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An ancient ritual is making a comeback in Spain, the practice of hunting wild boar on horseback. And the Spanish don't use guns, they use spears. The sport goes back to Roman times and was recently approved under Spanish hunting regulations.
Reporter Lauren Frayer rode along on one wild boar hunt.
LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Just a 20-minute drive from Spain's capital and you're in the dehesa, oak woodlands where wild boar, deer and mountain goats still roam. Madrid's skyscrapers are on the horizon, but here ancient traditions still reign.
(SOUNDBITE OF PRAYER)
FRAYER: A hunting party prays in unison...
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Spanish spoken)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Spanish spoken)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (Spanish spoken)
FRAYER: ...before mounting horses and riding off in search of wild boar.
(SOUNDBITE OF HORSE NEIGHING)
FRAYER: This landscape, parts of which are a U.N. biosphere reserve, has gradually emptied as Spaniards migrate to cities for jobs. Among those left is Ramiro Maura, whose family established this ranch centuries ago.
RAMIRO MAURA: For thousands of years, the only way to get a boar was to chase it with a horse. There was no other weapon. This has been taking place for 2,000 years.
(SOUNDBITE OF GALLOPING HORSES)
FRAYER: Often hunters chase a single boar all day. And often the animal gets away. This is not an efficient way to hunt. But Maura says guns, whatever you think of them, sometimes make it just too easy.
MAURA: From the shotguns to the rifles, and from the rifles to the automatic rifles, and where do we keep going? How are you not going to try to protect the ancient ways of hunting, when there's no limit to the capability of mankind to make more sophisticated weapons?
(SOUNDBITE OF CONVERSATION)
FRAYER: It takes expert riders to maneuver and finally corner a wild boar, then stab him with the long spears they've managed to lug along while galloping across steep terrain. In this case, the boar uses his tusks to try to attack one of the horses, and then cries out as a spear pierces his heart.
(SOUNDBITE OF BOAR SQUEALING)
FRAYER: The animal is then hauled away to be cooked for dinner or exported to Germany, the number one destination for wild boar meat from Spain.
Despite a growing animal rights movement in Spain, and the recent ban on bullfighting in Catalonia, there's been no uproar over this sport, which is officially known as pigsticking.
SHARON NUNEZ: It's something that hasn't got a lot of publicity. And it's something I think most Spanish citizens are not aware of. If they were, I'm sure that a great percentage of them would be against this kind of cruel sport.
FRAYER: Sharon Nunez is a spokeswoman for the group Animal Equality. She hadn't heard of pigsticking either until it was recently added to hunting regulations. And while she says every effort should be made to uphold traditions, there's a limit.
NUNEZ: Yeah, I mean, it's the same case with bullfighting. I mean, a tradition shouldn't stay or shouldn't remain if it's cruel and it means suffering and death to an innocent creature.
FRAYER: But where some see cruelty, others see beauty. Our hunting party includes a poet and a painter.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: The adrenaline, the emotion is beautiful. You know, stalking behind an animal.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Pigsticking is like touch heaven.
FRAYER: Pigsticking has been around since Roman times, and perhaps even before that. Prehistoric cave paintings in Spain depict primitive man on horseback, chasing wild boar with spears. It was also popular in colonial India. But the sport's resurgence here poses a dilemma for modern Spain, balancing rural traditions against the progressive society it's quickly become.
JOSE MANUEL CALVO: Yeah, well, it's difficult to reconcile these traditions.
FRAYER: Jose Manuel Calvo is the opinion editor at El Pais newspaper.
CALVO: We try to make a distinction between the roots of a culture and customs in the rural world and the brutality, and things that we in the 21st century - we can't let go on.
FRAYER: Spain is still trying to negotiate its new identity. In the past 40 years, the country has changed from a military dictatorship to a democracy. Millions have abandoned rural life for cities. Wildfires ravage that empty land each summer. And now, less than 20 percent of Spaniards live in rural areas.
JAIME PATINO: To me, it's the thing that makes me most sad and it's my biggest battle.
FRAYER: Jaime Patino, one of the hunters on our trip, wears his grandfather's leather chaps and boots, and a 19th century suit jacket to go riding.
PATINO: We are the people that really protect the nature. And we are passionate of the countryside. And after that, you know, we are hunters and all that. But first of all, we are country people. We've been centuries doing this. The properties have been a long time in our families and we intend to continue in this way.
FRAYER: He's likely to be able to do so. Spain's cash-strapped government is selling off some public lands to be converted into private hunting reserves.
For NPR News, I'm Lauren Frayer in Madrid.
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