The killing of two rangers in Catalonia a year ago this week, marked a chilling turning point for colleagues facing up to increasing violence towards Europe’s wildlife defenders
On a hill above the olive trees and dun scrublands of western Catalonia, two rusty iron silhouettes maintain a still and silent vigil. One peers out over the land through a pair of binoculars; the other kneels and holds a bird forever on the cusp of release.
At their feet is a simple plaque: “In memory and recognition of Xavier Ribes Villas and David Iglesias Díez, wildlife rangers whose lives were taken in the line of duty on 21 January 2017.”
Their deaths on a cold winter morning a year ago this weekend are a reminder that the risks of defending the natural world are not always confined to forests of South America or the African bush, and that working to protect sandgrouse, little bustard and bittern can sometimes be as dangerous as guarding against elephant poachers.
The murders, together with a series of assaults over the past 12 months, have prompted calls for Spain’s 6,000 wildlife rangers to be routinely armed as they go about their job preserving the country’s biodiversity and regulating hunting and fishing.
On the day in question, the pair of agents rurals – as they are known in Catalonia – climbed into their Mitsubishi Montero and set off from their base in the city of Lleida.
After calling in a dead animal they had passed on the road, Ribes and Iglesias drove up to the hill where their monuments now stand to make sure hunters hadn’t strayed into a protected area close to the small village of Aspa.
It was probably there that they heard the volley of shots that drew them to a nearby olive grove where a group of men was shooting the thrushes that feed on the fruit. Among them was a 28-year-old hunter named Ismael Rodríguez.
Whatever happened next was quick and, as yet, unexplained. Training and protocol would have seen the rangers identify themselves to the hunter, ask him to put down his weapon and request to see his hunting and firearms licenses.
Rodríguez is alleged to have responded by firing at the agents, fatally shooting each twice at close range. Ribes was 43; Iglesias 39. Each left behind a wife and a child.
When, almost an hour later, Rodríguez rang the emergency services, he told the operator: “They came and I got nervous and I don’t know why I reacted the way I did.”
Llorenç Ricou, the head of the agents rurals in Lleida, was on duty when the bulletin came in at about 11.40am.
“I headed out straight away to where the car was according to the GPS,” he says.
“I spoke to the air ambulance on the way and they said to me, ‘There’s no need to hurry now’.”
Both men had been confirmed dead at the scene, their bodies found a couple of metres apart in the olive grove. Rodríguez was already in the back of a police car when Ricou arrived.
He will never forget what he saw. Nor will Albert Marsellés, another agent and a friend of Ribes.
“I just wanted to cry,” says Marsellés. Despite the cold, Ribes hadn’t had time to pull on his coat. His mid-morning snack of rice cakes lay uneaten on the dashboard of the Mitsubishi, his bag in the back. A senior officer asked Marsellés to drive the car back to base but he could not bring himself to do it.
Ricou, a 30-year veteran of the ranger service, is at a loss to explain why anyone would have wanted to kill Ribes and Iglesias, both of whom he had trained.
“They were just great,” he says. “Xavi was a very sensible, peaceful guy who was always looking out for other people. He loved giving talks in school about the environment; it was his hobby.
“David was very professional, super knowledgeable when it came to the law and really calm.”
Neither of them, he adds, were at all impetuous; “they were the least confrontational people you could meet”.
What’s more, says Ricou, talking to hunters and checking their licences and weapons is one of the most routine things he and colleagues do. Along with monitoring fishing, protecting wildlife and dealing with forest fires, it is one of the basic duties of a ranger.
The semi-desert lands that Ricou and his agents patrol are rich in rabbits, quail, partridge, roe deer and wild boar, and, consequently, popular with hunters.
Ask any agent about their job and they will have stories about being sworn at and threatened, sometimes physically. But, as Ricou points out, confrontations with hunters seldom go beyond words.
“We’ve never had any real physical run-ins around here – nothing worse than a shove. And we’ve had no real problems with hunters even though this is the part of Catalonia where most reports are filed and most weapons are confiscated.”
For Ricou, Marsellés and their thousands of colleagues across Spain, the deaths of Ribes and Iglesias have marked a turning point.
“There was a before and an after because of the tragedy,” says Ricou.
“What happened has made us realise that people have changed. We’re not coming up against a simple hunter any more, or a simple motorist or a simple fisherman: we’re dealing with much worse people.”
He says rangers need to be able to defend themselves with something more than the decades-old, five-shot Israeli carbine that was previously issued to agents assigned to higher-risk anti-hunting duties.
Agents of the old state forestry guard carried guns until Spain’s return to democracy saw the service come under the control of the country’s autonomous regions.
Today, some rangers are keen to have pistols to defend themselves; some favour carrying guns only in certain circumstances and some are flatly opposed to the idea.
Ricou and Marsellés know that nothing can ever protect them fully against a chance encounter with someone intent on doing them harm, but they have no doubt that having a pistol would make them feel safer.
“I’d feel a little more self-sufficient if I had a gun,” says the latter. “It’s the difference between a rabbit and an eagle: a rabbit always has to run; an eagle doesn’t.”
Ricou puts it a little more bluntly: “Society has changed and we have to change too. We can’t carry on doing our job with just a pen and a pad.”
The Catalan government has organised self-defence training and is in the process of issuing agents with bulletproof jackets, telescopic batons and handcuffs, while a working group made up of police officers, wildlife rangers and members of the equivalent service over the Pyrenees – the French National Hunting and Wildlife Office – has been looking at whether they should once again be armed.
But Rubén Cabrero, the president of the Spanish Association of Forest and Environmental Agents, says such action is sorely lacking at a national level.
“We’re in exactly the same place we were a year ago,” he says. “All the government’s promises have been forgotten and no progress has been made when it comes to letting us carry guns, which we always used to.”
Since Ribas and Iglesias were murdered, he adds, three agents have had shotguns pulled on them and four have been threatened with knives.
“They hit us, they insult us and we get no support. The authorities just look the other way,” says Cabrero.
“As wildlife rangers, we need the government to start working urgently to ensure our safety. We work to protect something that belongs to everyone, but no one is working to protect us. We’re totally abandoned.”
However, a spokeswoman for Spain’s interior ministry said the government was in discussions with the country’s 17 autonomous regions to find the best way to protect wildlife rangers.
Ribes and Iglesias are never far from their colleagues’ thoughts. On one wall of the ranger base in Lleida, next to a picture of Saint Francis of Assisi, hang photographs of the pair, each bearing a black ribbon.
Their faces take Ricou back to a trip he made 10 years ago to meet his French peers.
Though smaller and younger than its Spanish counterpart, the French National Hunting and Wildlife Office is all too aware of the dangers its agents endure, which is why they carry Glock pistols. A monument at its headquarters is engraved with the names of the 76 French rangers who have been killed in the line of duty since 1945.
Ricou still remembers a room lined with the photographs of the dead men and the words of his hosts.
“They said to me, ‘One day you’ll have the same thing as us’. Now, 10 years on, what they said has come true. And it’s come true right here.”