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.
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”.
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.
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.