Tirol’s “Big Five”

Last updated 07.05.2020Guest AuthorGuest Author

Here in Tirol, wild animals can be found everywhere: in the supermarket, at the ski lifts, on the walls of mountain huts and, of course, filling the shelves of souvenir shops. Admittedly, these are reproductions of Tirol’s “Big Five” – golden eagle, marmot, chamois, bearded vulture and ibex – and not the real thing, but they underline the significance of these mighty alpine animals in the local culture. We set out on a journey through Tirol to track down the famous five in all their weird and wonderful forms.

The King of the Skies, as the golden eagle is known, has always been admired for its power and beauty – though locals would often have to fight it off while hunting in the mountains.

The breast of the bearded vulture is naturally white, but their habit of nesting on rocks with a high concentration of iron oxide makes the feathers on this part of their bodies turn red.

Probably the most common sight in Tirol is an animal that is unfamiliar to many visitors. With their prominent incisor teeth, chubby cheeks and upright stance, marmots can be easily recognised in both the region’s mountains and souvenir shops. The range of trinkets bearing their image is almost infinite: tea towels, schnapps flasks, T-shirts – you name it, we’ve got it. On the walls of restaurants in Tirol you will even find real stuffed marmots. It is one of the “Big Five of the Alps” – a term derived from “Africa’s Big Five” used by hunters to refer to elephants, lions, rhinoceroses, buffalos and leopards. Their strength, power and beauty impressed visitors to Africa so much that they became a symbol of the continent. Though the days of mass hunting are thankfully over, holidaymakers enjoying a safari in Africa are still disappointed if they return home without having seen all of the “Big Five”.

Marmot fat is still used to make a cream said to have a soothing effect on the muscles and joints, though today it is more of a souvenir than a salve.

Many traditional huts and guesthouses have items of furniture where Tirol’s “Big Five” are literally woven into the fabric of daily life.

As well as their distinctive look, marmots also have a very distinctive sound. They can be identified by a high-pitched whistling audible on the region’s meadows and pastures during the warm months of the year. Chamois, on the other hand, can often be observed standing together in groups on sheer rock faces that seem impossibly steep. There are few sights as majestic as the horned head of an ibex silhouetted against the clear blue sky atop a mountain. And who knows, you may even be lucky enough to see a golden eagle or ibex circling high above. Catching a glimpse of just one of the “Big Five” is a real treat during a hike in the mountains. For locals they remain a symbol of the natural beauty that makes us proud to call Tirol home.

Exklusive Tipps

Want to know how and where to see the “Big Five” on holiday in Tirol? Click here for more about Big Five hikes.

It’s not only Tirol’s animals which benefit from the region’s commitment to protecting the environment – more and more visitors come to Tirol in search of natural peace and quiet.

Chamois are much sought-after by hunters in the region. The “chamois beard” is a soft tuft of hair which, contrary to its name, is actually taken from the animal’s back and often used to decorate traditional felt hats.

Signs of the role played by golden eagles and ibex in Tirol’s culture can be found everywhere if you keep your eyes open, from coats of arms and logos to works of art. These are an expression of the local population’s love of nature, a symbol of their pride and identity. In centuries past, several of these animals were believed to be endowed with special powers. The horns of ibex, for example, were ground down into powder and consumed in the belief that they would bring strength and resilience. The ossified tendon in the heart muscle would be worn around the neck as an amulet. However, this obsession had a devastating impact on their populations. The number of ibex in Tirol was decimated as the result of hunting, while the last bearded vulture in Europe was killed in 1887 (it was believed that vultures killed lambs, dogs and even small children). The golden eagle was always seen as the “King of the Skies” and can be found on the flag of Tirol, yet it was also hunted to near-extinction both as a trophy and as a competitor. Since then, our relationship with the “Big Five” has changed fundamentally. We humans are increasingly aware of our power to destroy and are learning to appreciate the majesty of nature. Breeding programmes and protection initiatives have helped rebuild populations in recent years. Instead of having them stuffed on our dining room wall, we are happy enough to oberve the “Big Five” in their natural habitat. After all, there are plenty of cuddly toy marmots to keep us company at home.

The ibex, shown here in the logo of Zillertal Bier, has no natural enemies in the mountains  – and is surprisingly tame when approached by humans.

Tirol’s “Big Five” are today all protected species. Breeding programmes and protection initiatives in regions such as the Hohe Tauern National Park have helped rebuild their populations in recent years.

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