French authorities have started shooting hundreds of mountain goats known as ibexes in the Haute-Savoie region of the French Alps. A protected species, the Alpine ibex is renowned for its sure-footedness and ability to scale the steepest of cliffs.
According to local officials, 230 of the area's 300-strong herd of ibexes are infected with brucellosis, a serious disease that can be spread from animals to humans.
A spokesperson for the Haute-Savoie prefecture confirmed that rangers from the National Hunting and Wildlife Office (ONCFS) had been slaughtering goats since Thursday — a decision that flies in the face of environmental experts' advice.
Local conservationists and researchers say the mass cull is unnecessary, and could in fact help spread the disease by provoking the dispersal of animals to neighboring mountain ranges.
"It's a massacre and a mistake," said Jean-Pierre Crouzat, who administrates the local wildlife group FRAPNA and the regional chapter of the League for the Protection of Birds.
Crouzat also disagrees with the official numbers, countering that two thirds of the ibexes slated for slaughter in the Bargy range are perfectly healthy.
The spokesperson for the prefecture explained that authorities had decided to spare a "healthy core" of 70 ibexes, which had tested negative for the disease over the past few weeks and had been identified as healthy.
"Brucellosis is a very contagious disease that causes abortion in female ruminants," explained Dominique Gautier, a vet and an expert in infectious diseases among wild animals. "It can be passed on to humans, who will show symptoms such as fever, and muscle and joint paint." Gauthier was also part of a group of experts that studied the effects of the 2013 cull and published its findings in a report in July.
In 2012, two children from the region who had eaten unpasteurized cheese made from the milk of an infected cow contracted the disease. An entire herd of cows was killed and the disease was eventually traced back to the ibexes, which were reintroduced to the region in the 70s. In fall 2013, local authorities ordered the cull of 200 ibexes to contain the spread of bucellosis.
Gauthier said that the 2013 cull failed to improve the herd's health, serving instead to exacerbate the spread of the disease.
"When herds are broken up, they reorganize in a haphazard way," he explained. "Animals form groups without knowing each other, which increases contact and the risk of contamination."
After the failure of the 2013 cull, experts concluded that attempts to kill part of the herd while trying to spare healthy animals were misguided.
"The plan is clearly bound to fail for two reasons: one, you can never slaughter 100 percent of a [wild] herd; and two, there is a significant risk that [the disease] will spread to neighboring mountains," said Gauthier.
Based on expert recommendations, France's National Council for Nature Conservation, which answers to the Ministry of Ecology, voted against the mass cull on September 15. But the prefect decided to ignore the council's opinion, which was purely advisory.
Experts believe that while infected animals should be eliminated, the cull should be gradual. A better solution, they advised, would be to regularly capture animals from the herd, vaccinating the healthy mountain goats and slaughtering those who tested positive for brucellosis.
Meanwhile, farmers in the region have welcomed the prefect's decision, with the local FDSEA farmers' union describing the cull as a "way out of a crisis."