At Leica, we are committed to those working at the frontlines of nature recovery and conservation in Europe. In collaboration with The European Nature Trust, we have launched an ambassadorship programme, where we hope to discover more about the ways that pioneering conservationists are working to protect our planet. In exchange, we’re gifting rangers and ecologists the high-quality equipment they need to perform their daily work.
Letting nature take the reins
It was a curious day in early November, when ecologists from Rewilding Portugal chanced upon a colony of cinereous vultures in a region of Northern Portugal known as the Côa Valley. There are just two other colonies across the whole of Portugal, and this area was thought to be devoid of the species. But sure enough, there they were; all six sitting in a stand of holm oaks and pines, with beady eyes of black and cerulean blue beaks illumined by golden Mediterranean light.
The team at Rewilding Portugal have long known that the recovery of the cinereous vulture population is a big step for the health of the Côa Valley ecosystem. Vultures are scavenger species: they recycle carrion throughout the ecosystem and help prevent the emergence of novel diseases, which could pose a threat to sensitive wildlife populations. Their large wingspans allow them to make gliding flights of tens or hundreds of kilometers, using their excellent eyesight to spy carcasses from a distance. To Pedro Prata, team leader, their return to the Côa Valley was exactly the kind of phenomena he hoped would eventually happen, when he and his team embarked on a quest to restore natural processes across the ecosystem. ‘This was one of the purposes of our project,’ says Prata, team leader. ‘To see species return like this, and start playing their role in the ecosystem.’
A Land Alive
Working with a partnership of local and regional NGOs, universities and public groups, Rewilding Portugal aims to create a 120,000 hectare corridor for Iberian wildlife in the Côa Valley, where natural processes shape the condition of the landscape. In many ways, it is a perfect environment for the challenge: the Côa Valley sits in a key region of the Iberian Peninsula, where river gorges cut their path through granite-cobbled mountainsides; where oak trees and chestnuts dot the sun-strewn bluffs; and where between the Douro river and the Malcata Mountain range, the visceral howl of the Iberian wolf might be heard at any moment. ‘The Côa Valley is a rich and varied landscape dotted with a mosaic of different habitats,’ says Prata. ‘It’s so important for the Iberian Peninsula because it still holds the natural wonders and species that have been driven out across other areas of Spain and Portugal through human land-use change.’
Today, it is a landscape in transition, however. Prata and his team at Rewilding Portugal have identified an unprecedented opportunity to reverse an ecological and economic decline that has taken root in the region. Beginning in the 1960s, Portugal experienced waves of rural-urban migration. Seeking new opportunities in the coastal cities of Lisbon and Porto, many people have left their pastoral lives in rural areas like the Côa Valley, taking with them their livestock that would have once helped to control the vegetation. Today, a carpet of fire prone shrubs and scrub has risen up from ungrazed soils. Like so much of the modern world, uncontrollable wildfires are an all-too-frequent experience for locals. Contributing to the problem, non-native pine and eucalyptus species have been planted in dense monocultures in many areas; their seeds disperse and rise up from lands that now face little grazing pressure. As climate change intensifies, droughts are increasing average annual summer temperatures, which are swirling with issues of land abandonment and monoculture plantations to increase the intensity and frequency of wildfires. In 2017 – Portugal’s worst year on record for wildfire impact – 500,000 hectares of land in rural Portugal burned. The area is now sorely in need of new, innovative approaches to land-use, says Prata: ‘It’s not that fire is a problem in itself, it’s the frequency of fire we see today. We need to lower that frequency, and allow fire to occur at natural levels. Our approach is to create new models of land-use that allow for carbon sequestration and natural grazing, allowing forest and vegetation dynamics to self-regulate as nature intended.’
“It’s not that fire is a problem in itself; it’s the frequency and intensity we see today. We need to allow fire to occur at natural levels. It’s about bringing back natural processes.” – Pedro Prata, team leader, Rewilding Portugal
Rewilding Portugal’s strategy is to purchase abandoned and marginal lands in the Côa Valley, using private and public funds from the Arcadia Foundation’s Endangered Landscapes Programme (ELP). They are working to reinstall grazing to the ecosystem – not with livestock this time, but with controlled releases of wild and semi-wild herbivores – which will graze and diversify the vegetation, creating a lattice of more fire-resistant vegetational structures. ‘It’s about bringing back all these natural processes,’ says Prata. ‘In time, that will bolster the numbers of wild prey for the Iberian wolf and lynx, and create a system capable of self-regulation again.’ Their approach, they say, can help to restore some of the species that are currently missing from the Côa Valley, which would have once been the passageway for migrating ibex, red and roe deer, larger populations of Iberian wolf and lynx, and key scavenger species like the cinereous vulture. As the health of the ecosystem improves, fire management can become less reliant on local governments – often too underfunded to mount an effective response – and regulated instead by the natural interplays of fauna and flora.
Working his way through internship placements after graduating from his biology course at the University of Lisbon, Prata found himself drawn to this idea of working with natural processes for landscape restoration. ‘When you have a background in ecology, you look around and recognise that everything is not quite right – there’s missing pieces of ecosystems everywhere you look,’ he says. ‘It’s not hard to see a landscape of wounds, but what many don’t realise is that like wounds, nature itself can heal. That’s what fascinated me the most: the question, “how can we allow nature to be in charge of its own recovery?”
Part of Prata’s and Rewilding Portugal’s innovation, is the belief that nature can be economically productive. As the health of the landscape improves, fire-mitigation costs will reduce, and as wildlife like the cinereous vulture and the Iberian ibex return and populations of Iberian wolf and lynx grow, new opportunities for tourist-based enterprises will arise. Already, Rewilding Portugal had helped to get many local businesses off the ground with investment loans from Rewilding Europe Capital (REC). ‘In this sense, nature recovery can become the backbone for a region that has faced decades of economic hardship,’ says Prata. But it’s also about heritage: ‘the Côa Valley is a cherished archaeological area, holding 30,000 year-old drawings carved by paleolithic humans, representing the wild species that once roamed across the Iberian Peninsula. People recognise the benefit of maintaining these archaeological wonders, and of the castles and churches that dot the landscapes, but why not the wildlife itself?’
“Leica’s equipment is second to none in terms of quality, and that’s really important for conservation work: at Rewilding Portugal, our teams and those of our partners spend long periods of time out in the field doing monitoring and research work – it’s much easier if you have good quality equipment. ” – Pedro Prata, team leader, Rewilding Portugal