Partnering with Wild Nature

Today more than ever before, life must be characterised by a sense of universal responsibility, not only nation to nation, and human to human, but also human to all other forms of life.

The Dalai Lama, Tibetan leader-in-exile

The headline in Spain’s La Nueva Espana newspaper shouts the good news: “Somieda full of visitors because of the bears!” At a time when talk of economic crisis is still on everybody’s lips, here’s a happy story about a healthy collaboration between humans and their wild cousins.

GeoffPilgrimage265Of course, one could argue that the endangered European brown bears are silent and unwitting partners, but there’s no denying that their future is now more secure thanks to an empathetic approach by role-players in the Somiedo Natural Park in the heart of the Cantabrian Mountains of Northern Spain.

“It’s a win-win situation for all,” biologist Fernando Ballesteros of the Brown Bear Foundation declares. “Three or four years ago there were only a handful of specialists interested in seeing the bears, and now suddenly many are discovering that bear watching can be a profoundly emotional experience.”

The Park has strict controls to protect the animals and ensure that humans keep their distance while also encouraging locals to engage in responsible low-impact tourism initiatives.

GeoffPilgrimage266English visitor Virginia Bird insists: “They are magical creatures and it is so sad to think that most of Europe has been without bears for 400 years.” She’s part of an enthusiastic group of British naturalists and is overjoyed at the richness of her Somiedo sightings: “We’ve been incredibly lucky and have seen bears in each of 10 separate outings. We picked the best week of the season.”

She’s so enthralled with her abundant nature experience that she’s gathered up some bear faeces to show her granddaughter and grand nephews back home. “They’ll be very interested in the bear poo,” she says knowingly.

I’m in place long before sunrise, braving the early morning chill as I scan the boulder-strewn mountainside across the valley through powerful binoculars. Suddenly there are excited whispers from my guides Fernando and his colleague Marcos Simon. A young female emerges from the forest and makes her way towards tasty berry bushes – it’s breakfast time for the bears, who of necessity are mostly vegetarian these days!

GeoffPilgrimage267The first rays of sunlight glint on telescopes, binoculars and telephoto lenses positioned in a nearby village which is becoming the epicentre of a new bear watching business that has valuable spin-offs for the region at a time when it is critically needed.

The invitation from WILD10 and the forthcoming World Wilderness Congress is to “Make the World a Wilder Place” and Somiedo offers a dramatic illustration of possibilities, showcasing the potential for a new nature-based economy that isn’t damaging to the environment.

Everyone I speak to is proud to be associated with this iconic species and believes that a healthy co-habitation between humans and nature is not only feasible, but desirable.

The municipal area and the Park share the same boundaries and a common vision, with strict controls to ensure there are no big hotels (36 beds is the limit), no mass tourism businesses and no motorised sports like quad bikes, jet skis or powerboats. Visitors are encouraged to tread lightly and explore nature’s bounty on foot.
The Brown Bear Foundation has facilitated meetings between farmers, hunters and bee-keepers from outlying areas and their counterparts in Somiedo, inviting the visitors to ask all the difficult questions and find answers for themselves.

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At dawn bears emerge from the forest to feast on berries on the higher slopes

Charismatic mayor Belarmino Fernandez Fervienza is a former school principal who has been in office for 19 of the Park’s 25 years and stresses that it was the choice of local residents to embrace conservation and Earth-friendly businesses in what became the first Natural Park in the North of Spain and one of six Biosphere Reserves in the Asturian region.

“It was an innovative step to include villages and human activities as part of the reserve and it’s been a success, despite some initial fears,” he says proudly.

“Everybody knows that the Park is the reason that Somiedo is prospering and we all know that the bear has been the key to the success of the Park.”
And as passionate as he is about the bears, he admits that more than any other species it is the wolf that gets his heart pounding and his adrenaline rushing.

As a very young child he remembers his father shooting a wolf that had been preying on the family’s goats and he recalls bigger boys carrying the dead animal into the village and being greeted as conquering heroes.

“The wolf is a very emotive and spectacular animal for me but I do believe that it needs to be managed, although fortunately it preys mainly on wild ungulates, rather than domestic animals.”

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Biologist Fernando Ballesteros, me, Mayor Belarmino Fernandez Fervienza and John Horler, a South African who has joined me on the second half of the Trail to Salamanca

Perhaps the greatest challenge for conservationists is to maintain migration corridors between wild places, and to make them safer and more inviting for a variety of species. In the case of the brown bear, this includes an ambitious plan to plant fruit trees along a corridor where food is scarce between the thriving western population in the Cantabrian Mountains and its much smaller and more precarious population to the east.

The corridor includes human habitation, roads, water canals and areas where there is little cover and camouflage for migrating animals, and it fills me with a sense of wonder and gratitude that their resourcefulness and survival instincts are so powerful. What a gift it is to share this beautiful planet with so many amazing creatures and how wonderful it is to be part of such an intricate and interconnected web of life!

Visit www.fundacionosopardo.org and www.somiedo.es.

*Bear photographs courtesy of the Brown Bear Foundation.

Geoff Dalglish

Geoff also writes for Odyssey Magazine as their Earth Pilgrim At Large.

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