The man who stood up for the wolf in Spain

Félix Rodríguez de la Fuente (often referred to simply as Félix) was the David Attenborough of Spain. Between 1971 and 1974, he was considered the “most famous figure after Franco” in Spain. Knowledgeable, charismatic and influential, Félix was largely responsible for an environmental awakening among Spaniards in the late 20th Century, and was the first person who stood up for the Iberian wolf.

From falconer to friend of the animals

Born in 1928 in a small Castilian village, Félix Rodríguez de la Fuente was fascinated by nature from childhood, developing a passion for falconry. Despite his interest, he took his father’s advice and studied medicine in Valladolid, eventually becoming a dentist. Félix continued his interest in falconry, helping found the Spanish Ornithological Society.

After his father’s death in 1960, he decided to pursue his passion full-time. He published a book on falconry and worked as a raptor consultant for an epic film. He even became personal falconer to the King of Saudi Arabia. Félix’s growing reputation allowed him to make the leap to television. After he appeared in a short TV interview on falconry, thousands of people wrote to the Spanish broadcaster requesting more features with the naturalist. Nicknamed “Amigo de los Animales”, he appeared in various television and radio programmes about nature throughout the sixties and seventies.

Félix’s most famous documentary series was El Hombre y la Tierra (Man and the Earth). Divided into three parts (Iberia, South America and North America), it took viewers on a never-before-seen journey across diverse ecosystems. He used innovative techniques to capture incredible shots of predators hunting, and filmed species like the rare Pyrenean desman for the first time. Viewers from around the globe, including the US and China, tuned in to watch. In 2000, the Academy of Sciences and Television Arts in Spain honoured it as the Best Production in the History of Television.

Félix never completed the North American segment, however. On his 52nd birthday, on the way to film an episode, he tragically died in a plane crash in Alaska. His death shocked Spain and thousands attended his funeral. He remains a cultural icon and to this day, millions of people across the Spanish-speaking world still fondly remember his documentaries.

Félix Rodríguez de la Fuente – The father of environmentalism

Félix Rodríguez de la Fuente was a pioneer for ecological awareness and is often called the “Father of Environmentalism” in Spain. At that time, people didn’t think about conservation. No other prominent figure talked about the value of nature aside from its economic worth. Félix’s charisma helped many viewers and readers of his books connect with nature for the first time.

In 1968, Félix helped found ADENA, the Spanish branch of WWF, and remained its Vice President until his death. He used this as a platform for raising awareness about a range of environmental threats from pollution to ecosystem destruction. During his presidency, Félix helped create and protect new national parks in Spain. A few days before his death, he presented the first World Strategy for the Conservation of Nature in Madrid. Prepared by IUCN, UNEP and WWF, it outlined how to nature from increasing human interference, and heavily influenced today’s sustainable development goals.

Through his programmes, Félix Rodríguez de la Fuente sparked a never before seen interest in nature for the next generation. In 1983, 70% of biology students interviewed in Spain said that the naturalist influenced their degree choice. Through ADENA, Félix also educated the next generation by starting the Lynx Club for young nature lovers to defend the environment. The organisation also launched summer camps in a raptor refuge he founded, for children to experience nature firsthand. Félix would even regularly join the campers for hikes and campfire stories.

“Why do wolves howl?”, people wonder. We could answer that, firstly, it is to communicate with each other. Secondly, to mark their territories. Thirdly, perhaps, to express the profound sadness in the heart of a species that once dominated half the world and is already on the brink of extinction.

Félix Rodríguez de la Fuente

Saving the wolf in Spain

Throughout his life, Félix Rodríguez de la Fuente advocated for the protection of many large predators in Spain. In particular, he spent much of his career focused on the wolf, which back then was heavily persecuted. Félix’s first encounter with the species was as a child, when he tagged along on a wolf hunting trip. When he spotted one, he was immediately transfixed by its gaze. Despite the hunters having lectured him on the evils of the wolf, he managed to warn the animal of their presence. This experience forever changed his perception of the wolf. In 1965, he rescued two cubs and raised them as “his first children”.

The wolf’s status in Spain around that time was dire. Extermination was not only permitted but economically rewarded. Wolves were considered vermin and shot, poisoned and trapped to near extinction on the Iberian Peninsula. In 1959, biologist Dr. Jose Antonio Valverde made a speech at the IUCN where he said, “if there is any animal whose conservation seems impossible, it is the wolf”.

Through extensive education on his programmes, Félix showed society a different side to the species, emphasising its ancient connection with humans. His tireless campaigning with ADENA encouraged a shift in the public’s perception of wolves. Boosted by his popularity as a presenter, Félix’s activism led to the passing of the 1970 Hunting Law, which first considered the species as a game animal, thus protecting it from persecution.

Today, Spain holds Western Europe’s largest wolf population, and banned hunting last year. His activism brought him into conflict with shepherds and hunters, and he received death threats. Nevertheless, it led to Spanish society accepting and appreciating the wolf for the first time. It is probably thanks to Félix that it has avoided extinction, unlike other European populations.

Although he is relatively unknown outside of Spanish-speaking countries, the rest of the world could do with learning about Félix Rodríguez de la Fuente’s work. His pioneering public environmental work inspired countless people to love and respect nature. He is an example of how fame and charisma can change the world for the better.

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