrenees ibex were killed in 1910.
Ninety years later on January 6, 2000, a female believed to be the last of her kind was found dead on the Spanish side of the border, prompting the animals to be declared officially extinct in the Pyrenees.
An attempt to resuscitate the extinct species via cloning ended abruptly in Spain in 2010, after the birth of a cloned animal, which died after only a few minutes due to a lung defect.
There were still some of the species’ close cousins present in Spain. Discussions were held as early as the 1980s, so even before the extinction, to reintroduce animals from this group to the French side of the mountains from.
It took until 2014 to actually release the first of the new animals into the region.
According to Jean-Paul Crampe, member of the PNP scientific committee, said: “Until 2012, Spain refused to deliver the ibexes. There was fear about allowing an exclusively-Spanish animal to cross the borders and allow it to be present in a neighbouring country.
“And some scientists believe that only the Capra pyrenaica pyrenaica should live in the Pyrenees range.”
In a bid to appease the Spanish reluctance, France said that it would not allow ibex hunting, and would “add the Spanish ibex on to the list of protected species”. This led to Spain agreeing to the idea, after which everything happened very quickly, Mr Crampe said.
Matthieu Cruège, director of the Parc Régional des Pyrénées Ariégeoises, said: “It was quite tough to get these animals, but now we have very close relationships with the Spanish authorities.”
A total of 226 ibexes from the Spanish Sierra de Guadarrama near Madrid were introduced into the French mountains, including 131 into the Parc National des Pyrénées.
Their continued thriving has been hailed a success for biodiversity, but it also hoped to act as a driver for tourism in the area.
Mr Cruège said: “For us, it was really one of the major parts of the project, including training for tourism professionals all about the ibex. And it’s working, there has been a good response from the public.
“These are majestic animals and it’s really emotional to watch them. The ibex brings a lot of tourism money into the mountains.”
Future releases, and future hunting?
More releases are set to take place in the Vallée d'Aspe, in the Pyrénées-Atlantiques, later this year, which is set to be followed by a further operation in 2021, aiming to strengthen the “genetics of the populations in place, via the introduction of animals from other populations, via another donation site”, said Mr Lafitte.
And, despite the hunting ban on the animals, hunting association La Fédération des Chasseurs de l'Ariège was also a part of the project, acting as a “safeguarder of diversity” said federation director, Jean Guichou.
He said: “Perhaps one day when the Iberian ibex will be abundant, my children or grandchildren will be able to hunt some individuals again.”
For the moment, however, hunting of the animals is not allowed.
And Mr Crampe added: “We will need to wait 30 years before we really see the ibex everywhere across the Pyrenees. It is a strong species, and it is less difficult to reintroduce [to a region] than bears or wolves.”