Serial crimes in the Pyrenees – the terrible events of spring 2001
Most tourists and farmers using the mountains during spring and summer view this area as particularly pristine. Mysterious deaths and terrible illness is not what comes to their mind when they picture the wonderful landscape of the Pyrenees. However, the particularly horrible events of spring and summer 2001 remind us that wildlife protection, cattle breeding, hiking, and human health can all suffer due to human activities, even in our remote “pristine” mountains.
The story starts in May 2001, when the technicians of the wildlife office (ONCFS, in French) observe an unusually high mortality within an izard herd. We are in the central Pyrenees close to Argelès-Gazost. The izard or Pyrenean chamois (Rupicapra pyreneica, Fig. 1) is a goat antelope that we can sometimes observe jumping in rocky scree and on precipitous slopes, demonstrating its impressive agility. The species was hunted almost to extinction in the 50s. Conservation measures, as well as reintroductions were thus implemented, and a monitoring program was developed. Protection of the izard was even the first motivation for the creation of the National Park of the Pyrenees in 1967.
When the number of dead individuals reaches 56, out of 230, in only two months, the technicians started to worry. To understand what is going on, they decided to collect relatively well-preserved corpses for autopsy. Sounds easy, but it isn’t: the serial killer has unwitting accomplices. The mountains are kept clean by efficient scavengers, griffon vultures (Gyps fulvus, Fig. 2), cleaning up the bodies as well as the evidence within only 15 minutes.
In the meanwhile, mysterious deaths keep on happening at the crime scene. A total of 140 izards disappeared at the Pic de Bazès and all corpses were found within an area as small as 300 meters long by 20 meters wide, named “the death corridor”. Unfortunately, the impact is not limited to izards. Further investigations demonstrate the disappearance of marmots, wild boars, rodents, crickets and grasshoppers. Other, less popular wildlife might have disappeared as well.
Finally, in June, 5 izard corpses were collected and sent for autopsy.
The modus operandi of the serial killer uncovered
The forensic analyses conducted by the veterinary services revealed that at least one izard died of lindane poisoning (712 mg/g). The perpetrator is still unknown, but at least its
modus operandi has been identified. Lindane is also known under the poetic name of gamma-hexachlorocyclohexane (HCH, Fig. 3). It is an organochlorine chemical compound and a neurotoxin used as a pesticide, herbicide and insecticide. Due to its large spectrum, it is used in forestry to treat seeds and trees, agriculture to treat soil and plants, softwood lumber industry to treat wood against insects, as well as in medicine to treat humans, pets and cattle against parasites (scabies, lice, ticks, flees, bedbugs, etc). In France, it was banned in 1998 for agricultural use but is still allowed in the nearby Spain. However, many questions remain: how was the lindane transported to the Pic de Bazès? Who spread it? Is it the result of an accident or malicious intent?
In the last days of July, the case suddenly takes a new dimension, when a sheep breeder asks locale authorities for a specific analysis. He has heard about the poisoning and his flock of 53 ewes staid close to the Pic during the month of June. The analysis reveals enormous contents of lindane in the milk of his 5 lactating ewes (more than 1000 times the allowed dose). Now the media picked up the story and, during interviews, the breeder provided the numbers. Everyone is afraid, especially the 10 other breeders who had sheep, goats, cows and horses grazing in the same area. They also demand that their cattle milk is investigated. The results come back: unusually high concentrations (50 times the norm), provoking a huge shock in the population. Politicians of the Green party take the opportunity to hold a press conference and condemn the fact that the authorities would have tried to minimize the contamination and ask for an investigation.
Breeders are asked to not let their flock graze in the area of the Pic de Bazès. Signs are also installed to recommend inhabitants and tourists to not harvest blueberries and mushrooms. The signs mysteriously disappear, seemingly because of the high economic stakes during the peak of tourist season. The media also reported that, flocks are still grazing and berries are still harvested in the area, as if nothing ever happened, despite the official recommendations.
A human victim
There’s another twist to the story here. This obscure affair had a terrible new development when a man read about the poisoning in the local press and related it to the health condition of his wife.
The tragedy struck the family many weeks before the technicians monitoring the izard population became aware of the lindane contamination. On 15th of April 2001, the man and his perfectly healthy spouse went hiking in the Pyrenees. It was a sunny Sunday. After completing the ascension of the Pic de Bazès, the family had a 2-hours picnic on the grass only 200-300 meters away from the “death corridor”. The first severe symptom (paralysis) appeared only two days later. On the 19th of April, she went into a coma which lasted eight weeks. The mother is now quadriplegic.
Since the contamination was revealed, the wildest rumors are circulating in the surrounding villages about rivalries between local hunting societies, attempt to poison a bear, helicopter spraying by foresters, and a farfetched hypothesis: a military action.
The fact that there was a human victim obliged the authorities to launch a criminal investigation on the 27th of August 2001. Additional samples were taken in the soil, the grass, the water by the criminal experts and veterinarians. The new analyses were conducted too late to be conclusive. After the acute contamination, lindane concentrations decreased very rapidly. This is very positive for the environment, wildlife, flocks and tourists, but less positive in the case of a criminal investigation. The investigation concluded to a temporary pollution, obviously. To the question “who is the perpetrator?” no official answer exists. The case was dropped in 2002.
As researchers in ecology, we are aware of the implications of pollution for the environment and human health. However, these implications are rarely as concrete as in this poisoning case. I do not know how the poisoned woman is doing today, seventeen years later, as I could not find any information. Everyone seemed to have forgotten about this incident a long time ago. Surely, it is a long time without an answer for her and her family. I love hiking and I know many people who love it too. The poisoned woman could have been a member of my family, my friend, my colleague, my neighbor. It still could be. Indeed, seventeen years later, nothing appears to have changed. P³ may enlighten mountain lovers on the pollution state of mountain freshwaters and its implications for humans and wildlife.