By E. J. Horstman
“What is the value of a wolf?” I wondered, observing two of them resting a few feet away under the hot Spanish sun.
Totally in tune with their environment, these two Iberian wolves looked out at the world through brilliant light-colored eyes. Sunlight spread across distinctive black-marked fur on their backs and forepaws. Their scientific name is Canis lupus signatus (signatus, Latin for “mark”). I was working with National Geographic’s Director of Remote Imaging, Kyler Abernathy and my expedition team to test remote cameras called “Crittercams” on these two captive wolves.
Ever since I came face-to-face with a pack of wolves in rural Indiana, they’ve had a special place in my heart. At one wolf sanctuary, I was allowed up-close access. For the first time, I was able to feel their coarse fur and look into their deep, inquisitive eyes. These were not dogs. There was no immediate trust … it had to be earned.
They impressed upon me a sense of power, intention, and nobility that I attempted to translate into a short film on the facility and its owners (seen below). With help from friend and cameraman Kevin Van Egeren, the film turned out well, and drove me to learn more and find ways to help wolves.
Wolves a World Away
When I heard about the opportunity to apply for a Nat Geo Young Explorer’s grant, I started searching for a wolf population I thought I could help. I found Iberia and the pro-wolf NGO Lobo Marley. In Spain and Portugal combined live about 2,000 threatened wolves, mostly on the Spanish side.
They hunt roe deer, red deer, and wild boar and keep those populations in check, balancing the ecosystem from the top down.
But I learned from Lobo Marley that for about $6,000 US, you can legally kill a wolf in Spain. Anyone can bid in online game reserve auctions, win, and shoot a wolf at 100 meters from a hidden blind. Wolves are baited illegally with slaughterhouse waste. In 2014, Lobo Marley crowd-funded enough cash to bid in an online auction, pose as a hunter, and win the lives of two wolves to spare them. This organization had guts, and I was quickly attracted to that. I thought if I could document this group and others working to save wolves that I could bring awareness to the plight of this threatened species.
With the grant I received, I planned to work with the conservation group FAPAS to attach National Geographic “Crittercams” to two wild wolves representing the two saved by Lobo Marley.
The study intended to not only track dispersal data, but also to inform and educate livestock owners on the ecology of wolves and how ecotourism can generate income. But convincing ranchers and livestock owners that wolves are worth more alive is no easy feat.
Wake Up Call in the Field
Duarte Cadete is a wolf biologist in Portugal. Our team including Kevin followed him and fellow biologist Sara Pinto as they tracked wolves in the field and checked camera traps for footage.
Duarte told me once how he was talking to a rancher about the importance of wolves when suddenly the man interrupted him. “Where are you from?” the rancher asked. “Lisbon,” Duarte answered. Lisbon is a major metropolitan area. The man challenged, “Then what the hell do you know about wolves?”
The Mission Ahead
Last year, the Spanish media published an image of a bloody wolf head hanging from a road sign. I think a lot about Spain and what’s killing the wolves there: road accidents, rampant poaching, government culling, and legal auctions. They’re still being killed, legally and illegally, but there’s no simple way to explain why. In March of this year, 20,000 people gathered in central Madrid to protest the killing of wolves. They yelled out, “Lobo vivo, lobo protegido.” Wolf alive, wolf protected. Those people want to save their beautiful wolves that balance the ecosystem. I wish I could have been there to feel the power, intention, and nobility of those people.
Wildlife is being wiped out everywhere. And if we lose predators, we lose ecosystems.
When I sat down for the first time with members of Lobo Marley, their passion invigorated me. They would do anything to help these invaluable animals. These are the people that can create real change, I thought. I wanted to help them. To do my fair share for the cause I want to use film to bring awareness to the plight of Iberian wolves.
Lobo Marley, FAPAS, Kevin, Kyler, and Duarte and Sara have helped me pursue this goal. I think the wolf can be a beacon for wildlife conservation. If you find this issue compelling, I urge you to learn more and discover other species in need of help. I hope that working on this issue will help to show that these animals are definitely worth more alive.