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Spain is one of the best countries in Europe for wildlife, thanks to its variety of landscapes, species and conservation programmes. With the highest number of Unesco designated Biosphere Reserves in the world, it is also making great leaps in the conservation of its endangered species, such as the brown bear and the Iberian lynx. Here’s where to see the best.
The Canary Islands, Spain’s group of islands off the west coast of Africa, are one of the most important marine areas in the world for whales and dolphins and a prime place for whale and dolphin spotting. Head out with professionals and not far from the coast, you might find a range of sea mammals, from dolphins to pilot whales and sperm whales. A particularly good place to spot dolphins and whales is off the south-west coast of Tenerife and off the island of La Gomera. But the Canary Islands are not the only place in Spain to see dolphins and whales; they are also regularly spotted off the northern regions of Asturias, Galicia, the Basque Country, as well as the Balearic Islands in the Mediterranean Sea.
Spain’s brown bears, found in the Cantabrian mountains and Pyrenees in northern Spain, have been protected as an endangered species since 1973. Conservation efforts, led by NGOs like the Fundación Oso Pardo (the Brown Bear Foundation) have been leading highly successful incentives; numbers have been steadily rising over the past decade. Various ecotourism companies, such as Spanish company Two Birds One Stone, offer bear spotting experiences led by expert guides committed to the conservation and protection of the species.
The Iberian lynx is the most endangered feline species in the wild, but thanks to Spanish breeding programmes, the population is slowly growing, rising from under 100 in 2002 to over 400 today. The programmes breed the big cats in captivity then release them into the wild. Specialist guides arrange sightings in the Doñana National Park and the nature reserves in the Sierra Morena in southern Spain. You can also visit one of the breeding centres for Iberian lynx in the Jerez de la Frontera zoo and botanical gardens.
The Iberian wolf is a grey-coloured species that can be found in north-western Spain and northern Portugal. Estimates put the current number of wild wolves at around 2,000. Hunting is illegal in Portugal but legal – with controls – in Spain, an increasingly controversial issue (hunting permits are sold and the proceeds go towards conversation). The wolf was found throughout Spain until General Francisco Franco started an extermination campaign during the 1950s and 60s, which restricted the species to just the north-west of the country. There is a significant population of Iberian wolves in the Sierra de la Culebra, a mountain range that spans the Spanish region of Castilla y León and north-eastern Portugal.
Spain is a paradise for bird watchers who flock to the country for its diverse habitats and species. In winter, migratory birds head from Europe to Africa, while a diverse range of water birds can be seen on the world-renowned wetlands of Doñana National Park (also home to species including the Spanish Imperial eagle, Spanish red deer and wild boars). Elsewhere, mountain species can be found in the Picos de Europe, Pyreenees and Central System mountains. Conservation efforts for Spain’s vultures can be seen in Asturias, while the Iberian imperial eagle can be spotted in Castilla-La Mancha, where there are several biological centres and breeding programmes.
Witness this dramatic spectacle – part of the mating period – between September and October across Spain. Good areas to watch this male-on-male showboating and bellowing are the Toledo Mountains, close to Madrid and the Cabañeros National Park in Castilla-La Mancha, as well as Doñana National Park, among many more of Spain’s national parks.
Spain has some incredible dive sites; one of the most famous is the area where the Mediterranean meets the Atlantic, near the straits of Gibraltar off Spain’s southern coast, where you can spot whales and other large sea mammals. The Medes Islands are a small, group of seven craggy islands in the Mediterranean Sea, just off the cost of Catalonia and are known for their excellent diving, while the Canary Islands provide year-round excellent conditions and the warmest water you’ll find in Spain, as well as stunning underwater landscapes (and even Europe’s first underwater museum).