Successful, well-funded conservation programs and effective international coordination with other European nations have established Switzerland as an internationally renowned destination for nature lovers, conservationists and more.
The Swiss Alps, glaciers and vast alpine meadows of Switzerland have captured the interests of people across the globe for their undeniable natural beauty. These wild spaces have given Switzerland a well-deserved reputation as an ideal location for luxury travel. What’s often unknown, however, is the transformation Switzerland has undergone to recover from years of misinformation and poor management that led to the extinction of multiple species. Switzerland has undergone a conservation revolution aimed at rewilding the Alps to bring back bearded vultures, wolves, lynx and brown bears.
Wildlife in Decline
The combination of reduced habitat, increased human-wildlife conflict and cultural misunderstandings preceded the complete disappearance of bearded vultures, wolves, lynx, and brown bears in Switzerland.
The 20th century was an unfortunate time for many of Switzerland’s carnivore species. Similar to other countries across Europe and North America, the 19th and 20th centuries brought about the industrial revolution and widespread development in Switzerland. As populations grew, so did urban development and the need to expand farmlands to feed the growing country.
Thousands of acres of airable lush, rolling terrain were transformed into farmland, greatly reducing habitats for wildlife. This process brought humans and livestock closer to many carnivore species like wolves and lynx. Additionally, the industrial revolution brought about technological advancements that caused the rapid growth of industries like logging and hunting.
Though seemingly unlikely, a driver of the extinction of carnivores was the development of the printing press. The hunting industry expanded as fears and narratives of these species started to permeate through the budding news and tabloid industry. One example is that of the Bearded vulture. The bearded vulture, a species that has a 10 feet wingspan, gained the name lammergeier across Switzerland, meaning “sheep killer.” The bearded vulture, much like wolves, bears and lynx, was widely feared, seen as a major threat to livestock and people. These fears were further reinforced by tabloids that published stories of these large birds stealing sheep from farmers. Even more alarming were the stories of bearded vultures carrying children away. Thankfully, this fear was largely misplaced, being that the talons of bearded vultures aren’t even adapted to carrying prey, nonetheless, a child. Even more so, bearded vultures have a diet that consists mostly of bones and bone marrow. The last bearded vulture was seen in 1913; their decline was heavily linked to the decline of other wildlife species, whose bones provided food for the vultures.
Narratives like this also were a major factor in the disappearance of the brown bear, which was often referred to as the “killers of the mountains.” The brown bear went extinct in 1904, the last one being shot and killed by two Swiss soldiers. This event made national news at the time and ended up being depicted on a postcard.
The lynx was last seen in Switzerland in 1904 and had been gradually losing habitat and food sources for decades. Excessive hunting due to fears of widespread livestock attacks was a big factor. Wolves faced widespread eradication across Europe, beginning in the 1600s, after similar fears of threats to livestock, and these fears were also wildly present across Switzerland.
Rewilding the Alps to Restore Wildlife in the Heart of Europe
People’s actions on individual and societal levels throughout the 19th and 20th centuries caused significant harm to wildlife and the environment. This time period, due to societal advancements and unmitigated expansion, impacted entire ecosystems and caused the disappearance of bearded vultures, wolves, lynx and brown bears.
This isn’t a story of defeat, though; the success of various conservation programs in Switzerland has established the country as a global force for change. Despite the troubling disappearance of so many species, the past 50 years have signaled a great change for both people and wildlife.
Human-wildlife conflict was a major factor in the decline and eventual disappearance of lynx, brown bears, bearded vultures and wolves. Both wolves and lynx have been successfully reintroduced due to successful cooperation and collaboration with farmers. The Swiss government will now compensate farmers that lose livestock due to these carnivores to deter further hunting of these species.
Even more so, the Swiss government became pioneers in effective herd management practices, offering funding for farmers to get livestock guard dogs. These dogs are trained to push off predators. Livestock guard dogs are an essential component in successfully reintroducing wolves into the area.
Brown bears were absent from Switzerland for 101 years before they were seen again in the country. International cooperation with Italy supported the reintroduction of 40-50 visiting bears back in 2005. As of now, efforts are focused on creating and restoring quality habitats that would support brown bears hibernating in the country. Food sources need to be sustainable and reduce the human-wildlife conflict that led to those initial declines.
Bearded vultures were reintroduced in Austria, Switzerland, Italy and France starting in 1986; now, there are roughly 200 in the Alps, and the population is doing well. This was due to the successful bearded vulture program that started in 1978. This well-funded program is coordinated internationally and works to breed captive vultures and reintroduce offspring into remote mountain valleys. The 204 juveniles recently released back into Switzerland have successfully produced a new, completely wild generation of bearded vultures.
A standout within Switzerland’s conservation successes was the creation of the Swiss National Park, a 65-square-mile protected enclave that is the country’s only national park and the oldest park in the Alps, established in 1914. It is designated by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as a category 1 nature reserve, the highest level of protection for its wild landscapes and animal inhabitants.
Switzerland has long been a country committed to sustainability and is now home to the headquarters of World Wildlife Fund.
Explore the Rich Culture and History of Switzerland
Switzerland’s conservation practices have created new standards in wildlife management and protection. The practice of providing guard dogs is now used in different countries across the world. Thankfully, today the country has a widespread acknowledgment of and appreciation for these once extinct wildlife species.
Natural Habitat Adventures’ Wild Switzerland: Peaks, Lakes & Glaciers expedition is perfect for travelers who are looking to discover alpine landscapes and enchanting villages on a Swiss mountain adventure. Explore the jaw-dropping scenery of the wild Alps and jump on the opportunity to explore Switzerland’s sapphire lakes, wildflower meadows and sparkling waterfalls.
After years of efforts to restore native wildlife, travelers can hike in search of native wildlife in the Alps’ oldest national park, a strictly protected nature reserve home to ibex, chamois, bearded vultures and more.
Travel with a helpful, informed, and engaged expedition team that will lead you through total immersion in Switzerland’s stunning natural landscapes, whether by cog rail, train, gondola or hiking trail. Travel first class in carriages with panoramic windows that wrap overhead and pass many isolated alpine villages along our routes across the country. Admire charming villages, carved wooden chalets and maybe even some flower-bedecked cows.