SAN PEDRO DE LAS HERRERIAS, Spain — I meet Javier Talegón and the other wolf enthusiasts at 6:30 a.m. in the blink-and-you-miss-it town on the eastern fringe of the Sierra de la Culebra in the province of Zamora in northwestern Spain. This undulating mountain range, whose name translates as “snake mountains,” slides over the border into neighboring Portugal.
Talegón, an expert and guide, is keen to get moving. He bundles us into a couple of waiting cars packed with tripods and telescopic equipment, and we set off for a nearby ridge, where he says we’ll have the best chance of spotting a wolf. Time is of the essence, as the mostly nocturnal wolf we are here to see tends to move only at nightfall and early in the day.
We spend the next two hours in a line and in silence. Our eyes are glued to telescopes, but a dense fog that has engulfed the ground beneath the ridge hampers our vision. Then, just when silence starts to give way to the mumblings of small talk, Talegón spots something. It’s a wolf, a male, and it’s about a mile away on the farthest ridge in front of us.
Next to me, a biology student from the nearby city of Salamanca who has been going to see the wolves for a couple of years beams and says, “I come here because I like nature, animals in particular, and wolves are definitely nice ones. It’s always amazing being able to see them in the wild.”
Historically, the people of this region haven’t shared his enthusiasm for the wolves. Shot at to protect farmers’ sheep and a favorite target of hunters, wolves have long been considered vermin. After centuries of decline, the wolf population had fallen to just a few hundred by the 1970s, says Talegón.
But as this rural slice of Spain reels from depopulation, with young people leaving in droves for jobs in bigger towns and cities and the effects of the financial crisis of 2008 still lingering, much of the once heavily farmed area has fallen back to the wilds of the sierra.
The result? Fewer sheep, meaning less conflict, meaning more wolves. Now Sierra de la Culebra is considered one of the best places in the world to see wolves in the wild.
Exact numbers are hard to pin down, but it’s believed there are now about 2,000 wolves in Spain, with some 60 percent of the population found in the Castile and León region. Wolf tourism has subsequently seen a rise, and while official figures on its financial contribution are hard to come by, Talegón, who conducted a study with other wolf experts, estimates it generates annual revenue of about $500,000 for the area.
Even if not quite everyone is on board, the once reviled wolf could ironically be one of the region’s saviors, providing an unexpected boost to the local economy as well as helping rewild the landscape.
In what is arguably the most thriving town in the region, Villardeciervos, an incongruous hot-pink tourist coach is parked in the main square. From it pour 40 or so tourists who have stopped at the Remesal hotel bar, where they refuel on ham croquettes and tortillas, surrounded by pictures of hungry-looking wolves.
It’s here I meet Lorenzo Jiménez, the local supermarket owner, the mayor and a confessed wolf fan. “We have lived 11 years in Villardeciervos, and we came here for the wolf ... The opportunities in this area for tourism is great. It’s Sunday today, and look how many people there are. They come here for the nature.” He says there are several wolf tourism companies in the area now, which host domestic tourists as well as visitors from the U.S., Canada and the U.K.
As mayor, Jiménez has been working to improve the fortunes of both the townspeople and the wolves, and for him, that means trying to change perceptions that hunting wolves is the best option. While he says it’s vital to use economic aid and other measures to get people to stay in the area, he thinks the wolves can be an important part of this puzzle. “My main task is tourism and to make our town known, because already in a very small way the population issue is being fixed, thanks to wolf tourism. The latest studies that have come out make it quite clear that wolf tourism leaves more money than hunting tourism.”
Each year, Spanish authorities issue a certain number of licenses to hunters to kill wolves — about 140 in Castile and León — and campaigners say many more are killed illegally. A March 2018 study, which used data from the government, conservation organizations, hunting associations and the media, found more than 300 wolves in the region died nonnatural deaths in 2017, from hunters, poachers, poison, vehicle collisions and other causes.
For the 2018–19 hunting season, however, licenses have been suspended, and hunting was temporarily banned after the Association for the Conservation and Study of the Iberian Wolf, a nonprofit nongovernmental organization, took the Castile and León government to court. The court’s decision revolved around the need to guarantee the conservation of wolves, which are protected by European and national regulations.
A local wolf guide and a critic of the regional government, Carlos Soria Perille, is trying to go one step further and ban hunting in the region for good. His petition to that effect has so far collected 200,000 signatures. He says two censuses of wolf populations, undertaken by the Ministry of Environment in 1988 and 2012, were inaccurate and the numbers were inflated to allow for more hunting permits.
The Ministry of Environment said the censuses were a collaboration between the central and regional governments and “were coordinated by the best specialists in the study of the species.” The government of Castile and León has not responded to a request for comment.
For Soria Perille, wolf tourism has an important role to play in this community. “It can be an engine of development, a vehicle to change opinion ... That may be the future of this area.”
Farmers are more circumspect. One of the few remaining traditional shepherds, Alberto Fernández, is out in a field on the border of the sierra near Cobreros with his wife — also a shepherd — two daughters, 10 dogs and 1,100 sheep. “Before, there were no trees. Before it was all cultivation here,” he says, gesturing to the thicket of trees under which his sheep are clustered to avoid the midday sun.
He says working the land here is hard, thanks to a difficult climate and poor soil. “You plant a crop, and you have a 10 percent chance of coming to fruition. The odds are very small,” he says. For him, that is a key reason for the drain of young people from the farms toward the cities.
Asked what he thinks about the new boom in ecotourism, he says, “In the end, you need contact with nature, or else you go crazy. I know that I have to live with the wolf, because I know it will not go away. … There are ways of living together, and with dogs, I have no problem.”
The Iberian Wolf Center in Castile and León in the town of Robledo is dedicated to debunking the idea that the wolf is dangerous to humans and to educating people that the wolf is the threatened species. The center was recently renamed for Felix Rodríguez de la Fuente (the Spanish version of David Attenborough), who is credited with bringing the natural world into Spaniards’ homes through his wildlife documentaries. His work with wolves inspired a nation to view the animal through his softer gaze, and he was largely responsible for the Hunting Act of 1970, which changed the wolves’ status from vermin to huntable game, which means a license is required to hunt them.
When I arrive at the center, I speak briefly with Carlos Sanz, its director of operations, before he is due to feed the wolves by hand in a semi-wild enclosure — something you can do only with wolves raised by humans. He excuses himself and re-emerges dressed in elbow-length protective gloves and wanders into the enclosure. Watching are 50 or so people, mesmerized. We all stand on a viewing platform and watch as four graceful wolves trot into view.
“The wolf has been expanding its territory and its population in recent decades,” he tells the crowd. “Despite this, the wolf is still threatened by multiple factors, such as the destruction of its natural habitats, the fragmentation of its territories by highways, rail lines and other infrastructure, and especially by poaching.”
Sanz says that since the center was opened in 2015, it has received more than 100,000 visitors. “Most of the population is realizing and accepting that the wolf is a key element in maintaining the biological balance of the ecosystems in which they live,” he adds.
Victoria Rodriguez, a young biologist and one of Sanz’s employees, agrees that attitudes are shifting. “With the tourism here, young people like me come to live here because there are opportunities,” she says. “I used to work in a laboratory, but I swapped by lab coat for my boots.”
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