Ambushed // Portugal
The sound of an approaching engine stirs us out of sleep. Still drowsy I search for the headlamp around the mat and when its reddish light illuminates the interior of the mountain refuge I realize that the night has fully fallen outside. This means that Carlos is unusually late and we have fallen asleep waiting.
After putting on my boots and zipping my down jacket, I look out the window to notice, surprised, the headlights of two SUVs rushing up the dirt track. Something is not right. I can recognize Carlos’ green jeep but the presence of the other vehicle is not justified. Poachers, cowboys?
Foreseeing problems, I turn off the headlamp and sneak out just before the vehicles pull up in front of the house. For a moment nothing happens, just two pairs of lights and the sound of both engines still running.
All of a sudden, the door slams and a figure rushes towards the jeep with aggressive gestures and angry yelling.
In three elongated strides I step out of the shadows and stand in the middle of the scene, so close that I perceive the hesitation on the madman’s face. He could have not imagined Carlos having company up here, precisely tonight.
We are in the Peneda-Gerês National Park getting to know the work of the photographer Carlos Pontes, whose images portray the Portuguese biodiversity with a special focus on the Iberian wolf.
His rigorous documentary labour has led him to publish in prestigious magazines such as National Geographic but, at the same time, it has earned him the worst animosity among the canid’s opponents.
Despite the fact that the wolf has been strictly protected in Portugal since 1988, for many its presence is intolerable. Therefore not even here, in the country’s only national park, the species is free from threats, the main one being caused by hunger.
Since the protection of this carnivore does not cover the species it depends on for survival, the hunting pressure continues to deplete the numbers of its natural prey and starving herds are forced to attack the only thing left alive in their habitat: neglected cattle.
As a result, the eternal conflict between ranchers and wolves. A war in which hostilities affect all those who, like Carlos, reinforce the surveillance and protection of wildlife.
Last night’s assault in front of the shelter was not the first and, certainly, will not be the last one.
“… the wolf has been strictly protected in Portugal since 1988…”
“… for the majority of the rural sector, three hundred individuals are not few, they are too many.”
300 wolves confined in 20% of their original territory are the consequence of centuries of habitat destruction, poisoning and poaching.
Yet for the majority of the rural sector, three hundred individuals are not few, they are too many. They pursue complete annihilation, just as it happened in other European countries.
So who should be given credit for preventing the total disappearance of the species in Portugal?
To answer this question, we must leave Gerês and travel south, to the headquarters of Grupo Lobo; the organization that since 1985 safeguards the specimens that escaped from the ecocide.
Cátia Paulino is one of the biologists responsible for the fieldwork at Grupo Lobo and, in her company, we will discover the methodology used to locate and register the lupine population.
The first days we spend surveying the area, both north and south of the Douro River. We carry out transects searching for signs of presence and we check the dozens of photo-trapping cameras that have been shooting, hidden among the vegetation, during the last three months.
Visiting each of these devices is exciting. What creatures have been roaming the forests when they thought there was no one watching?
“… we will discover the methodology used to locate and register the lupine population.”
“… the inert portraits of a looted landscape…”
Reality hits us hard as the images are being downloaded to the computer. The enthusiasm of finding the cameras with thousands of shots vanishes after a quick preview.
The sensor has been triggered by wind and shadows, but except for a few foxes or jays, nothing has crossed these stretches of forest in the past ninety days.
Camera after camera, photo after photo, the inert portraits of a looted landscape emerge.
There is barely any wildlife and the little that remains is represented by fewer and fewer species. On a global scale, one million are in danger of extinction due to anthropogenic causes.
But in the same way that we are capable of ruining our natural heritage, we are also able to protect it.
A worldwide movement is opposing this destructive trend and we set out to meet its leaders in Portugal.
“A worldwide movement is facing this destructive trend…”
In the Greater Côa Valley, thousands of hectares have been bought in the last year by Rewilding Portugal with a very clear objective: to rewild.
By boosting the regenerative power of nature through strategic interventions, they aim to recover favorable conditions for the return and settlement of key species.
The liberation of a herd of wild horses carried out this weekend is the first of these interventions and the head of conservation, Sara Aliácar, explains it as follows:
“It is essential to increase the presence of herbivores in the Côa Valley since in recent times the number of livestock has plummeted in the area due to rural depopulation… As a result, many landscapes have been covered by young, often monotonous forest or dense, continuous scrub, both of which are of low biodiversity value.”
“Horses contribute to the break-up of the forest and scrub, which improves the conditions of the roe deer, ibex, rabbit and red partridge populations. This, in turn, increases the availability of prey for carnivores such as the Iberian wolf, Iberian lynx, Bonelli’s eagle, and scavengers such as vultures. Creating more open spaces also means landscapes that are more resistant to forest fires. ”
And while she is telling us all this in front of the river that names the valley, my imagination already sets out to navigate the currents rumbling in the distance. The same ones that bring life to the horses’ new territory and the future home of the missing top predators.
The Côa is a demanding river. A waterway intricately beautiful and full of technical challenges that, with no doubt, quickly pay off.
Wherever the rocks block the passage, we find the turtles sunbathing; in the sections where the willows have grown over the streambed, the egrets create their colonies; where floating carpets of ranunculus cover the surface, viperine snakes hunt the most unsuspecting amphibians.
We even enjoy the many occasions when the rapids catapult us out of the raft and leave us splashing downstream. A perfect excuse to stop and set camp on one of the many virgin beaches that stretch along the slopes of the canyon.
“A waterway intricately beautiful and full of technical challenges…”
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