Extreme summer temperatures, unsustainable water irrigation practices, low rainfall and a lack of intervention are placing Europe’s largest natural reserve in danger of ecological collapse.

Listed as a Ramsar and UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Doñana National Park covers over 50,000 hectares, making it one of the largest and most valuable wetlands in Europe. Located in South Andalucía, Spain, the National Park showcases a diverse range of biologically significant ecosystems. Along its southwestern coastline, secluded beaches meet the Atlantic Ocean and the mouth of the Guadalquivir River starts carving its path north. Venturing inland, chains of both migratory and static dunes hide a vast expanse of estuary areas, marshlands, complex lagoon systems, grass plains and forests adorned with stone pines that grow in its sandy soils.

However, what makes Doñana truly unique is its incredible wealth of fauna, where over 300 species of vertebrates have been identified. Furthermore, it was estimated that over 6 million migratory birds use the Doñana National Reserve each year. Today, the longevity of their halfway home hangs in the balance.

An insight into the fight to safeguard Doñana with Dr. Zulima Tablado

Last week, I had the privilege of chatting with Dr. Zulima Tablado, a senior postdoctoral researcher at Estación Biológica de Doñana CSIC (EBD), regarding the current vulnerability of the Doñana National Park to both climate change and overexploitation.

Tablado specialises in the connectivity of protected areas in Doñana, bringing with her over 20 years of experience in fields such as climate change science, epidemiology, spatial ecology and invasive species.

Tablado begins the conversation with a brief history of the park, which was founded in 1969. Throughout her narrative, she illustrates a tale of genuine care for Doñana but it concludes with a sense of apprehension regarding the future of the park and its unique species.

Her concern for the park’s future came into focus when parts of the Guadalquivir River were altered and drained to improve the park’s suitability for human habitation and agricultural activities. Since then, the park has been shaped for human use, and the pressure from tourism has increased, sapping the park’s limited resources, particularly its water reserves. “Throughout history, the sources of water coming into Doñana have dramatically decreased,” Tablado explained, “meaning the current hydrological balance relies predominantly on rainfall. The bad news, due to climate change, [is that] rainfall has decreased a lot!”

Climate change alters weather patterns globally, and the Doñana National Park is no exception. In parallel with other parts of Europe, Doñana is currently experiencing a severe drought, indicating a clear decrease in water availability for the park. Unfortunately, the future projections are just as bleak. “Rainfall will continue to decrease in frequency and volume,” Tablado said. “The situation in the Doñana National Park is critical.”

“The situation in the Doñana National Park is critical.”

Furthermore, temperatures have climbed and will continue to do so, something Tablado was keen to express. “Higher temperatures mean that evapotranspiration is also rising, making the situation in the park even more critical”.

Due to climate change, extreme weather events will become more frequent and last longer, both of which will contribute to the drying of rich wetland areas into dusty grassland. Currently, the conservation status of the Doñana National Park is of significant concern, and according to the IUCN World Heritage Outlook, the trend is deteriorating.

The marshlands and lagoons are also disappearing because the Doñana National Park has a fragile heart. It is situated on top of a 2,700-square-kilometre aquifer, but recent spikes in temperature, drought and illegal water irrigation primarily for agriculture are depleting the water levels. Without the aquifer feeding into the lagoons, wetlands and streams, it puts the species that rely on them under considerable threat.

Four vultures soar above the scortched Earth.
(Andrew Houldcroft / June 2023)

Despite the gloomy outlook, Tablado was keen to express her optimism for the future. “There is hope,” she said. “We must redouble our efforts to enhance both the socioeconomic and environmental sustainability of Doñana’s wetlands while striving for a recovery that is done in the most natural way possible”. Tablado elaborated that “the blue infrastructure needs to be improved” and that we need to develop nature-based solutions that meet the needs of the people in Doñana as well as its natural systems. All of which can be done with good governance and support.

It’s clear that we must make the park more resilient to the impacts of climate change; this could be in the form of reducing the volume and frequency of extractions from the aquifer, giving it a chance to recover to suitable levels. Furthermore, continuing to build relationships with the agricultural community to ensure that new sustainable agricultural practices are implemented will be key to Doñana’s survival.

Tablado is currently part of a team that is striving to improve wildlife connectivity within the park. They aim to help species disperse out of lagoons that are drying up into safer lagoons that aren’t. They’re also trying to reduce the impact of dangerous infrastructure like roads on terrestrial species.

Tens of flamingos, bright pink in colour, as bent over in the logoon which is surrounded by lush green grass and trees.
(Andrew Houldcroft / June 2023)

As with many conservation projects across the globe, the team’s mission has been fraught with setbacks. Most recently, news broke that the large Santa Olla permanent lagoon had dried up for the second consecutive year. This was one of three permanent lagoons in the park, all of which have now lost their permanence, predominantly due to the effects of climate change and a decrease in the groundwater level of the aquifer.

The agricultural industry has also taken advantage of the rich water reserves under Doñana. The Guardian recently revealed that over 1,000 unauthorised wells are syphoning water in a concealed operation that is having disastrous effects on the land above. Tablado explained to me the severity of losing these permanent lagoons to Doñana’s biodiversity: “With the drying out of these safe lagoons, aquatic vegetation is being replaced by terrestrial vegetation, meaning that, even with the rain, the ecosystem will struggle to recover.”

“Permanent lagoons are a reservoir for endemic species in Doñana”

Wetlands like the Santa Olla Lagoon are also critical for terrestrial species. Tablado also mentioned that the local rabbit populations rely on the wet soils surrounding the lagoons for burrowing and feeding. This has knock-on effects on predatory species such as the endangered Iberian Lynx, whose conservation success story could be at imminent risk due to climate change.

In short, the challenge of protecting species from extinction and preventing ecological collapse in Doñana National Park is immense. That said, it’s clear that all hope is not lost. People like Tablado and her team, who care about preserving Doñana’s wetlands for future generations, are central to this story, just as the lagoons, flora and fauna are too. Doñana is an important example of human determination to protect natural landscapes from the chaos of climate change. There are countless tales like this from around the globe; some will fail, others will succeed. I hope for all our sakes that Doñana is a success story.

A note from the author

From a more personal standpoint, I had the opportunity to work at EBD for three months this summer. I saw firsthand the immensity of the challenge the research teams are facing.

It’s not a pretty picture.

Driving for miles through dusty pastures that used to be biodiverse lagoons or passing rows of polytunnels that house soft fruits and exploit the finite water resources.

The situation is pressing.

But I am confident that a sustainable, nature-based solution will be found.

I have spoken to people firsthand and our conversations always ended with a sense of optimism or achievement. I have seen how dedicated EBD and other parties are to winning this battle with climate change.

If you have enjoyed this article, please support Doñana and find out more about the work of EBD here.