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LIFEnews features 2012

LIFE programme achieves peak performance in mountain and upland areas

LIFE has helped many Member States to gain a great deal of experience of supporting effective environmental action in mountain areas through various nature conservation and sustainable development actions.

Photo: A.Antonucci

Italy’s Apennine mountain ranges act as a geographical backbone for the country and provide key ecosystem services which stretch from north to south. The highest peaks and most rugged terrain are found in the Abruzzi Apennines located to the east of Rome. Despite their difficult conditions, these mountains host a rich mix of biodiversity and large areas of the Abruzzi Apennines are designated with national park protection measures.

Containing peaks of up to 2200 metres in height, Abruzzo is the oldest of the Apennine national parks and it has an important role in supporting EU habitats like pine, birch, and beech forests. Endangered species including wolves, bears and chamois rely on this high altitude ecosystem and LIFE funding has been used with good effect here to help ensure the long-term survival of Abruzzo’s mountain species.

Special LIFE attention has been provided to the region’s chamois population because, although chamois in general are not considered to be threatened at European level, the Apennine sub species (Rupicapra pyrenaica ornata) is acknowledged by the IUCN as being very rare.

A mere 800 of these shy and highly endangered mountain ungulates are estimated to exist but this is a significant improvement from before when the population had fallen to around 40 individuals in the 1920s. It was then close to extinction and is now still listed as a priority species for conservation in the Habitats Directive Annexes.

Population clusters
Species like the Apennine chamois which exhibit a small population size and critical conservation status can often face additional threats caused by risks to genetic viability caused by inbreeding. Crucial aspects of conservation strategies for species in such circumstances thus need to focus on not only increasing population numbers but also limiting the possibility of inbreeding.

Previous LIFE funds (LIFE97 NAT/IT/004143) and (LIFE02 NAT/IT/008538) in the Abruzzo area had helped to introduce captive breeding to increase the overall population size, and a new project (LIFE09 NAT/IT/000183) is now adding value to these outcomes by safeguarding the sub species’ genetic integrity.

Chamois conservation actions underway on this current LIFE project involve a dedicated species rehabilitation programme which is working towards establishing distinct clusters of chamois populations in different Apennine locations. A partnership of national park authorities has joined forces to make this happen and project results are expected in 2014.

Photo: A.Antonucci

This latest LIFE project has objectives to create two new population clusters and achieve the goal of five geographically isolated colonies of Apennine chamois spread across five park territories. These are the Abruzzo National Park, the Maiella National Park, the Gran Sasso and Monti della Laga National Park, the Monti Sibillini National Park and the Sirente Velino Regional Park.

To avoid inbreeding, comparisons of genetic information from all the areas are being made. Information gained from these studies is helping the parks' authorities to maximise the success of the captive breeding and reintroduction programme.

A new colony will be introduced in Sirente Velino with the release of the first group of eight chamois. A further 15 chamois will be released in Majella and Gran Sasso parks. Final stages of the reintroduction programme for Monti Sibillini will build on the successes from during 2008 and 2009 when some13 chamois were released in this park.

According to LIFE project manager Franco Mari, “Monti Sibillini consists of 24 000 ha of suitable habitat connected by eco-corridors. It is possible to control the impact of human beings and livestock in these areas and we are confident that a new colony of chamois can be established in the park. Two kids were born in 2008 and five in 2009 in the area. We believe that five more could have been born in 2011.” A monitoring programme from last year identified a total of 28 chamois in this part of the LIFE project area.

Conservation challenges
Mr Mari and his colleagues have faced ongoing challenges in some parts of the project area because different issues continue to create difficulties for the chamois. Referring to recent monitoring data which revealed a fall in the numbers of chamois found in the Abruzzo National Park for example, Mr Mari says, “It is probably due to many factors, including spatial and trophic competition with red deer and the possible spread of disease from livestock.”

Simone Angelucci, a veterinary surgeon based in Maiella National Park, warns that, “The project is analysing interaction between the chamois and other animals in order to try to prevent a critical situation from arising. There is a risk that the chamois could be defenceless against every kind of disease that could be passed between domestic and wild animals.”

Photo: A.Antonucci

Overall progress with the project does however remain positive and thankfully, species numbers from other Apennine National Parks participating in the new LIFE project have not experienced similar problems as in Abruzzo. In fact, new populations in the Maiella and Gran Sasso have seen animal numbers rise by up to 23% per year. As population numbers grow the aim is to transfer animals from one region to another in order to strengthen the species’ genetic mix. Transferring individuals though is not always easy to perform, as the animal must be tranquilised before it can be moved.

Several techniques can be used including tranquiliser guns, trapping in cages, and catching with nets. The project has already established protocols for chamois transfer to ensure that the safety of the animal is maximised. In the breeding enclosures for instance, individual animals are kept long enough so that they become accustomed to the sound and presence of people. This allows staff to get close enough to apply tranquiliser techniques more effectively. 

Knowledge transfer
As with many LIFE projects, the beneficiary’s have been able to draw on the experiences from other LIFE-funded conservation work. Good working relations have been forged with conservationists involved in similar project (LIFE99 NAT/E/6333) which helped to reintroduce a Spanish sub species of chamois (Rupricapra pyrenaica parva) in the Cantabrian mountain range.

Staff from the Italian project travelled to Spain last year to learn from techniques that had been developed there for managing isolated pockets of chamois. Three Natura 2000 sites in the Asón river basin were covered by this project which included actions to reintroduce Cantabrian chamois at a site in the Cantabrian mountains where the species was last recorded as present in the 18th century.

Between 2002 and 2003, the Spanish project beneficiary released 26 Cantabrian chamois that had been collected from another part of the same mountain range. Each individual released was fitted with a radio-transmitter, so it was possible to follow the adaptation of the chamois to the new habitat. By 2010, the population had grown to more than 95 individuals with at least 19 new offspring born that year.

Outcomes from the Italian’s knowledge exchange trip to Spain are now being deployed in Italy to improve understanding about methodologies for monitoring the behaviour, health status and general biology of Apennine chamois.

More information about the Apennine chamois project’s support for EU mountain areas is available on the project website (in Italian).

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