Respected naturalists and wildlife photographers, Angelo Gandolfi and Elisabeth van Lersel, embark on a journey through southern France, Spain and Portugal discovering large predators, such as wolves, and look at their impact on the environment and the human communities sharing the same ecosystems. Here’s what they write in part three of their diary extract.
“There are no wolves in Ordesa”
“There are no wolves here in Ordesa,” the herdsman from Torla told us in Alta Aragona two weeks ago.
But here in Huesca, we discover a newspaper that speaks of a recent incursion by “Italian-French wolves” in the Monegros on the Ebro River and at the gates of Zaragoza, far beyond the Pyrenees. Of course, we are talking about dispersed male wolves that must have been born here between Catalonia and Aragon.
An ideal place for wolves to hide and reproduce is the Sierra de Guara, a huge natural park south of Ordesa, a real labyrinth of gorges, canyons and forests. Villages here emptied after the war, as was the case throughout the whole Aragonese Pyrenees region, so wolves can still travel unnoticed in the area today.
Also, these inaccessible lands aren’t fit for farming cattle and sheep. However several small herds of goats that were once abandoned and have become feral and strong; in fact, some are incredibly large and robust, with long and curled horns. We photographed a wonderful pack of these wild goats in Vadiello (see image below).
Luckily the Government of Aragon supports the presence of the wolf and resists the absurd requests of farmers who want them classified as an “invasive” species.
The Iberian wolf: a ‘political’ question
Our journey continues south-west to the Rio Lobos, where we enter Iberian Wolf, a sub-species of the Canis lupus signatus, territory. But first, let’s try to answer a question that puzzles many: why did the Italian Wolf arrive in the Pyrenees before its Spanish cousin?
In 1988, the wolf was listed as endangered species at the Bern Convention on the Conservation of European Wildlife and Natural Habitats, but there were different levels of protection for it according to the choices made by the various member nations. For instance, France and Switzerland didn’t question the ruling since they didn’t have wolves on their land, but they would later regret this inaction. On the other hand, Spain had a considerable wolf population located in the North-West, from Galicia to Castile and León.
Thus an abstract boundary was established, where to the north of the Duero river wolves could be hunted, while on the south side the species was protected. In theory, their aim was to control the predator’s native population in the North, while facilitating their expansion to the South, where they were absent apart from a small cluster in the Sierra Morena, Andalusia.
Since hunting policies and, let’s say, ‘environmental matters,’ were left to the independent states, some crucial regions, such as the Basque Country, Navarra and La Rioja, were able to adopt “zero tolerance” measures towards wolves, killing every wolf passing through the 150 kilometres that separated them from the Pyrenees, i.e. the ideal environment for the species to settle.
Light green breeding groups
Dark green wandering specimens
The map above clearly shows the situation. The small, dark green circles at the top right of the map mark the expansion of the Italian Wolf. If we update the map by adding more individuals in the vast desert wilderness east of Zaragoza (Bardenas/Monegros), we then see how close the two sub-species, Italian and Iberian actually are. Close by, almost separating the two species, flows the Ebro River, which is flanked by motorways, railways and human settlements. It would, therefore, be more logical and probable that the two species “met” on the Pyrenees.
To the Rio Lobos “River of wolves” and the Sierra de Gredos
Our journey follows the Iberian Wolf’s trail southwest from the Rio Lobos the “river of the wolves.” We pass through the province of Soria, once rich pasture lands, now with no sign of flocks or herds. What we do see is an array of “meat factories,” where pigs and cattle are tortured and slaughtered for us.
We stand with the wolves but also support traditional farmers and their grass eating herds. Truth be told, the independent states aren’t doing enough for this “natural community,” which is also a “cultural community,” comprising wolves, traditional farmers and grazing animals. For instance, in Spain the damage caused by the predators is compensated only south of the Duero and solely within parks and reserves.
The Rio Lobos is an extraordinary canyon, where griffons (vultures) and other birds of prey nest, surrounded by plateaus containing large forests of Austrian pines and Junipers and an abundance of roe deer and wild boar.
The river is not very long, and it flows into the Duero; we’re on the borders of the richest region in terms of wolf populations. However, in our opinion, wolf numbers are constantly overestimated in order to justify the growing policies in favor of wolf hunting.
These policies don’t serve farmers at all, as they know how to defend themselves, and it is well known that the wolf is capable of reducing its offspring. These policies only serve the interest of hunter lobbies.
Despite its challenges, as you can see on the map above, the Spanish Wolf managed to follow a course north-west of Madrid, along the mountain chains of Sierra de Guadarrama and Sierra de Gredos.
This route led the species to Extremadura, where they will find many problems because of the region’s specific way of farming, the dehesa.
We will talk about this in the next installment.