One man and his dog: how an extraordinary partnership is helping assess wolf populations in Portugal

It only takes a minute to see that Portuguese wildlife biologist Duarte Cadete and Alice – a six-year-old rescue from a dog shelter – have an inseparable bond. The pair have been working together since 2015, and have come to rely on and trust each other intimately. By detecting and recording the presence of wolves in the Western Iberia project area, Cadete and Alice are playing an important role in supporting the comeback of this iconic yet endangered species. When the pair are out surveying this important area, the necessity for their close relationship becomes immediately apparent.

Alice the rescue dog has found a new life with her owner Duarte Cadete. She works as a sniffer dog and is playing a critical role in assessing Iberian Wolf populations. Photo credit: Markus Grosinger / Dear Wolf

“The power of a well trained and experienced detection dog is immense,” says Cadete. “Whether wolves have been in the area recently or not, Alice will detect their presence. She’s my best friend as well as my colleague.”

Working for Portuguese NGO Zoo Logical, a Rewilding Europe partner in the Western Iberia project area, Cadete and Alice have been part of the LIFE WolFlux project since it began at the start of 2019. The pair have been tasked with surveying up to 8000 square kilometres of territory south of Portugal’s Douro River, detecting the presence of Iberian wolves through their scat (faeces).

“Our work will provide a better understanding of how many wolves there are in the survey area, where they travel, their genetic make-up, and the areas which are most important for their conservation,” says Cadete. “This essential knowledge will help us to protect this keystone species and support its comeback.”  

Photo credit: Staffan Widstrand / Rewilding Europe

The Endangered Iberian Wolf

The wolves found in Portugal and Spain are a sub-species of grey wolf bearing the scientific name Canis lupus signatus (the Iberian wolf). They were once numerous in Portugal, but habitat loss, conflict with humans and the disappearance of prey species meant that by the early 1900s the population was in decline. Protected by Portuguese law since 1988, today this iconic species remains in a precarious position. 

Studies estimate that the Iberian wolf population within Portugal currently totals between 250-300 animals, occurring only in the north and centre of the country – corresponding to less than a third of the animal’s original range.

According to the last Portuguese census, carried out in 2002-2003, there are nine wolf packs south of the Douro River, representing approximately 14% of the wolf population in Portugal. Unfavourable conditions threaten the stability of these packs, affecting their breeding success and survival, as well as the connectivity between them.

Research carried out in 2012 revealed signs of a possible natural recolonisation by Iberian wolves along the Spanish-Portuguese border, with a consequent increase in connectivity between the region’s population clusters.

The LIFE WolFlux project, which is co-funded by the European Commission and the Endangered Landscapes Programme, is coordinated by Rewilding Portugal, which oversees restoration activities in Rewilding Europe’s Western Iberia project area, focusing on the Greater Côa Valley and surrounding area. The aim of the project is to boost the connectivity of the Portuguese wolf sub-population south of the Douro River by minimising human-wolf conflict, reducing natural fire risk, increasing tolerance and developing a local nature-based economy.

The work of Cadete and Alice is vital to this project, with the scat samples and data collected by the pair used in several ways. The frequency and location of the scat will provide a more accurate understanding of wolf distribution, which will enable better decision making when it comes to wolf conservation. 

The University of Aveiro is providing the analysis for the scat samples collected by Cadete, providing information on wolf diet and genetics. Developing a comprehensive database of genetic profiles for wolves south of the Douro will allow a proper assessment to be made of the genetic dynamics of the whole sub-population. This, in turn, will help to identify where there is a lack of connectivity between packs.

The wolf scat that Alice detects is helping to understand the frequency and distribution of wolves in the area. Photo credit: Dear Wolf.

Duarte Cadete and Alice are out in the field nearly every day of the week.  

Having such a huge area to survey means their work will probably last right through to the autumn (a similar survey will also be conducted at the end of the five-year LIFE WolFlux project). The pair tend to base themselves in the centrally located Moimenta da Beira municipality, a picturesque patchwork of small villages, vineyards, farmland and hills covered in forest and scrub.  

“Alice and I both love being outdoors,” says Cadete. “But it’s not about taking the dog to the limit. Dog safety and wellbeing are the priority. We both need to be in good condition to optimise detection and data collection. Sometimes we’ll be in the field for a whole day, sometimes half a day.”

A standard monitoring day begins with Alice’s morning walk and a comprehensive gear check. Cadete selects survey areas that contain potential wolf habitat, with monitoring routes typically following forest roads, agricultural paths and mountain ridges. Depending on the temperature and the frequency of sampling, the pair can travel up to 15 kilometres a day. 

Cadete shares a truly inseparable bond with his dog Alice. Photo credit: Dear Wolf.

Following her adoption, it took only six months for Cadete to train Alice.  When the pair discover wolf scat they follow a set routine, helping to reinforce that training.  

“The first thing I do is reward her,” says Cadete. “Then we play and have loads of fun. Then I recheck the sample and record data, and sometimes deploy camera traps. The data we collect also helps others to deploy such traps.”

Some days Cadete and Alice detect 10 to 20 scats, others just one or two. Yet despite the frequency of detection, the biologist insists that it’s still too early to draw conclusions about trends in the local wolf population.  

“We never see wolves during our survey work, but the animals are clearly there,” says Cadete. “But we need more surveying time to build an accurate picture of population dynamics.”

Duarte Cadete has been working with the wolf subpopulation south of the Douro River since 2002. Having studied Iberian wolves for so long, he feels a close connection with these elusive yet resilient animals.

“I admire wolves immensely and find them endlessly interesting from a scientific point of view,” says the biologist. “The more you experience them, the more you respect them and appreciate that we have so much more to learn about them.” 

Alice’s keen sense of smell allows Cadete to collect even the smallest samples of scat. Photo credit: David Thomas.

While it is too early to say whether the essential data he is collecting is evidence of an Iberian wolf comeback, Cadete is still optimistic about the future.

“People here need to get used to the presence of wolves again,” he says. “Good communication is vital in order to ensure humans and wolves can live alongside each other harmoniously.

“Alice and I are just one part of the jigsaw puzzle that is Iberian wolf conservation,” he explains. “We will keep going out into the field and doing our job, because a Portugal with a healthy wolf population is better for wild nature, and it is better for humans. As a holistic conservation approach, restoration and rewilding can help the wolf retake its place in Portuguese nature.”

This article originally appeared on 07/07/2019 on Rewilding Europe‘s website, and is reproduced with kind permission.