Who is more compelling among the herbivores than the mighty ibex – bounding from crag to crag, immense horns held high, doing battle with his brethren? Not far below, his harem gleans sustenance from the lofty rock-face; playful kids skip from precipice to precipice, defying death by hopscotch, and the old matriarch keeps a weathered eye out for wolf and eagle…

The ibex is far more than a mere ‘wild goat’ – he is the monarch of the mountain. Mother nature’s mountaineer.

People are quick to get excited about the return of wild horses, Iberian wolf and lynx and in Portugal, but little fuss has been raised over the plight of the mysterious ibex.

The ibex is a majestic and breathtaking beast, well worth seeing in the wild. It can also be a powerful restorative force for ‘broken’ landscapes that have not only lost much of their native fauna, but are rapidly losing the traditional grazing practices that once helped to fill-in for the missing wild herbivores.

This is the story of the four Iberian ibex subspecies, their struggles and a glimmer of hope.

Southeastern Spanish ibex (Capra pyrenaica hispanica) at Guadarrama National Park, Madrid, Spain, by J. Abalos [CC BY-SA 2.0]
The last Portuguese ibex: a female captured in Albergaría in 1890.

Portuguese Ibex (Capra pyrenaica lusitanica)

Ibex were once prevalent in Portugal, although as agriculture developed and human habitation began to encroach on wild landscapes, their range was gradually diminished.

From the 19th century onwards, they were thought only to inhabit Portugal’s northernmost mountains – the rough and remote peaks of Peneda-Gerês.

It is here that Portugal’s ibex lost his most important battle. The horns with which nature equipped him for his defense became his fatal flaw: an irresistible trophy for Victorian hunters, they could not protect him from the guns that picked his kin off the cliff-face.

A fine set of horns fetched a handsome price and as firearms became more and more easily acquired, ibex hunting gained popularity both as a pastime and a lucrative end.

As well as trophy mounts, the ibex’s meat and hide were also sought, as were the magic ‘bezoar’ stones found in its stomach – thought to cure a host of diseases.

The pursuit of the male for his horns led to a disparity between the sexes, with many female ibex eventually struggling to find a mate.

In 1890, the last specimen ever seen (pictured above) died three days after being captured – purportedly for its own protection – by forestry workers. The formerly common Portuguese sub-species was shortly thereafter declared extinct.

A museum taxidermy specimen: male Pyrenean ibex with large curved horns.
Stuffed Pyrenean ibex on display at the ‘Extinct Animal Research Institute’ exhibition at the Nagoya Science Museum by KKPCW [CC BY-SA 4.0].

Pyrenean Ibex (Capra pyrenaica pyrenaica)

In 2000, the Portuguese ibex was sadly followed into extinction by its close cousin, the Pyrenean ibex. Although protected since 1918, it had suffered from similarly indiscriminate hunting in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The Pyrenean ibex is an animal with the dubious distinction of being not only the first creature to become extinct in the new millennium, but also the only one to become extinct twice. How, you ask?

In 2003 an effort was made to clone it using genetic material recovered from the last known individual – which had unfortunately been squashed to death by a falling tree.

While the procedure seemed to have been a success in the first instance, the kid survived only seven minutes before succumbing to a lung defect, placing its species back on the extinction list. The old age, infertility, inbreeding and genetic defects of the female from which it had been cloned perhaps contributed to the unfortunate outcome.

The scientists behind this scheme were nevertheless confident that it could be done. In 2014 they were ready to try again with improved techniques, but, despite keen support from the Aragon Hunters Association, funding shortfalls put an end to the matter.

Western Spanish Ibex or Gredos Ibex (Capra pyrenaica victoriae)

It was around the same time that the French finally succeeded in persuading the Spanish to give them some ibex, after decades of negotiations.

The Western Spanish ibex subspecies is a close genetic match to the extinct Pyrenean variety. Since its creation in 1967, the Parc National des Pyrénées had been campaigning for a breeding herd of Spanish specimens with which to re-populate their mountains – as had Portugal. Both requests had been refused point blank.

A curly-horned black and tan male ibex  in a scrubby highland setting looks back over his shoulder at the camera.
A male Western Spanish ibex (Capra pyrenaica victoriae) in Sierra de Gredos by T. Holbach [CC BY-SA 4.0].

The survival of ibex in Spain was largely due to the creation of hunting reserves in the 1920s, employing former poachers to protect the animals from unsanctioned hunts. Today 5,000-8,000 Western Spanish ibex remain. It was not their rarity, however, that made Spain so reluctant to give them up: rather it was the fact that Spanish ibex are an extremely profitable commodity.

A black and white photo of a taxidermied ibex. The wall behind is covered in hunting trophy shoulder-mounts of ibex and other ungulates.
Expo of the first national competition of trophies of Spain in Madrid, 1950. Archivo Fotográfico de la Dirección General de Turismo [CC BY-SA 2.0].

A hunting license for a single Spanish ibex costs around €20,000; a set of trophy-size horns can fetch up to €40,000. Many mountain communities subsist largely on the income from legal hunts.

Spain was concerned that the export of a uniquely Spanish game animal would diminish hunting revenue and harm the communities that depended on it. It was only when then French promised a nation-wide ban on the hunting of ibex around 2010 that negotiations finally became possible.

A dozen Western Spanish ibex were released in the Pyrenees in 2014 – followed by another 214, generously donated by Spain. The operation was kept secret for fear of interference by bereft, ibex-loving Spaniards. The animals were trucked in over the border by night.

There are now three herds of Western Spanish ibex in the French Pyrenees, totalling over 400 individuals. Numbers are growing year on year: in 2022 alone, 55 kids survived. Within three decades, the Parc National des Pyrénées expects Iberian ibex to be widespread in the Pyrenees once more.

Spanish ibex running over rocks at sunset.
Southeastern Spanish ibex (Capra pyrenaica hispanica) in El Torcal de Antequera, Spain, by A. Pawska [CC BY 4.0].

Southeastern Spanish Ibex or Beceite Ibex (Capra pyrenaica hispanica)

As well as the Western Spanish ibex, Spain is also home to the Southeastern Spanish ibex – our fourth sub-species – which mainly dwells in the mountains of Andalucía.

This sub-species is faring well, due partly to its tolerance for wider climatic ranges, but mainly thanks to good management and extensive study. Carefully controlled hunting practices, rather than threatening its existence, instead provide a monetary incentive for local people to support its survival. The success of the hunting industry means that this sub-species now represents over half the total population of Iberian ibex.

Although this population is not considered vulnerable, the Southeasterns are not without their own troubles: outbreaks of sarcoptic mange have drastically reduced numbers in several areas, sometimes wiping out up to 95% of local populations. Nevertheless, there are now over 30,000 individuals throughout Spain, with 14,000 residing in the Sierra Nevada National Park alone.

Populations of Southeastern Spanish ibex exist as far north as Southern Catalonia and it too is thought to be on the brink of re-establishing itself in the Pyrenees.

Two ibex with large horns in a snowy Spanish forest.
Southeastern Spanish ibex (Capra pyrenaica hispanica) in the Sistema Ibérico mountain range, province of Teruel, Spain. By Bruno Durán [CC BY-SA 2.0]

The Ibex Returns to Portugal

In 1998, 108 years after the extinction of the ibex in Portugal, a handful of mighty-horned mountain goats were observed in the Peneda-Gerês National Park, close to the northern border with Spain.

Could it be that some had survived after all?

A muscular black and brown male ibex on a sunlit granite rock surface, walking away from the camera.
A male Western Spanish ibex (Capra pyrenaica victoriae) in the Peneda-Gerês National Park (2021) by N. Esteves [CC BY-SA 4.0].

A 2001 study confirmed that these were were not the long-gone Portuguese subspecies, but newly arrived Western Spanish ibex, which had come to Portugal entirely on their own terms.

The story goes that in the 1990s a small breeding population of ibex had been maintained in enclosures in the the Baixa Limia-Serra do Xure ́s Natural Park – a nature reserve now combined with Portugal’s own Peneda-Gerês. Six males and twelve females were kept in two enclosures. However, ibex and domestic goats alike are notoriously difficult to keep under lock and key; in 1998, escapes were reported from both enclosures, shortly followed by sightings of no less than six ibex on the Portuguese side of the border.

Two brown ibex stand on a snow-covered mountain rock in a blizzard.
Western Spanish ibex (Capra pyrenaica victoriae) in the Peneda-Gerês National Park (2021) by N. Esteves [CC BY-SA 4.0].

This was followed up in 2000 and 2001 by the ‘official’ release of 25 ibex in Serra do Xurés. They were closely monitored by marking their horns with colour codes and radio-collaring several individuals.

By 2003, the population had grown to around 75 animals. By 2011, surveys indicated 568 individuals. It was at this point suggested that the status of Iberian ibex in Portugal be upgraded from ‘extinct’ to ‘critically endangered’ – a small but at the same time vast improvement.

Two young male Spanish ibex butting horns.
Young Western Spanish ibex (Capra pyrenaica victoriae) in the Peneda-Gerês National Park (2021) N. Esteves [CC BY-SA 4.0].

Although modest, the population is most definitely increasing and its range is expanding rapidly. However, it is not without threats: two of the three identified herds dwell close to areas of human habitation where they are accessible to shepherds, livestock, tourists and, sadly, poachers from both sides of the border. Multiple individuals have already been taken illegally – decapitated for their valuable horns in a series of incidents described by Portuguese press as a ‘a return to dark days’.

The third group lives more remotely, but often roams within the boundaries of a hunting zone on the Spanish side of the border, where they are at risk from legal hunts.

Female and juvenile Western Spanish ibex sunbathing on a clifftop.
Female and Juvenile Western Spanish ibex (Capra pyrenaica victoriae) in Sierra de Gredos by JuanAGM75 [CC BY-SA 4.0].

Despite its miraculous recovery – due largely to its own initiative rather than human interference – the Portuguese government and scientific community has taken very little interest in the return of the Iberian ibex to Peneda-Gerês. This contrasts with France and Spain, where its recovery has been celebrated and subject to thorough scrutiny. To support their re-colonisation, several things ought to happen:

  • The newly Portuguese ibex ought to be protected by the state, to prevent poaching of a small population that is still establishing itself.
  • The population should be better studied to better determine its overall health and longer-term needs.
  • The gene pool should be reinforced with individuals from elsewhere, to prevent inbreeding depression. Low genetic variety increases susceptibility to disease – such as the sarcoptic mange that has ravaged Spanish populations.
  • Feral goats, which can freely interbreed with ibex, must be controlled to avoid hybridisation of the species. Hybrid offspring show lower fitness and decreased survival rates.
  • Finally, fragmented habitats should be connected by wildlife corridors to allow free movement and proliferation of the ibex, reducing the risk of genetic isolation.
Close up of female Spanish ibex looking at camera with a wild and mysterious expression.
Female Southeastern Spanish ibex (Capra pyrenaica hispanica) in the Sierra Nevada National Park by Nico4nicolas [CC BY-SA 4.0].

Re-Ibexing Portugal

The ibex is expected to spread within Portugal. The seven-fold increase in the Portuguese population in under a decade demonstrates its ability to disperse rapidly, colonize quickly and adapt to new terrain. Its preference for steep and inaccessible mountain slopes means it does not tend to compete for space with domestic livestock, although the presence of livestock does potentially limit the ibex’s access to optimal pastures.

Studies show that northeast Portugal offers a favourable habitat for wild caprines. As the only native herbivore capable of grazing the most rugged terrain, ibex can be considered ‘ecosystem engineers’ with the power to create and regenerate habitats, effecting significant positive change on the landscapes within which they exist. This makes them a key species in the northeast, where agricultural abandonment has led to ‘wildlife scarcity, bush encroachment, vegetation homogeneity and poor soils’ (I. Serrano Borges e Silva, 2022).

Herd of male Iberian ibex with long horns moving over rocky landscape with yellow gorse and a glacier in the background.
Herd of Western Spanish ibex (Capra pyrenaica victoriae) grazing rocky slopes in Sierra de Gredos by Nachosan [CC BY-SA 3.0].

Since 2011 Rewilding Europe has been turning rural depopulation into opportunities in northeast Portugal. Its large-scale project in the Greater Côa Valley, taking place over 100,000 hectares of abandoned land, has already achieved success with the reintroduction of several significant species: wild Sorraia and Garrano horses, roe and red deer and free-roaming Maronesa cattle (intended to approximate the auroch’s ecological niche).

As a result of this, Iberian wolves have moved down from the north of their own accord (since 2015) and Lynx are moving up from the south. Slowly, but surely, the ibex will follow. The ibex’s arrival will support the existence of its natural predators – namely the golden eagle and Iberian wolf, but possibly also the Cantabrian bear, which has miraculously been sighted in Tras-Os-Montes after more than two centuries.

With traditional forms of agriculture, such as transhumant grazing and its associated land management practices, in decline in much of inland Portugal, the risk of wildfire in increases. If land is to be left fallow, communities may either invest in costly but imperative management activities – often in remote and inaccessible places – to prevent the overgrowth of flammable brush, or look to ‘rewilding’ as a possible alternative. Native herbivores not only undertake fire risk reduction services for free, but have the potential to bring benefits far beyond mere fire control.

A recent study investigating the potential knock-on effect of ibex re-population in Portugal shows economical as well as ecological benefits.

The presence of large native herbivores increases interest for nature tourism. Unlike the wolf and lynx which, though charismatic predators, are incredibly difficult to observe in the wild, ibex are relatively easily seen where they are common.

They do not fear humans and their first instinct when confronted with a potential threat is simply to stand their ground and face it rather than flee. They spend a great deal of time resting and foraging on stony outcrops and exposed cliff-faces, making them quite easy to spot, as well as shoot (a habit which perhaps contributed to their rapid extirpation after the popularisation of firearms).

A Spanish ibex sunbathing on a boulder.
Spanish ibex sunbathing on a boulder in La Pedriza, Sierra de Guadarrama, by B. N. González [CC BY-SA 4.0].

Potential Ibex Habitats in Portugal

It is difficult to determine the historic range of ibex in Portugal. Written records are few, nor is the fossil record particularly revealing: acidic soils mean bone remnants do not last long in the ground. However, a recent study (I. Serrano Borges e Silva, 2022) has compiled data on known fossil remains and petroglyphic evidence found throughout Portugal.

From this it seems reasonable to assume that Capra pyrenaica once inhabited mountainous areas throughout Portugal, as indeed it does throughout Spain.

Ibex are in fact a common motif in the plethora of prehistoric rock art found throughout the Greater Côa Valley, which stretches down Portugal’s northeastern border. It is interesting to note that the horn shape and markings depicted there are said to resemble the Western Spanish ibex more closely than the extinct Portuguese subspecies (R. Bedarnik, 2002), perhaps indicating the presence of multiple subspecies in ancient times.

While Portugal is not as mountainous a country as Spain, a study shows that many of its elevated areas show good suitability for ibex. (R. T. Torres, 2016)

Ibex are happiest in on steep rocky outcrops and high-altitude cliffs with diverse flora, but can also inhabit forests, temperate scrub, natural and artificial pastureland and some agricultural land. Habitat selection is affected by the seasons, with higher altitude north slopes occupied in summer and lower, south-facing slopes preferred in winter. Preference also differs between sexes, with males reaching higher altitudes and roaming further (up to 7 km during the rut). (I. Serrano Borges e Silva, 2022)

Could Ibex Live in Serra da Estrela?

Since Caminho Caprino is basing itself in Serra da Estrela, we are naturally quite interested in the possibility of ibex returning to the area.

All in all, the evidence seems convincing that this is not only possible, but likely. It is our hope that over the next few years rewilding projects, like that of the Côa Valley, gain recognition as a highly advantageous alternative to intensive land-management.

If similar schemes were to be implemented in strategic areas throughout Portugal, it seems likely that the Iberian ibex would have a key role to play. The species could once again become widespread, inhabiting mountains throughout Portugal. Once they have reached the Côa Valley, Serra da Estrela is but a hop, skip and a jump away…. One small step for ibex, one giant leap for caprine kind.

Spanish ibex in Sierra de Guadarrama by K. Wang [CC BY-SA 2.0].

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Further Reading:

• Torres, R. T. (2016) Favourableness and Connectivity of a Western Iberian Landscape for the Reintroduction of the Iconic Iberian Ibex Capra pyrenaica

• Serrano Borges e Silva, I. (2022) Economic Potential of the Iberian Ibex (Capra pyrenaica) in Landscape Management: Rewilding With an Iconic Animal Species in Portugal

• Pinto, B. (2010) Brief Historical Ecology of Northern Portugal during the Holocene

• Fonseca, C. et. al. (2017) The Return of the Iberian Wild Goat Capra pyrenaica to Portugal: From Reintroduction to Recolonization

• Luís, L., & Fernandes, A. P. B. (2009) On Endless Motion: Depiction of Movement in the Upper Palaeolithic Côa Valley rock Art (Portugal)

• Refoyo, P. et. al. (2015) Space Use of a Reintroduced Population of Capra Pyrenaica in a Protected Natural Area

• Acevedo, P. & Cassinello, J. Biology, Ecology and Status of Iberian Ibex Capra pyrenaica: A critical Review and Research Prospectus

• Refoyo, P. et. al. (2015) Demographic Trends of a Reintroduced Iberian Ibex Capra Pyrenaica Victoriae Population in Central Spain

• Herrero, J. et. al. (2012) An Escaped Herd of Iberian Wild Goat (Capra pyrenaica, Schinz 1838, Bovidae) Begins the Re-colonization of the Pyrenees

• Moço, G. et. al. (2006) The Ibex Capra Pyrenaica Returns to its Former Portuguese Range

• Bedarnik, R. (2002) Sorting the Ibex From the Goats in Portugal

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