DONANA, Spain — One of Europe's last remaining great wildernesses, the park of Donana on southern Spain's Atlantic coast, is fighting for survival against encroaching resorts and indiscriminate use of pesticides by farmers.
Donana's 180,000 acres, an area of sand dunes, marshes and scrubland at the mouth of the Guadalquivir River, are home to some of the rarest birds and animals in Europe and protect the last 20 miles of virgin beach in Spain.
Once a hunting ground for Spanish kings, Donana is a vital staging post between Europe and Africa for migratory birds as well one of the few sanctuaries for the near-extinct Spanish imperial eagle and the equally scarce Spanish lynx.
No Roads, Electricity
Visitors to the nature reserve must book in advance, as entry is limited to a few people each day.
There are no roads, and a guide will take you on horseback or land rover across the seemingly endless expanse of sand dunes, scrub and salt flats to observe the animals undisturbed.
Solar-powered lighthouses mark the river banks of the Guadalquivir, for no electricity is allowed in the park.
The key to Donana's survival is water. The shallow marshes, or marismas , which teem with ducks, herons, geese and flamingos, are fed by the meandering tributaries of the Guadalquivir.
"When the water is polluted or the marismas dry up, Donana becomes a huge bird cemetery," said a guide, Angel Moreno.
Hit by Drought, Pesticides
Three years ago, thousands of migratory birds died when the marismas were parched by a fierce drought.
But the death of 30,000 water fowl last fall had other causes.
Environmentalists sounded the alarm at the end of August: Ducks and geese migrating from northern Europe after the breeding season were dying by the thousands in marshes and paddy fields bordering Donana.
An agonizing two months passed before the government took action--after an official inquiry pointed to the use of forbidden, highly toxic pesticides in neighboring rice fields.
The marismas were flooded to flush out the pesticides and the dead birds burned to prevent further contamination, but the difficulties in pinning down culprits meant that no legal action was taken.
Deputy Prime Minister Alfonso Guerra, who heads Donana's board of trustees, sought to dispel the outcry by arguing that the disaster had taken place outside the borders of the park.
Reclamation Work Continues
But Donana's staff disagree.
"The birds which died were from Donana," Moreno said. "It is of no use protecting the park if it is going to be surrounded by hostile territory."
Reclamation work has now reached the boundaries of the park itself. More than 500,000 acres of marshland has been drained to make way for olive groves and sugar beets.
Rivers have been diverted and channeled into canals. Streams have been dammed so that water that used to pour into Donana every winter can be used to irrigate rice fields.
Donana's biologists say that over the last 30 years, the bird population has fallen by 50% and that most of the decline has occured within the last 10 years.
The glossy ibis and the crane are long gone, and at least eight other species, including the great crested grebe, no longer breed in the marshes.
On the northwestern corner of Donana are the high-rise apartments and holiday condominiums of the sprawling resort of Matalascanas.
At the height of the summer season, more than 200,000 tourists flock to Matalascanas, which is being heavily promoted as one of the last "untarnished" spots on Spain's southern coast.
Only a narrow fence separates the nature reserve from the frantic construction work taking place.
However, Donana's trustees last year scored a major victory by putting an end to what was possibly the greatest threat to the park--plans for a coastal highway linking the industrial ports of Huelva and Cadiz, bridging the Guadalquivir and cutting across Donana's sand dunes.
Although 40% of Donana's parkland is still in private hands, the trustees completed the purchase of the threatened sand dunes, thus ensuring that an entrepreneur's dream--and a nature lover's nightmare--of a modern highway dotted with hotels and nightclubs will not come true.