Pyrenean Ibex Extinct in 2000 – EU Conservation Failure

Ibex are wild goats that live in the mountainous regions of Europe, north central Asia and northern Africa. There are five species of ibex. They have long, curved horns and cloven hooves. Males have long beards. Ibex are related to antelopes, buffalo, bison, cattle, goats and sheep. The Pyrenean ibex was one of the four subspecies of the Iberian ibex, a species endemic to the Pyrenees.

Image of male pyrenean ibex rersting on mountain ledge

This first of the subspecies to become extinct was the Portuguese ibex in 1892. The Pyrenean ibex were most common in the Cantabrian Mountains and across the Pyrenees in France and Spain and the surrounding area, including the Basque Country, Navarre, north Aragon, and north Catalonia. This subspecies has been around for many tens of thousands of years, during the Holocene and previous Upper Pleistocene epoch.

The males had thick, large horns curving outwards. The horn surface had ridges that used to develop with age. Females used to have cylindrical short horns.

The Pyrenean ibex migrated according to seasons. In spring, the ibex would migrate to more elevated parts of mountains where females and males would mate. Females would normally separate from the males, so they could give birth in more isolated areas. Kids were typically born during May. A female would normally deliver one kid. During the winter, the ibex would migrate to valleys that are not covered in snow. These valleys allowed them to find grazing grounds all the year round.

Image of two pyrenean ibex grazing

Pyrenean ibex tended to live in rocky habitats with cliffs and trees interspersed with scrub or pine trees. However, small patches of rocks in farmland or various areas along the Iberian coast also formed suitable habitat. The ibex was able to thrive well as long as the appropriate habitat was available. It was also able to disperse rapidly and colonize quickly.

The Pyrenean ibex was estimated to have had a peak population of 50,000 individuals with more than 50 other subgroups that ranged from the Sierra Nevadas to Sierra Morena and Muela de Cortes. Many of these subgroups lived in mountainous terrain extending into Spain and Portugal.

The ibex was quite abundant until the 14th century. Their populations began to decrease in the 17th century, primarily as a result of trophy-hunting by people who craved the ibex’s majestic horns. By 1913, their numbers had fallen to fewer than 100. From 1910 onwards, their numbers never rose above 40, and the subspecies was found only in a small part of Ordesa National Park, in Huesca that is located in the Spanish Central Pyrenees.

Competition with domestic and wild ungulates (hoofed mammals) contributed to the extinction of this ibex. Much of its range was shared with sheep, domestic goats, cattle, and horses, especially in summer when it was in the high mountain pastures. This led to competition with other species in the same ecological areas and caused overgrazing. The Ibex was particularly affected by this in years of drought. In addition, the introduction of non-native wild ungulate species in areas occupied by the ibex such as the fallow deer and mouflon in the Sierras de Cazorla, Segura y Las Villas Natural Park, increased the grazing pressure, as well as the risk of transmission of both native and exotic diseases.

Image of pyrenean ibex

Whereas the definite extinction causes of the Pyrenean Ibex cannot be established with precision, it is clear that continuous hunting and poaching, the inability to compete with livestock and alien species for food, diseases and infections caught from domestic animals and pressures on their historic habitat all contributed in various degrees to the demise of the species. All these causes have one thing in common. They can all be directly attributed to, or traced back, to human activity.

Pyrenean ibex populations were decimated in the Pyrenees region in the 19th and 20th centuries because of continuous hunting. In the latter half of the 20th century, small number of individuals survived in Ordesa National Park in the Spanish Central Pyrenees.

In 1950s and 1960s, a global conservation program was brought that introduced national game reserves and refuges to save ibex populations. In 1973, the Pyrenean ibex was declared protected. A management plan to save this subspecies was put into place in 1993 when just ten individuals remained. The Pyrenean Ibex was listed as critically endangered by the IUCN in 1996. The Spanish government attempted captive breeding but the species did not survive well in captivity.

Image of pyrenean ibex

Guy Beaufoy, a policy officer of WWF Spain, said “The Pyrenean Ibex had disappeared because the Spanish government acted too late to save it.” He continued to say that “Although hunting had reduced the animal’s numbers to fewer than a hundred by the early 1900s, a management plan to preserve it was not put into place until 1993, when only about 10 individuals remained”. In general it can be said that the extinction of the Pyrenean ibex is Europe’s first great conservation failure of the twenty-first century, as the European Union acted too late as well.

The Pyrenean ibex became extinct first in the northern tip of the Iberian Peninsula. The last live Pyrenean ibex were seen in areas of the Middle and Eastern Pyrenees, below 1,200 meters of altitude. The last individual Pyrenean ibex, a female, was found dead on January 6, 2000, apparently killed by a fallen tree.

How hard can it be to stop killing, to care and protect and to leave viable populations of species alone. We just don’t get it, do we. We never did.