Out of Africa: an interview with Iberian Highlands team leader Pablo Schapira

Posted: 23rd February 2023

Photo: Juan Carlos Muñoz Robredo

Located in central-eastern Spain, the Iberian Highlands is among the seven new landscape scale restoration projects funded by the Endangered Landscapes Programme in late 2022. Since then the Rewilding Spain team has been headed up Pablo Schapira, a biologist specialising in wildlife management with significant work experience in Africa. The Rewilding Europe team talked to Pablo, who lives with his family in the small village of Molina de Aragón (around 10 kilometres from the edge of the restoration landscape), to find out more about his work, his aspirations, and his reasons for wanting to become part of this ambitious initiative.

With significant experience in African conservation, Rewilding Spain team leader Pablo Schapira is the ideal person to take restoration forwards in the Iberian Highlands. Photo: Lidia Valverde.

How did you first hear about rewilding and Rewilding Europe? What attracts you to rewilding?

I first heard about Rewilding Europe about three years ago from a Portuguese friend called Joao Salgueiro, who did some consulting work with local communities for the initiative. I met him in Chad while I was taking part in an 80-kilometre run in Zakouma National Park, which is managed by African Parks, for whom I was working at the time.

I then met him again a few years later in Mozambique, and he told me how Rewilding Europe was continuing to grow, so I started following the initiative more closely. It seemed to me to be one of the most ambitious and impactful conservation initiatives in Europe, so when the opportunity to lead Rewilding Spain came up, I jumped at the opportunity to apply. Having worked in Africa for so many years, it’s great to be part of such an optimistic and progressive initiative operating in my own country, and right across Europe.

Most people in Europe have grown up seeing a depleted baseline of biodiversity and natural processes. Rewilding is one method that can be used to restore landscapes and the natural processes that we rely on. Photo: Juan Carlos Muñoz Robredo.

Rewilding as a concept is fairly new in Europe, but has been integrated into conservation approaches in other places, such as Africa, for quite a while. When we talk about bringing back species that have disappeared because of human intervention in the landscape, and restoring entire ecosystems and natural processes, this is relatively common in Africa, but is not generally labelled rewilding.

The timeline in Europe is different, because many people have grown up without any significant contact with wildlife species and wild nature, which means the concept of rewilding is both innovative and interesting. I believe we need to rewild for two reasons. Firstly, from an ethical perspective, we should do our best to restore ecosystems that we have damaged. And secondly, we need to restore nature because we rely on the benefits it provides us with, such as clean air and clean water.

Can you briefly describe the Iberian Highlands restoration landscape?

This is a huge and diverse landscape with a relatively high elevation – 1000 to 1200 metres above sea level – located in the provinces of Guadalajara, Cuenca and Teruel in central-eastern Spain. We don’t have big mountains here, but we do have big canyons. This is the source area for one of Spain’s biggest rivers – the Tagus – which has shaped the landscape, with sweeping pine, oak and juniper forests. There are a lot of raptors, such as Egyptian and griffon vultures and Bonelli’s eagle, as well as ungulates, such as the Iberian ibex, multiple deer species, wild boar and mouflon. But the top predators – the Iberian lynx, Iberian wolf and brown bear – are currently absent. But the wolf is close to where we are, around 60 kilometres away, so we hope it will come back on its own.

The canyons in the Iberian Highlands provide nesting sites for raptors. Photo: Juan Carlos Muñoz Robredo.

Long-term rural depopulation means the population density in the Iberian Highlands is very low – roughly two people per square kilometre, which is one of the lowest in Europe. This makes the area very interesting for restoration because it means coexistence between humans and wildlife is generally good. Restoration at scale has huge potential to benefit people and encourage them to return and revitalise the area, based on the development of a thriving nature-based economy.

What are the major challenges and opportunities for restoring the landscape?

As I mentioned, the local population in the landscape has been decreasing for a long time, which means economic opportunities here are very limited. As a result, people have a very negative view about the area and don’t see how things can be turned around. Rural depopulation also means there are many places where domesticated livestock has disappeared; when we bring back wild or semi-wild herbivores, such as horses, in place of this livestock, some people think we are trying to replace them and their traditional livelihoods.

Additionally, the Alto Tajo Natural Park was created here around 20 years ago, and communities were promised a lot of benefits. These didn’t really materialise, so there is naturally some mistrust towards anyone who comes with new ideas and proposals. So as we restore, we need to demonstrate the benefits of wilder nature very quickly, otherwise it will be very difficult.

Introducing large herbivores such as Tauros cattle can be met with scepticism that the team are trying to replace traditional livestock, but has the potential to increase economic opportunity through tourism, as well as a plethora of environmental benefits. Photo: Staffan Widstrand.

At the same time, these challenges can easily be transformed into opportunities. Because of the low density of the population, every action that we carry out can potentially create a big benefit. For example, if we reintroduce some animals or support nature recovery in the landscape and this creates one or two jobs – either directly or through increased tourism – then maybe this will enable one or two families to return to a local village of 30 people. This can mean the difference between having a school or shop in that village open or closed. At the moment rural tourism in Spain is very underdeveloped. Rewilding offers a huge opportunity to encourage growing numbers of people to visit wilder, rural areas, and to spend money there.

Molina de Aragon, a historic town located within the Iberian Highlands landscape, could benefit from socio-economic development underpinned by restoration. Photo: Juan Carlos Muñoz Robredo.

How do you think your experience in African conservation will help you contribute to Rewilding Spain’s mission?

My work over the last 12 years in Africa – in various management positions and in monitoring – has given me a better understanding of what can make a particular approach to conservation successful. Not only with regard to translocations and species reintroductions, but also through efforts to involve local communities and ensure they benefit from conservation.

I’m really passionate about using conservation as a driver for the social and economic development of such communities. I think my experience in Africa, where wildlife viewing is much more developed – will prove valuable as we look to leverage the huge nature-based tourism potential of the Iberian Highlands, and other parts of Spain, and ensure wilder nature in Spanish landscapes delivers benefits and provides opportunities for local people. It will also help me to develop a strategic, long-term view of the landscape and work out the best way to scale up restoration to deliver maximum impact.

The town of Zaorejas: with a very low population density, the Iberian Highlands restoration landscape is home to few such settlements. Photo: Juan Carlos Muñoz Robredo.

What would you like to see achieved in terms of restoring the Iberian Highlands in the next five years?

Over the next five years the team will focus on a range of actions – one of the biggest is the reintroduction of wild and semi-wild herbivores, such as horses and Tauros, to enhance natural grazing. We are also working with partners to return cinereous vultures to the landscape, which will help restore the local food web. And we will carry out a pilot release of Iberian lynx, with a view to scaling up the reintroduction to establish a permanent viable population in the landscape. At the same time, it is very important that local communities see the benefit of restoration. We will make a huge effort to demonstrate this.

It is essential that the restoration actions such as reintroducing large herbivores display demonstrable benefits to local communities. Photo: Staffan Widstrand.

After five years I would love to see a landscape that has integrated large wild and semi-wild grazers. I would also love to see a landscape that has generated significant added value for local communities – and by doing so, has helped us generate positive engagement with these communities and boosted support for our ongoing restoration efforts.

Is there much potential for scaling up restoration across Spain?

Yes, there is huge potential – there are many large landscapes in Spain where restoration could be carried out with a very positive impact. Restoration is not yet a big thing in this country, but the response to the launch of the Iberian Highlands restoration landscape in October has been amazing. I think going forwards a growing number of areas in the country are going to start restoration and rewilding, and we have already been in touch with many other people and initiatives that are interested. Rewilding Spain is going to try to assist them as much as possible, so that we can scale up restoration as quickly as possible.

There was a positive reaction to the Iberian Highlands project’s launch event, which could inspire more people to start restoration projects in Spain. Photo: Alex M Simon.

Where do you go to connect with nature?

While I was in Africa I would go on wildlife watching drives in national parks and just sit there and watch the animals. I love diving too – this also helps me to connect with nature, because of the isolation you feel while you are under the water. And here in the Iberian Highlands I like to go to the forest and walk and be quiet – to enjoy places where it is just you and the sights, sounds and smells of nature. This helps to reminds me what we are doing here, and why we are doing it. It helps me because sometimes in day-to-day activities you get frustrated, and stressed, and maybe lose a little focus. To see wild horses, or vultures, or Tauros – these experiences makes all your efforts seem worthwhile.

Spending time in nature helps to motivate and inspire Pablo, reminding him of the importance of Rewilding Spain’s work. Photo: Juan Carlos Muñoz Robredo.

This interview was conducted and originally posted by Rewilding Europe. Rewilding is a tool and philosophy used by many restoration practitioners which focuses on healing damaged ecosystems by restoring natural processes and allowing them to shape land and sea again. To find out more about the Iberian Highlands restoration landscape, visit the project page

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