Introduction to the Swiss National Park

As instructed, we arrived at the Swiss National Park’s impressive offices at 8.30 this morning. Ruedi showed us into his office and told us about his plans for us over the next few days. He said that today we should visit the National Park Information Centre for a few hours, then in the afternoon we could help to check up on a piece of monitoring equipment in the south of the park. He also told us that the National Park will cover the cost for us to spend a night at Chamanna Cluozza, which is a log cabin within the park. This means that we will be able to do a two day trip inside the park tomorrow and Thursday. Thanks Ruedi! Then he gave us his own binoculars and telescope to use for the week. Er, thanks again Ruedi!
The admin building used to be a castle!

The admin building used to be a castle!

After this we met some of the team. There are several interns working for the Park at the moment. Ruedi told us he gets about 100 speculative CVs per year from people wanting to be part of the team. He can only take 5 each year, so he gets the pick of the bunch!
 We also met Tim, who has just finished his PhD and is now doing his civilian service working for the park. He is a geographical information systems expert which means he can use mapping software to do amazing things with data collected in the park. He is currently working on a project that will use photos taken over the last 100 years to build up an accurate picture of how the landscape has changed since the park was created. This involves working out exactly where the camera was located for each one of the photos by using the skylines in the pictures. Then the pixels in the photos will be superimposed in the correct places on a map of the park. So much work, but eventually you will be able to press play and watch the landscape of the park develop ACCURATELY from 1914 to 2015. Awesome!
We went across the road to the Information Centre, which is a modern concrete building and provides a big contrast to the offices! We got info-handsets that teach visitors about the exhibits in several languages. The first room was great, they call it a “shower of nature”. Three massive screens showing you videos of wildlife in the park through the seasons. It was beautiful and a great way to get in the mood for learning about nature!
The rest of the exhibits were in three rooms, concentrating on the geology, animal life and human activity in the park. We learned about marmots and deer, ibex and chamois. We found out about the reintroduction of bearded vultures,  which began in 1991 and has been a great success since the first pair bred in the wild here in 2007. We learned that the park has three goals: to protect nature, to research natural processes and to inform people. There was so much information available that we left after 2 hours feeling quite overwhelmed, and I’m not going to try to explain too much here! Safe to say that goal three is working!
One important thing to know is that there is really very little human intervention in the park. People are welcome to walk the marked trails but that’s about it! No cycling, no dogs, no leaving the trail, no fires. It sounds draconian, but the results speak for themselves. Some of the species in the park are very tolerant to people. The marmots will remain within a few metres, and even the red deer will sometimes allow people to get quite close. They know that people who stay on the trails don’t pose a threat. So the strict rules result in amazing opportunities to see shy animals up close.
We went back to the office and met Cristoph, who is an electronics and technical expert. Tim, Anna and I were going to be helping Cristoph in the park. There is an infrared camera recording the heat signature of the ground on one side of a valley. The idea is to compare the heat signature with the different flora present, and see if there are any correlations. The camera batteries are solar powered, and they have run down, so our job was to see if we could work out why, and fix it.
We set off in the car and after about 15 minutes we pulled into a carpark outside the boundary of the park. We began walking up a beautiful river valley, past a disused alp. Alps are areas of grassland in the mountains where cows are kept. There is usually a building in the area where milk, butter and cheese are produced. The mountain range we call the Alps is named for all the alps it contains. We occassionally stopped to look for red deer that were sometimes to be seen enjoying the grass high up the valley above the trees.
Into the park

Into the park

The old alp

The old alp

It started to rain and got a little cold, but before long we reached one of the ranger huts, which is near the camera station. Tim opened the door and we shook ourselves down and went in to sit down for lunch and coffee. Luxury!

The rain soon stopped and we went outside to check the hills for wildlife. We were very lucky! We saw red deer, chamois and ibex scattered in small groups around the valley. Tim joked that we were only missing the bearded vulture, and afew minutes later one glided past, all the way to a curve in the valley where it circled a couple of times and disappeared behind a ridge. Such a cool experience! A group of schoolkids arrived with their teacher and a guide. They were a bit too cool for school at first but once they saw the animals through the telescope they got really enthusiastic, which was nice too see!
Watching the deer

Watching the deer

Kids unimpressed by man with antlers

Kids unimpressed by man with antlers

After lunch we crossed the river and climbed the steep hillside to cheek out the camera. Cristoph decided that everything was probably working fine, but that the solar panel wasn’t getting enough sun.

The crossing

The crossing

Cristoph checking the camera system

Cristoph checking the camera system

We decided to move the panel into a clearing a little further from the camera. This meant carrying the panel up the hill. Luckily Tim had brought a suitable carrying frame, and sure feet, and before long we were fixing the panel back into the hillside in clearing in the trees. That should keep the camera going!

I think I helped

I think I helped

Placing the panel

Placing the panel

Once we’d secured everything we tested that the camera was working by using Anna’s hand. Then we tested it properly by getting thermal images of the hillside.

First test

First test (see screen)

Part of the Team!

Part of the Team!

After that it was back to the ranger hut for another coffee. We tidied up for the Rangers (a matter of honour according to Cristoph), and headed back down the valley to the car.  A brilliant introduction to the park and some of the great people who work here!

– Dave

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