Respected naturalists and wildlife photographers, Angelo Gandolfi and Elisabeth van Lersel, embarked on a journey through southern France, Spain and Portugal discovering large predators, such as wolves, and looked at their impact on the environment and the human communities sharing the same ecosystems. Here’s what they write in part four of their diary extract.
An Almo Nature Farmers&Predators – aligned project
A not entirely “natural” habitat
We found it disturbing that Iberian lynx conservation was not being carried out in the vast natural areas that still exist in Spain (we talked about this previously), but instead in an area where, whatever route you take whether on foot or by car, you will always find yourself surrounded by unpassable high fences bearing a sign saying: “coto privado de caza” (private hunting ground).
There is also the Virgen de la Cabeza sanctuary high up on a hill in the middle of an area densely populated by lynx. Seen on the map, you would think Virgen de la Cabeza looks like a small, old rural chapel, when in fact it is more like an oversized tower that, during major events, hosts more than 300,000 devotees. That’s right, you read it correctly… within a few hectares, you can see a crowd the size of an entire city gathering.
In search of some fresh air, we decide to take a trip to a place not far from the sanctuary that we know quite well, the Sierra de Cazorla y Segura, comprising almost 500,000 acres of woods, mountains and springs.
Here, we meet a wildlife tour guide; he tells us that he expects to see wolves in these parts before too long because there have been sightings in Cuenca, an area east of Madrid with extensive forests. We were surprised to hear this fact since the species seemed to be heading west.
Some people argue that in the Sierra Morena, between dehesas and the hunting reserves, a small pack of wolves still survives, although on the verge of extinction…
The website andalucia.com claims that there are no wolves in the region anymore. However, in 2016 the Life Southern Wolves programme – a species recovery program – was launched, with substantial funding from the EU.
On the web, we only find mention of the initial phase of the project, but no recent news, so we requested information via e-mail, receiving a brief answer that they are still trying to educate and convince people… but we don’t have any data about the status of the species.
Lynx conversation efforts
The population of the wolf can be restored with the arrival of new specimens from the North, however, about ten years ago, people noticed there weren’t any Iberian lynx left, apart from two small groups in Andalusia, one in the Sierra Morena and one at the Coto Doñana National Park.
No one was doing any fieldwork; people thought there were lynx in Estremadura, Portugal and elsewhere, but they were actually extinct in those regions.
Luckily, the protection and repopulation program, though late, did succeed. From fewer than a hundred specimens, over 500 lynx now live in the region: 200 in Andujar, around 80 in the east (at Carolina and Despeñaperros), a further 80 in the Coto Doñana, as well as some groups scattered across the mountains of Toledo, in Southern Portugal and in Estremadura.
Overall, reintroducing the lynx was a pretty complex operation despite the fact the wild cat doesn’t face as many enemies and prejudices as the wolf does.
The heart of the project is located in the historic Coto Doñana Park, which is probably Europe’s most beleaguered national park. Its popular coastal marshes are often drained because the water of the Guadalquivir river is used upstream to irrigate fields of strawberries, tomatoes and other fruits.
Man and the balance of nature: preservers and destroyers
In the heart of the park is the popular beach resort of Matalascañas, which Wikipedia estimates has just 800 inhabitants. But in the summer, tens of thousands of people visit, resulting in lanes of cars driving at insane speeds, meaning the local lynx are in real jeopardy.
This situation necessitates the use of fences and construction of over/underpasses, that are highly expensive and hard to upkeep.
Another cause of mortality for the lynx is the scarcity of prey: in particular, due to the colonies of rabbits that have died due to myxomatosis. At the Doñana Park, there are now breeding areas for rabbits, with fences that only a lynx can climb over to hunt them, thus avoiding competition with foxes and other minor predators.
The protection program is mostly aimed at educating and convincing farmers, park rangers and hunters, while the repopulation program involves breeding the lynx in captivity, then reintroducing them into the wild in areas including Portugal, Estremadura, Toledo’s mountains and Cabaneros National Park.
The overall feeling of naturalists towards this program is similar to our reaction to the hunting reserves in Andujar, that is it looks like a desperate, and very artificial conservation attempt.
But we recently heard some heart-warming news: it looks like the lynx aren’t staying within the protected fences, but are also expanding northwards.
We will talk about this more in next week’s installment.
This travel journal is part of a wider project by Almo Nature/Fondazione Capellino, called Farmers&Predators, whose aim is to favour and harmonize the cohabitation between farmers and wildlife. Learn more by clicking here
To read from the first episode of this series, click here