The Coto Doņana National Park
By Mike McDougall
Located across three provinces of Andalusia, the Doñana National Park is a huge wetland area and one of Spain's most important wildlife centres covering a massive area of 1300 sq km. It is Europe's largest national park and has been declared as a UNESCO biosphere reserve for its important role as a habitat for migratory birds, mammals and amphibians, and contains a wide variety of ecosystems capable of sustaining this huge wildlife community.
Doñana's allure has not just come to light recently – as early as the 13th century, the Castilian Kings set aside part of the area as a royal hunting estate. In recent years the increase of land development and farming has threatened to encroach on Donana's rich ecosystems and the work of pioneering conservationists like Guy Mountford, has helped to educate people about Doñana and how precious a resource it is.
A favourite with ornithologists, the Doñana reserve is home to massive community of migratory birds. The location of the site on the main migration routes between Europe and Africa means that as many as 250 species can be found in the reserve each year including flamingos, vultures and spoonbills to name but a few. The park is also home to one of the world's largest colonies of the Spanish Imperial Eagle with 20 pairs of the majestic birds thought to reside in the reserve. The best times for birdwatchers are considered to be between the spring and autumn months but during the winter period the reserve is also home to vast flocks of wildfowl, geese and ducks that arrive in Doñana thanks to the autumn rains and the high water levels. At the onset of spring, so the waters begin to recede slightly and thousands upon thousands of birds fly in to breed or recoup for the long journey ahead, from the Spoonbill's arriving from North Africa, to the magnificently coloured Bee-eaters. The summer months see the wetlands begin to dry and many of the spring visitors depart with temperatures hitting 40 degrees Celsius leaving the way clear for the summer residents. Amongst the numerous species on display are Griffon Vultures, Booted Eagles, Red-necked Nightjars and the fantastically coloured Hoopoe.
The Doñana National Park is not only home to birds though, there is also a fairly large population of mammals; the most famous of which being the highly endangered Iberian Lynx (in fact the closest to extinction of all the big cat species). Donana is one of only two places where there is thought to be a breeding community of these nocturnal hunters. Other species that call the park home are the rare Egyptian mongoose as well as badgers, otters, rabbits and wild boar.
However it hasn't all been plain sailing for National Park – the ever growing tourist industry threatens to encroach and also creates with it a greater demand for water. The WWF have already highlighted that in 20 years tourism could literally dry up many of Europe's remaining wetland areas. But by far the most serious incident occurred in 1998 when a multinational mining firm released millions of litres of toxic sludge, containing traces of heavy metals, into the Guadimar River. Thousands of fish and birds were killed by what was Spain's greatest environmental disaster and only huge relief effort by the Spanish government and the EU stopped the water spilling into the Doñana area. Emergency dykes were built and thousands on tons of sludge was removed in an attempt to keep Doñana contamination free – for many the incident displayed just how fragile the area is and how steps must be taken to safeguard it and equally how important it is to make sure that species like the Imperial Eagle and the Iberian Lynx are not driven to extinction. Although access to the area is restricted there are still numerous visitors' centres as well as excellent facilities for birdwatchers, but it shouldn't just be ornithologists who take something amazing from Doñana, it should be a inspiration to us all.
About the Author
Mike McDougall has five years experience working as a travel writer and marketeer. He is currenlty working to provide additional content for Babylon-idiomas, a Spanish language school with an excellent presence in Spain and Latin America.
This work is covered by a creative commons licence
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