Documents show the last Iberian wolf that lived in Catalonia was hunted down in the Terra Alta in 1935. It shared the same fate as the other great carnivores in Catalonia, thanks to the active collaboration of society and governments, who saw it as a threat that had to be eliminated. Wolves were believed to have been extinct here ever since, until 2000 when evidence of their presence was found again and in 2004 their return to the Cadí Natural Park was confirmed following an analysis of excrement samples.
Several Iberian wolves, one of them from Barcelona Zoo, were genetically sequenced for the purposes of this study.
The results of the analysis were a complete surprise: the animal, a male wolf, was not Iberian (Canis lupus signatus) but rather Italian (Canis lupus italicus)!
Fortunately the persecution of this emblematic animal, hated since time immemorial, had already stopped long ago. Thanks largely to Fèlix Rodríguez de la Fuente’s work to rehabilitate the species in the 1970s, the way people saw wolves has changed forever, and the new Hunting Act passed in 1970, which De la Fuente himself promoted, proved decisive in preventing its extinction. In view of the evidence of the wolf’s return to Catalonia, the Catalan government decided it was important to follow the development of the population here
This required organised monitoring, which fell to the Rural Wardens. A key feature of the project is the involvement of a specially trained dog to find traces, mainly excrement, based on which the individual wolves can be identified and a census can be carried out. When cattle are attacked, it can be established whether this was the work of wolves or wild dogs. Barcelona Zoo’s connection with this project first started when the Iberian wolf was genetically sequenced and now includes collaboration with the Rural Wardens (Agents Rurals) to train a new dog that will take over the work of the current “incumbent”, which is getting old.
The dog chosen for this highly specialised work is a Malinois, a breed often used for detecting drugs. The puppy now undergoing training is called Fosca, and when ready she will be able to distinguish wolf traces from brown bear traces. This is a lengthy process that will include socialising with the rural warden responsible for her, Gabriel Lampreave, who is in charge of monitoring wolves in Catalonia. Fosca has been learning to distinguish between the odours of wolf and bear excrement and to find traces of hair stuck to undergrowth or from an attack on cattle.
The training method used is as follows: bear or wolf excrement is hidden in a box and Fosca has to find it using her sense of smell and point out by barking where the trace is. She gets to play for a while as her reward. The Zoo provides the excrement for these “classes”.
Our collaboration with Rural Wardens will continue until Fosca is ready to go out to the mountains and “work”, a task that will enable genetic monitoring of the brown bear and wolf populations in our region.
At present two or three wolves are known to be present throughout Catalonia, thanks to photo-trap cameras, the monitoring of traces, footprints, attacks, excrement and their analyses. The figure varies, but there is no evidence for the time being that they have been breeding, so they are not yet regarded as established in Catalonia. This exhaustive monitoring will gradually show us whether wolves will end up disappearing, expanding their presence or even interbreeding with our Iberian wolf.