The Iberian wolf: how to protect a misunderstood species?

Francisco Petrucci-Fonseca is a nature lover passionate about the Iberian wolf. He’s a Biologist and Professor at the University of Lisbon, Portugal. He’s also the co-founder and President of the Portuguese NGO, Grupo Lobo, working for 37 years on better protection and coexistence between wolves and humans.

Francisco has dedicated his life to the wolves in Portugal. Along the way, he has inspired thousands of people, including many of his students. Now, it’s time for him to inspire you by reading this piece.

Join us and learn how important it is to understand the relationship between wild animals and those directly affected by their presence; and, how we can use education to protect one of the most misunderstood animals in history: the wolf.

What inspired you to work in conservation?

I was born in the centre of Portugal and lived on a countryside farm surrounded by nature and animals. My parents always taught me to respect both people and animals. I had further contact with the outdoors at military school. These experiences deepened my connection to nature and shaped my interest in Biology.

I studied Biology at the University of Lisbon. My Ecology professors were spectacular and invited the students on many field trips, which I loved. My colleagues further stimulated my interest in fieldwork. Being outdoors and seeing animals was what I loved while studying.

How did you end up working on the conservation of the Iberian wolf and co-founding Grupo Lobo?

Francisco in the field looking for wolves.

I saw my first wolf when I was 4/5 years old in Serra da Estrela – the highest mountain of continental Portugal. Some people say that’s what made me want to work for the conservation of this species. I also remember hearing the elderly tell stories about the wolf as a kid. These stories piqued my interest in the species. From that, I started liking everything wolf-related.

When finishing my BSc, a professor invited me to do an internship on the Iberian wolf. Everybody knew I was crazy about the species, so I accepted. After graduation, I applied for a teaching position at the University of Lisbon and I got it.

A few years later, I was introduced to Robert Lyle – a Scottish wolf conservationist. We developed a strong connection and agreed people needed to learn about the wolf in a way they could comprehend. We founded the NGO [in 1985] with 3 target groups: children, hunters, and the general public, particularly shepherds.

Can you talk a bit more about Grupo Lobo? What are its main goals and projects?

One of our main goals is to share practical and humane information about the Iberian wolf. Currently, we focus on youngsters up to University age and shepherds. We talk to the latter to understand their problems, needs and how we can help.

In our early years, we helped develop the wolf conservation law. In 1987, we created the Iberian Wolf Recovery Centre: a place for wolves that can’t live in the wild.

Around the same time, an American professor was studying the use of livestock guarding dogs to reduce wolf attacks on livestock. We contacted him after hearing about shepherds’ problems. In 1996, we launched a project using livestock guarding dogs to protect domestic animals from wolves. It took 11 years to find the funds for it, but the programme still continues today in 2022.

One of the Iberian wolves living at the Recovery Centre of Grupo Lobo.

Do you think there are differences in how the wolf is seen in Portugal since Grupo Lobo was founded?

Nowadays, we talk more about the wolf because we know more about it. Only once we know about the wolf, we can protect it. Grupo Lobo is one of its biggest drivers in Portugal. We share information and if that makes people think and/or change their minds and attitudes, we are very happy.

We have to understand the relationship between the wolf and those directly affected by its presence – through predation on livestock, for example. If we can’t do that, we can’t preserve the Iberian wolf or help those suffering the losses caused by the species.

We have to talk to people because changing the mentality of a society which has always seen the wolf as “bad” won’t happen from day to night. Being too aggressive only harms the animals. Wild animals are amazing to us but may bring problems to others. We need to recognise that.

What’s the best part of your job? And the most challenging?

The best part is knowing that my work has results and even if I can’t see the wolves, I know they’re out there in the wild.

The most challenging is educating people to increase their respect, acceptance and comprehension of the wolf. As I said, being confrontational doesn’t take us anywhere. People need to make changes to animals voluntarily.

Do you have a career highlight?

I’m always happy when students tell me they want to work with me; when people compliment Grupo Lobo; or when people thank me for my work. It’s not about winning awards. For example, I love when shepherds invite me over to their houses after work to speak with them.

What key steps in your conservation career have you taken to be where you are?

It was a sum of many things such as being born where I was and having supportive family and friends.

Choosing the University of Lisbon to study and work allowed me to meet all the good professors, colleagues and students that left a mark on me. The opportunity to meet and travel with colleagues worldwide also focused on wolf conservation has been equally significant.

Finally, my availability to take on every learning opportunity from people whether they are students, renowned conservationists or shepherds, has also been important.

Two of the many Iberian wolves living at the Recovery Centre of Grupo Lobo.

What advice would you give someone aspiring to work as a conservationist?

Do what you love. Search, work and fight for it. Think about it and don’t follow trends. If you don’t know something, find out more about it. Ask and listen to people who know more, especially older ones. Try to have experiences within the field you want to work in. Overall, chase your dreams.

If you want to be updated on the work of Francisco and Grupo Lobo, check their website, or follow them on Facebook and Instagram. Who knows? You may be travelling to Portugal to volunteer with them very soon!

Author Profile | Rita Soares

Rita is from Portugal and has a MSc in Biology: Biodiversity, Conservation and Restoration from the University of Antwerp. Her path in Biology was not immediate: a gap year led her to volunteer at an animal sanctuary where she found her true passion. Today, her focus is on animal behaviour and welfare, working at a sanctuary for rescued animals. At Conservation Careers she hopes to help people who are lost in the conservation world, just trying to get a chance to use their skills to preserve our wildlife.

Main image credit: Miguel Mendes / Grupo Lobo.


Careers Advice, Interviews, Senior Level, Celebrating Diversity in Conservation, Organisational Manager, Scientist, Animal Welfare, Wildlife