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The Alpine ibex and AI in Gran Paradiso National Park

Did you know that the Alpine ibex was once close to extinction? Researchers at the University of Zurich have now developed an AI that can identify individual ibex.

200 years ago, the Alpine ibex (Capra ibex) almost became extinct due to overhunting. Only in the Gran Paradiso massif in northern Italy did a small group survive, thanks to which the animals are now once again widespread throughout the Alpine region. Today, the Alpine ibex is a flagship species because its reintroduction across the Alps is one of the most successful examples of species conservation in Europe.

More than 20 years ago, Gran Paradiso National Park established a long-term research project to study and monitor its ibex population. Park rangers, in cooperation with researchers from several universities, are contributing to the conservation and protection of the animals. Alice Brambilla from the University of Zurich is involved in the project since 2008.

Alice Brambilla’s research at the Alpine ibex Project focuses on behavioural ecology, population dynamics, ecology, life history and genetics of the ibex population at Valle d’Aosta. In the framework of the project, individuals are captured and tagged with ear tags or GPS collars. This allows ecologists like Alice to monitor their health and their behaviour throughout their lives and to investigate the effects of environmental changes on population dynamics and the development of life history traits.

Alice knows all the animals that she studies by name. However, when she became involved in Triggered by Motion, she started thinking about developing an AI that can automatically recognize ibex without the need of marking them. Through Triggered by Motion, she met Laurens Bohlen, who with her help developed a machine learning network at the Institute of Evolutionary Biology and Environmental Sciences at the University of Zurich.

The application can now identify ibex individuals. One day, it should be possible to extend it to other ungulates, enabling wide-ranging, comprehensive conservation projects in the Alpine region.

Triggered by Motion is an international research network and video installation which combines trailcam footage from 21 different locations worldwide and aims to show how digitization is changing animal ecology. It was developed at the University of Zurich in cooperation with Swissnex and with the support of DIZH and Mercator Foundation Switzerland. In 2023, it will be exhibited in Korea, in India and at the Swiss National Park in Zernez.