Lessons from an exemplary private wildlife reserve in Spain

Global conservation targets mostly lean on public initiatives and resources but expanding conservation efforts to private land is paramount to halt biodiversity loss and recover wildlife. In their latest From Practice article, two applied scientists and two practitioners analyse a success story of a private wildlife reserve – the Los Barranquillos Wildlife Refuge in central Spain – which has been running for the past two decades.

Only 4.4% of the world’s terrestrial protected areas are privately owned and governed according to the Protected Planet Report 2018. Yet, to tackle the predictions of catastrophic biodiversity loss or attain the goals of the new European Union Biodiversity Strategy for 2030, a substantial amount of private land must be added to the current networks of natural protected areas.

What conditions favour the establishment and conservation outcomes of private reserves? Our team addressed this question by analysing a successful case study: the 454 hectare Los Barranquillos Wildlife Refuge, located in central Spain. Since its acquisition in 1999, the estate has been fully dedicated to wildlife conservation and has become an exemplary initiative. In our study, we provide suggestions for landowners interested in conservation, public administrators, and researchers to help establish and maintain successful private nature reserves in the future.

Following acquisition of the land, the immediate targets of the landowner to accomplish wildlife conservation were to (1) profoundly change how the land is managed and (2) obtain the legal status of a natural protected area, which was attained after a 2-year period of painful bureaucratic work. Some key conservation/restoration interventions involved in this process were re-establishing degraded vegetation by excluding free-range cattle, fostering keystone rabbit populations to sustain carnivore populations, maintaining water bodies to provide drinking points and foster aquatic animal populations, and introducing nest boxes for birds and bats.

Photos of the Los Barranquillos Wildlife Refuge illustrating some conservation actions: a) small dam, b) master’s students of Ecosystem Restoration, c) refuges for rabbits, d) small crops, e) drinking points, f) nest boxes

In a second step, the reserve followed two additional targets: (3) pro-active participation in relevant conservation programmes and (4) fostering education, training and dissemination activities. Los Barranquillos now contributes to conservation programmes for the highly threatened Iberian lynx Lynx pardinus and the Spanish imperial eagle Aquila adalberti. Twelve Iberian lynxes have been released in the Refuge since 2014 as part of a reintroduction programme, and one female lynx established her territory partially inside the Refuge and four others in its surroundings. Five imperial eagle pairs breed within a 10-km radius and they often use the Refuge as a hunting ground.

The Wildlife Refuge receives yearly visits from a masters’ programme on Ecosystem Restoration, students of local schools and a plethora of technicians and practitioners from conservation NGOs and public administrators. It is an established area for annual bird surveys and ringing under SEO-BirdLife protocols and a testing point of Virtual Biodiversity, a citizen science network that inventories and monitors biodiversity based on picture hunting. It recently produced an open, itinerant exhibition to communicate the conservation values of the Mediterranean biome and, particularly, the biodiversity and associated functions in the Wildlife Refuge.

Exhibition to spread the biodiversity and values of the Wildlife Refuge. Photo © José M. Sierra

The landowner’s intrinsic motivation was the major enabling factor that drove the creation of the reserve; stemming from conservation ethic, personal identity, and the desire to share and educate others of the multiple values of nature. Several external conditions, such as accessibility and appropriate reserve size, sufficient funding, a positive and pro-active relationship with multiple stakeholders, a protected area status, and the capacity to make decisions independently have then helped sustain the project.

As a result, Los Barranquillos Wildlife Refuge hosts a rich diversity of habitats and species. Five habitat types of conservation interest, 42 tree and shrub species, 164 herbaceous species, 20 species of amphibians and reptiles, 109 bird species, and 20 mammal species have been detected on the estate.

“Public policy should reduce the bureaucratic burden to motivate landowners and provide them technical advice, trust, and financial incentives to expand conservation on private land”, the landowner claims. As a message for other landowners, he notes that “there is nothing like the satisfaction of seeing our extraordinary flora and fauna recolonise and flourish on your own property – it is a great way to return something to the world”.

Read the full research: “Enabling conditions for the implementation and conservation outcomes of a private nature reserve” in Issue 1:1 of Ecological Solutions and Evidence.

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