The Life and Times of a Wolf

For some, wolf music is as deeply moving as Beethoven's Fifth Symphony … for others it is a call to arms, stirring up mad hate, blind terror.

John B Therberge, naturalist

geoffpilgrimage277A slight frown creases Antonio Herrero Carretero's brow and a sadness softens his rugged features as he speaks quietly in his faltering English of the wolf immortalised in a photograph hanging on the wall. "It took me 22 days to capture that moment," the former Army sergeant says of the image which depicts a female wolf in that effortless, long-legged gait so characteristic of the species. "I had watched her often from the time she was a baby, the only female in a litter of five cubs." Wolf-watching is his specialty and he admits to a love affair with the Iberian predators that have roamed the Sierra de la Culebra region for as long as anyone can remember. Antonio's family roots run deep here where he was born, and like his father, grandfather and great-grandfather, he grew up with an awareness of wolves around him.

One of his most memorable moments was when he had waited patiently in a hide with his camera and telescope until a magnificent example of the species had come to within three metres of him. His heart hammered with excitement and gratitude for so close an encounter. geoffpilgrimage280Perhaps the time of his greatest heartbreak was when the wolf in his photographs, enjoying pride of place in the Veniata guesthouse where I'm staying, met its sudden, ignoble end. "I was watching the wolf through the telescope, as I had done so often over the past four years, when a hunter's bullet found its target. She fell to the ground and later I watched the hunter walk up to her lifeless body, cut off her tail and hand it to the ranger who had facilitated the hunt."

Speaking of the rangers who control hunting in the area, and decide which animals can be shot as trophies and which spared, he insists: "They are good people who are just doing their jobs." Money is in short supply and hunting helps pay for staff, vehicles and equipment. "Wolves were always part of the landscape, but they've also always been part of the conflict with humans. Hunting runs deep in the Spanish national psyche," he admits regretfully.

geoffpilgrimage279Times are changing, Antonio believes, albeit painfully slowly. The animal which has been demonised for centuries is now at the heart of a new and admittedly small Eco-tourism business funded by visitors who are prepared to pay for even a glimpse of a wolf in the wilds, the wonders of high-powered lenses allowing them to watch animals up to two kilometres away.

He identifies strongly with WILD10's theme of making the world a wilder place and points to the long-term sustainable benefits of wolf tourism, rather than hunting which he sees as a dead-end street. "When the last wolf has been shot, what then?"

He introduces me to the chief ranger who he says is the most knowledgable and respected person in the region when it comes to wolf lore and legend. His job encompasses the control of hunting and when a hunter pays thousands of Euros for the privilege of killing a wolf, he buys three days of a ranger's time to lead him to a possible kill. The walls of the offices where we meet are lined with animal heads and I count a dozen wolf skins – apparently all roadkills – and three mounted wolf heads, the taxidermist creating a vicious snarl that does great credit to all the legends about the Big Bad Wolf.

geoffpilgrimage276But increasingly that isn't the way a number of locals see things. English naturalists John and Margaret Hallowell have settled in a nearby village to be near the apex predators and run a small Eco-tourism business called Wild Wolf Experiences, specialising in game viewing encounters. The Iberian wolf, a distinct sub-species of the European grey wolf, now numbers between 2,500 and 3,000 individuals in northwestern Spain and northern Portugal although their future remains precarious in many areas. "It is one of Europe's most adaptable predators and is staging a remarkable comeback after being hunted to the edge of extinction," they explain.

In recent days their guests have seen wolves each day and experienced the mystique of the species. "Those eyes burning out of intense features have becoming the wolf's defining feature – an image seared into our psyche, whether we have seen it on a T-shirt, in a photograph or especially if we have watched them in the wilds," Margaret says.

geoffpilgrimage281Their guests stay at the beautifully restored Veniata guesthouse in a village adjoining the Sierra de la Culebra reserve where there are small resident packs. The guesthouse is managed by Antonio Navarro Penalver and his son, Antonio Jr, who tells me: "I love the wolf and get goosebumps whenever I hear one. It is a sound everybody needs to experience to feel the love, fear or whatever emotions arise.

"At Veniata we live for the wolf and we live from it as well. All of our winter guests come for wolf watching, while in summer their special interests are divided between the wolves and enjoying night skies free of light pollution. Sadly the local authorities have yet to recognise the role and potential of Eco-tourism and wolf watching, with their whole focus being on hunting. In time we hope this emphasis will change."

geoffpilgrimage278It is Day 99 since starting my walk from Geneva to Salamanca when my friend John Horler spots a movement through the scope. Antonio confirms that it is indeed 'el Lobo'. I have fulfilled a dream and seen my first wolf in the wilds, watching it for a few minutes with a feeling of incredible exhilaration and gratitude. "Seeing a wolf up close is very, very difficult," Antonio assures, "but seeing one from a distance like this isn't difficult at all if you know where, when and how to look."

Once again I marvel at the resilience and resourcefulness of these remarkable creatures, their survival instincts honed to perfection. Seeing them in this setting fills me with hope and optimism: it is part of a hunting reserve, a train line intersects the landscape between us, there are a number of minor roads, and to top it all they have little protection from humans other than their intelligence and highly developed senses. And yet, remarkably, they survive. I'm witnessing the possibility of humans and wolves co-existing successfully. Is it fanciful to imagine that there is a place in the sun for all of us, if only we can learn to partner with the natural world?

Geoff Dalglish

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

This entry was posted in Earth Pilgrim Africa. . Bookmark the permalink.