The wild horses of Campanarios de Azaba in the Spanish Dehesa
“The WILD Foundation envisions a world where wild nature sustains and nurtures human communities and the wellbeing of all life; a vision achievable when enough inspired people commit to practical solutions that respect, protect and rehabilitate nature and its services.”
Vance Martin, President of the WILD Foundation
The snuffling night sounds are unmistakeable as the animal enters our campsite, foraging and feeding until it is just metres away from my sleeping bag, my dark shadowy shape obscured by a clump of vegetation.
I roll over to get my first close-up view of a wild boar and the movement, accompanied by a rustling of material, triggers instant flight, the fleeing animal momentarily illuminated by the full moon as it storms up a steep bank and disappears from view.
Adrenaline courses through both our bodies and I feel excitement and gratitude that this wonderful wild thing has survived a night in which hunters have kept me awake, firing off hundreds of rounds, apparently with little success.
Using its finely honed survival instincts, the wild boar is demonstrating what is possible in a hunting reserve that could become part of a huge trans-border wildlife corridor if the dreams of determined conservationists can be translated into breathtaking reality.
Our Coa River campsite
Soar over Portugal’s Coa River using Google Earth and you see a green belt flanking the river that is a clue to possibilities. In the wake of widespread abandonment of farmland, wildlife is returning, and the dream is to safeguard an area where a variety of species - including the wolf - can again roam free.
Days earlier while hiking through the 800-hectare Faia Brava Reserve, biologist Joao Quadrado explained the vision of a vast wildlife corridor stretching up to 100km through the Coa River Valley and linking with the celebrated International Douro Natural Park. It’s big thinking at its best!
He’s the project officer of Rewilding Europe in Portugal and concedes that Faia Brava is but one small island of protection although its a promising start that showcases potential to farmers and other role players.
The Transhumance and Nature Association which pays part of his salary started with just 20 hectares in 2000 when its primary focus was on creating a more bountiful food supply for cliff-dwelling birds like the Black Stork, Egyptian Vulture and Bonelli’s Eagle. Already it has grown 40 times in size in keeping with a grander vision to safeguard all wildlife that is shared by many organisations and influential individuals.
Joao Quadrado, left, with Amala and John
It is just a matter of time before the haunting howl of wolves reverberates through the Faia Brava Reserve, Joao insists.
“The day a wolf attacks a horse or a cow here will mean that Faia Brava has the quality stamp of a top predator and a more diverse and balanced ecosystem.”
In the company of friends Amala and John, I get a preview of a proposed walking route through the corridor that will become part of Europe’s respected network of GR hiking trails, all traditionally marked with excellent signage and trademark horizontal splashes of red-and-white paint. Except this one hasn’t been marked yet and we end up hopelessly lost on more than one occasion.
Our meandering footsteps eventually take us across the Spanish border where we meet Diego Benito, who helps manage the Campanarios de Azaba Biological Reserve. It’s a pioneering project of the Nature and Man Foundation that places an emphasis on less human intervention while allowing natural processes to shape the landscape. This includes the reintroduction of herbivores including wild horses and cattle to help maintain the balance and stimulate biodiversity with their grazing.
It’s described as the first entomological reserve in Spain, and Diego says its role is to be a Noah’s Ark for fauna and flora that also serves as a laboratory for scientists and researchers, while welcoming organised groups with an Eco-interest.
Already it is the only place outside of Spain’s celebrated Donana National Park that is a sanctuary for the rare and endangered Retuertas wild horses. They’re descendants of the planet’s original wild horses and only around 300 survive, nearly 50 of them here. They roam a section of the 500 hectare reserve in the proximity of semi-wild Sayaguesa cattle whose DNA can be traced back to the extinct auroch that’s the symbol of WILD10. It’s an auspicious start.
If I were to return to Campanarios in a couple of decades, Diego hopes I’d be greeted by far greater diversity and perhaps even the presence of a species like the Iberian lynx, the world’s rarest and most threatened feline. The iconic predator’s stronghold was once the nearby Sierra de Gata mountains but the wide-scale planting of pine trees in the 1950s, coupled with diseases, accelerated the demise of an abundant rabbit population on which it depended for food.
Now, with WILD10 just days away there are exciting new initiatives and fresh hopes for a more viable and sustainable future. It’s about making Europe a wilder place with much more space for wildlife, wilderness and natural processes.
Diego Benito at the Campanarios Biological Reserve
An important player is Rewilding Europe, an organisation which aims to rewild one million hectares of land by 2020, creating 10 magnificent wildlife and wilderness areas of international quality, which will serve as inspirational examples of what can also be achieved elsewhere. The idea is to recapture the essence of flagship wildlife reserves like the Serengeti and Yellowstone National Park.
It sees wild nature and natural processes as key elements and believes that nature is something that doesn’t need to be managed - it is fully capable of taking care of itself, if given the opportunity to do so. Just let it be.
The programme for the WILD10 conference is rich in promise: Western Iberia was among five areas targeted in Europe for rewilding in the buildup to 2013 and plans for another five areas will be presented at the Salamanca Congress between October 4 and 10. The future is in our hands ...
The breed of wild horses at Campanarios are found at only one other place on Earth