A Unique Sanctuary of Mediterranean Wildlife

BY AWAKE! WRITER IN SPAIN

 FOR thousands of years, the countries bordering the Mediterranean have cut down their forests, overgrazed their pastureland, and hunted some of the wild animals almost to the point of extinction. Few unspoiled areas now remain in the region. In one part of Spain, however, a combination of circumstances has enabled a small area to survive practically intact. Its name is Monfragüe, meaning “Rough Mountain.”

Nevertheless, the remoteness of this part of Spain would not in itself have sufficed to protect its habitat. Fortunately, the farmers who lived in the region surrounding Monfragüe practiced a method of animal husbandry that proved invaluable in preserving a precious remnant of the huge tracts of native forest that once carpeted the Mediterranean hills. The preserved woodland was known as the dehesa, or “wooded pasture.”

An Ecological Farming Method

Centuries ago the farmers of Extremadura (the region of Spain where Monfragüe is situated) discovered that the forests of evergreen oak that covered the land could provide essential shade and sustenance for their flocks. * So instead of felling all the trees to provide grazing land, they conserved sufficient oaks to create an open woodland. They also pruned the trees to encourage their branches to spread out. The shade of these venerable oak trees protected the grassy pastures beneath, and their bounteous harvest of acorns provided nutritious food for cattle and pigs. Since this dehesa preserved a significant part of the original tree cover, many native species of birds and animals could survive.

Two rivers, the Tagus and the Tiétar, cross the dehesa, carving out canyons and finally joining forces beneath the peak of Monfragüe. Eventually, in 1979, the rugged area that borders these two rivers and that conserved the original Mediterranean forest better than any other became a nature reserve. The park was established because Monfragüe is at present considered to be one of the best conserved refuges of the Mediterranean ecosystem.

Birds of the Bible

Although the park covers a relatively small area, it provides a haven for the genet, the red deer, the wild boar, and the elusive Spanish lynx, one of the most endangered mammals in  Europe. Since most of the animals are nocturnal, however, a daytime visitor is much more likely to spot the magnificent birds of prey that abound in the area. Most of these Mediterranean raptors are also typical of Bible lands.

In the middle of the 19th century, naturalist H. B. Tristram noticed that practically everywhere he traveled in Palestine, he spotted griffon vultures circling overhead. The same could be said of Monfragüe, where 400 pairs nest in the rocky cliffs overlooking the Tagus and Tiétar rivers. At the end of the day, dozens of vultures circle above their communal nests, speckling the evening sky with their huge silhouettes. *

White storks, which build their nests on old buildings in many parts of Europe, still nest in oak trees in the Monfragüe area, where they thrive. (Psalm 104:17) Sharing the thermals with the storks are imperial and golden eagles, which patiently soar and glide, ‘looking far into the distance’ in their constant search for prey.​—Job 39:27-29.

More agile and abundant than the eagles are the red kites, whose numbers swell during the summer months. Also, the sharp-sighted black kites constantly patrol the park’s rivers, always on the lookout for fish they can snatch from the water.​—Job 28:7.

Other birds of prey, such as the eagle owl and the barn owl, take to the sky when night falls. The eagle owl nests on the isolated rocky crags of Monfragüe, a similar habitat to the desolate ruins of ancient Babylon, where the prophet Isaiah predicted it would also make its home.​—Isaiah 13:21.

Preserving and Restoring the Refuge

Wildflowers add a colorful note to the park’s appearance, especially in the springtime. The delicate white blooms of the rock rose, accompanied by tufts of purple lavender, cover practically all the slopes that are devoid of trees. And as summer approaches, the ubiquitous poppies add a splash of scarlet to the green pastureland.

Conserving this precious habitat is now the major concern of the park authorities. To that end, they are busily planting indigenous tree species to replace introduced pines and eucalyptus trees that do not favor the park’s wildlife. They also cooperate with local farmers in protecting the surrounding dehesas, encouraging them to replant oak trees whenever necessary. Hopefully, these measures will ensure the survival of this unique sanctuary of Mediterranean wildlife.

[Footnotes]

^ par. 6 The main species of evergreen oak in Spain are the cork oak and the holm oak. Similar species of evergreen oak grew extensively in Palestine in Bible times.

^ par. 10 The griffon vulture has a wingspan of up to nine feet [280 cm] and is one of the largest birds of Eurasia.

[Pictures on page 16, 17]

From left to right: Cattle grazing on the open woodland, a genet, and a red deer

[Picture on page 18]

Black vulture

[Picture on page 18]

Eagle owl

[Picture on page 18]

Golden eagle

[Credit Line]

Fotos: Cortesía de GREFA