The group peers intently through their binoculars at the rugged rock wall of the Niederhorn ridge. All they want to see are ibex and chamois – as many as possible and as close as possible!
An ibex is leisurely sprawling on the hiking trail and appears to enjoy the view of the mountains.
The ibex and chamois on the Niederhorn are not exactly shy. Animal lovers get especially close to the Alpine dwellers when they follow wildlife specialist Urs Grossniklaus – armed only with binoculars and cameras.
The Niederhorn ridge is spectacular in many ways: Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau to the right, the steep cliff leading down to the Justistal Valley to the left. It is precisely this cliff where the animals like to retreat.
To the delight of the wildlife viewers, they are often out and about on the ridge during the day. The ibex are not hunted here”, explains wildlife specialist Urs Grossniklaus. “This is why they are so trusting.” They can be often spotted just a few metres away on the guided wildlife excursions run by Niederhorn Railways.
Urs Grossniklaus has been guiding guests to the animal hotspots on the Niederhorn for over ten years.
Males here, females there
As a passionate nature photographer from the region he is very familiar with Alpine animals and knows where to find them – and who is seen with whom. “Males and females live separately”, explains Urs when the group stops to take a breather on Burgfeldstand. “The females live together with their young. At two to three years, the males are mature and then live in loose bachelor groups. Many of the older males prefer to be alone.”
Ibex are easily recognised by their impressive horns. Urs brought a variety of horns along and shows them to his guests: “The females tend to have short horns, barely curved, while the males have curved horns and they can be as much as a metre long. They need these especially when they fight for the hierarchy within the herd.”
Capra ibex – Alpine Ibex
Ibex can clamber up to giddy heights of 3,500 m – and down again. And up again. In summer, they like to graze on Alpine meadows, heading up to the mountains before nightfall to sleep.
Habitat: above the treeline in the Alps
Size: head-body length 115 – 170 cm
Weight: 35 – 150 kg
Life expectancy: > 20 years
Shortly before reaching the Gemmenalphorn the binoculars are definitely packed away. A large herd of females with their young is ambling around, right next to the hiking trail. The group slowly passes. The animals calmly continue to graze. They are not bothered by the curiosity of the visitors and by their cameras.
«Luckily», we might say today, as we go home with lots of fantastic wildlife shots in the camera.
A picture that perfectly reflects the Swiss Alps
But this wasn’t always the case. At the beginning of the 19th century there were no ibex left in Switzerland. The animals were hunted to extinction because of their meat and their healing powers.
“Our ibex are actually Italians”, says Urs with a smile. “They came from the Alps in northern Italy. About 100 years ago, young animals were smuggled into Switzerland by poachers – against the will of the King of Italy.”