In a recent social study conducted by the LIFE WolFlux project, almost half of key actors interviewed considers that it is possible for the wolf to live in the region, but only if certain conditions are met.
The Iberian wolf population in Portugal is divided in two by the Douro river. While the subpopulation north of the Douro is larger and more stable, south of the Douro there are only a handful of scattered packs. Previous studies have shown that south of the Douro the Iberian wolf is persecuted in some areas and that its diet relies largely on domestic animals, causing damages to some livestock breeders. It was therefore urgent to understand the social context and how this situation conditions the attitudes of local actors towards the species. Understanding the reality on the ground and listening to local communities is extremely important to guide conservation efforts in the region.
Listening to local communities
As part of the LIFE WolFlux project, a study was conducted between August 2019 and April 2020 to describe the social attitudes of local actors in the Iberian wolf’s range south of the Douro river. The goal was to gain a better understanding on key issues related to wolf presence, addressing the complexity of the relationship between people and this large carnivore. Topics such as local knowledge, emotions, beliefs and opinions about compensation payments for wolf damages were considered.
Thanks to the cooperation of selected key actors, a total of 117 people from 20 parishes were interviewed. These key actors included livestock breeders, hunting managers, local authorities, conservation practitioners and nature activity promoters. The semi-structured interviews aimed to identify social barriers to wolves in the region and understand interests and context.
Results show that practically half of the interviewees consider that it is possible for the wolf to live in the region, but only if certain conditions are met, such as compensation being paid for damages or the availability of habitat and food for the species being ensured. This emphasizes the need to improve not only ecological conditions for the species, but also the national compensation scheme. The current system is often considered insufficient, raising criticism on several fronts. Some specific suggestions from livestock breeders to improve this system, are for the payments to be fair and paid on time.
On the other hand, a quarter of the key actors interviewed showed some intolerance towards wolf presence, which highlights the diversity of opinions found, and also the need to work closely with local communities to better understand the reasons behind this intolerance and the best ways to address the concerns of people in the region.
Results show that practically half of the interviewees consider that it is possible for the wolf to live in the region, but only if certain conditions are met.
Knowing other people that had sustained wolf damage was a significant factor related to attitude, underlying the cohesion of rural communities and the way “word of mouth” is trusted in these contexts. On the other hand, some livestock breeders that had suffered multiple attacks still expressed positive attitudes towards the species.
According to Sara Aliácar, Conservation Officer at Rewilding Portugal and one of the interviewers in this study, “What is experienced by one neighbour spreads fast between the communities, particularly between peers, and it has a big influence on other’s opinions. We also found that fear of the wolf was associated to intolerance. Fear of the wolf might have many origins, but we found that the interviewees that had a positive experience observing a wolf in the wild realised that it has nothing to do with the ferocious animal they were told about.”
When rumour becomes truth
There is a widespread belief south of the Douro river that wolves have been released from captivity into the wild. Even though there has never been a release of wolves in Portugal, nearly two-fifths of key actors interviewed gave accounts of vans coming into the area where they live, and new wolves being released at night.
Belief in secret wolf releases, sometimes created by wolves moving into a new area from which they had been absent for many years, can negatively impact conservation efforts for the species.
This creates a challenge for all organizations working to protect the species, as some people view these efforts as suspicious. One critical aspect of the LIFE WolFlux project will therefore be to build trust with local communities and work to develop more positive attitudes in the region.
According to Margarida Lopes Fernandes (CRIA/ICNF), who supervised the social study, “The qualitative methodology used allowed us to better understand the local knowledge and practices, the ambivalence in the perceptions about the species as well as points of conflict and their reasons. To identify and listen to key actors in a neutral manner is crucial for conservation projects. The LIFE WolFlux project rightly adopted the recommended multidisciplinary approach, including social scientists working with the team”.
An exercise of mapping an intolerance index allowed the identification of areas where the project team will focus efforts to improve communication and hopefully change some ambivalent positions. A positive highlight of the study is that almost three quarters of respondents are positive about roe deer presence – one of the Iberian wolf’s main prey species. The LIFE WolFlux project aims to improve habitat conditions for roe deer and ensure there is sufficient availability of wild prey to reduce the risk of attacks on domestic animals.
Additionally, most respondents had positive attitudes towards the use of livestock guarding dogs, as long as they are from appropriate Portuguese breeds like the native Serra da Estrela and Castro Laboreiro breeds, and that these dogs have been well trained to protect livestock. This is another of the LIFE WolFlux project lines of action, as the project will be giving livestock guarding dogs to interested farmers, providing the necessary support and training to ensure they become effective guard dogs.
Can the Iberian wolf bring any advantages?
Even though a high number of local actors demonstrated tolerance towards wolves, less than half could point to any advantage of the presence of this predator in the region. Attracting tourism was only mentioned by a few key actors.
Even though tourism around the wolf is rare in Portugal, in Spain this is a lucrative and well-established sector, which brings many people to regions such as Sierra de la Culebra in the hopes of getting a glimpse of this elusive animal. In Portugal, Dear Wolf is one of the touristic operators that offers guided walks focused on the Iberian wolf. These experiences are led by trained biologists that ensure best practises are followed and that the animals are never disturbed. While Dear Wolf’s activities are mostly north of the Douro river, this type of tourism can be expanded south of the Douro, bringing income to isolated rural areas and stimulating local economies.
The LIFE WolFlux project wants to promote more wolf-related tourism in the region and demonstrate that the Iberian wolf can be a motor for sustainable and long-term development in some areas.
According to Duarte Cadete, Coordinator of Dear Wolf, “From the experience we have with this kind of tourism north of the Douro river, it is only a matter of time until local people understand the advantages this species can bring. The wolf is an iconic species which attracts people to the regions where it occurs, and they then stay to explore the other natural and cultural values of the region.”
Can coexistence south of the Douro river improve?
Efficient and long-lasting solutions are needed to improve wolf conservation and coexistence with people south of the Douro river. Collaboration between local communities, the government and civil society organizations is critical, as well as a constant presence on the ground – in particular, supporting livestock breeders in implementing damage preventive measures.
The future of the Iberian wolf in the area depends on whether win-win solutions can be found for both the people and these animals. The results of this study show that there are many people in local communities open to explore these solutions and maintain coexistence with this emblematic Portuguese species. So, can coexistence with the Iberian wolf improve in the region? Only time will tell, but we believe so.
Details of the study and LIFE WolFlux project
This study was carried out by Rewilding Portugal in collaboration with a human dimensions expert, Clara Espírito-Santo and in partnership with a biologist from the ICNF, Margarida Lopes Fernandes, who is also a researcher from CRIA – Centre for Research in Anthropology.
It was carried out within the scope of the LIFE WolFlux project, which aims to promote the ecological and socio-economic conditions needed to support the viability of the wolf subpopulation south of the Douro river.
The LIFE WolFlux project is being coordinated by Rewilding Portugal in partnership with the University of Aveiro, Rewilding Europe, Zoo Logical and ATNatureza. It is financed by the LIFE Programme of the European Union and is co-financed by the Endangered Landscape Programme, which is managed by the Cambridge Conservation Initiative and is funded by Arcadia, a charitable fund of Peter Baldwin and Lisbet Rausing.
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