The economic crisis has pushed the government of Andalusia into making a rare and controversial decision: to allow hunting in a protected area of the Natural Park of Cazorla, Segura and Las Villas in Jaén province.
Collado del Almendral is a small, fenced-off area where a few species of mountain goat, red deer, fallow deer and mouflon (a species of wild sheep) roam in semi-freedom. Now, hunters will be able to shoot them down for a fee that will go toward purchasing feed for the remaining animals, according to the Andalusian environment department, who point out that a long-lasting drought has left the mountains without grass for them to graze on this year.
The environment department auctioned off four hunting expeditions inside Collado del Almendral, which enjoys maximum protection status, at an opening price of 1,060 euros each. In the end, winning bidders paid around 2,000 euros each and killed two deer and two mouflon under the supervision of government officials. The 8,000 euros collected bought feed for the animals in the area.
"These are difficult times and we need to find sources of income that will let us meet other needs," said the Andalusian government delegate in Jaén, Purificación Gálvez.
Mountain goat, red deer, fallow deer and mouflon roam there in semi-freedom
Although there is no precedent for this measure in a park created for tourism and educational purposes, Gálvez said it was also justified as a way to keep hoofed-mammal populations in check.
"We need to optimize resources as long as we maintain the normal functioning and habitat of these animals," said the delegate, who does not see anything exceptional about the decision.
"This is not an extraordinary measure that we have been forced to adopt; it ensures the park has the necessary amount of animals and that there is no overpopulation, which could interrupt the normal habitat of the different species," she said.
Every year, the Andalusian department of the environment allows around 60 hunting expeditions inside the natural park of Cazorla, but never before had it allowed one within a maximum protection zone meant for nothing more than wildlife spotting.
Winning bidders paid 2,000 euros each and killed two deer and two mouflon
That is one of the reasons why the recent decision created controversy among local residents and businesspeople, who raised the alarm over the potential damage to the image of Spain's largest natural park, which is a leading model for nature tourism.
In the political arena, the opposition Popular Party (PP) said it would take the issue to the regional assembly.
"To allow the hunting of animals in semi-captivity in a small, fenced area is a blunder that seriously damages the image of a natural park that rightly boasts of being one of the peninsula's best spaces for wild animals," said Javier Broncano, a spokesman for the environmental group Ecologists in Action and a former member of the park's management committee.
Broncano said the justification used by park officials constitutes "another piece of nonsense," because the same money could be raised by allowing the hunting of any other animal living in complete freedom. He even suggested that, if necessary, the park could charge a fee to visit the area of Collado del Almendral to finance the feeding costs, which run into around 20,000 euros a year, according to the daily Ideal.
The area in question is located near the Félix Rodríguez de la Fuente Route, where the late naturalist and educator filmed some of the most spectacular scenes of his famous television documentary program El hombre y la Tierra in the 1970s.
The website of the Natural Park of Cazorla, Segura and Las Villas describes Collado del Almendral as a good spot "to effortlessly observe the great hoofed mammals that live in these mountains, where red deer, fallow deer, mouflon and mountain goats live in semi-freedom, so that one need only walk in silence to catch them feeding at one of the troughs."
"We don't understand how they allowed the hunting of deer at close range, in a place where they are defenseless and have no means of escape, and where animals are used to having humans around," said Broncano.
Many other people are questioning whether the hunting expeditions were legal to begin with. Andrés Martínez, a businessman who runs the website Sierra de Cazorla, even wonders whether the law allows this kind of hunting on public grounds. "The Andalusian Hunting Regulation establishes that this type of facility should be considered a security area [...] and if they invoke the need for extraordinary hunting to address overpopulation, then the animals should have been killed by Environment technicians," he said.
Javier Calvente, a PP deputy for Jaén, said his group will demand an explanation at the Andalusian assembly. "The government of Andalusia [run by the Socialist Party] brings ruin to everything it touches, and now it is being forced to allow hunting in the natural park to be able to buy feed for the rest of the animals," he said.
Calvente also pointed out that the former environment commissioner, José Juan Díaz Trillo, promised to invest EU funds in this area of the park. "What did he do with the money?"