Erebia from Sierra Nevada in a bed of small flowers. A wonderful cocktail of colours. Javier Olivares
In pictures, the man who photographs butterflies in Granada's Sierra Nevada
Natural heritage

In pictures, the man who photographs butterflies in Granada's Sierra Nevada

Javier Olivares has captured images of the 125 species of lepidoptera that inhabit mainland Spain's highest mountains, three of which are in danger of extinction

Jorge Pastor


Monday, 1 April 2024, 23:20


Javier Olivares was eight years old when he started to accompany his father on hunting trips in Granada province. "We would go to the Llanos de los Olivares, in Gorafe, up at dusk where there were rabbits, wood pigeons and turtle doves," he recalls. It was at that moment that he fell in love with nature.

Olivares (Jerez de la Frontera, 1960) really understands the Sierra Nevada. Among his many merits he has photographed the 125 species of butterflies that inhabit Granada's Sierra Nevada, the highest mountains on the Spanish mainland. Over four decades he has taken more than ten thousand shots.

Javier is a geologist by profession but a biologist at heart. "I wanted to do the latter, but at that time there were few opportunities and I studied the former," he explains. He graduated in Geology from the University of Granada and his work has taken him around the world from oil platforms in the North Sea, to the Algerian desert and in 1987 to mines the Picos de Europa mountains. That job changed his life as it was there that he discovered the fascinating world of butterflies.

Javier Olivares, with his camera.
Javier Olivares, with his camera. Jorge Pastor

But before continuing with the life and work of Javier Olivares, it's important to travel back in time to the beginning of the 20th century and to Granada which was home to a man called Arturo Cerdá y Rico who hung out with the artistic and intellectual elite of the time.

Arturo was Javier's great-grandfather and himself a talented photographer. "I didn't know him or my grandmother, but photography was everywhere in my house," Javier explains. That's why he was thrilled when, in 1975, at the age of fifteen, his father gave him a Russian Praktica with a fifty-millimetre lens. "I can't forget the excitement I felt when I knew I had a good shot and would check that it was on the negative," he smiles.

In those early days his speciality was eagles. "In my village, Gorafe, there were shepherds who destroyed their nests because they ate the fields, but I caught them and fed them with game meat. I raised three or four specimens of booted and short-toed snake eagles," recalls Javier.

Simple enamelled.
Simple enamelled. Javier Olivares

"I looked after them until they became adults, they flew all day long and at night they came back for me to feed them." This proximity and knowledge of the birds of prey allowed Javier to take a a number of memorable pictures with his Praktica, which he keeps in his collection like a piece of treasure.

Javier Olivares' devotion to butterflies began with that posting in the Picos de Europa, but his interest in them increased exponentially when, during an excursion in the Sierra Elvira, he met José Luis Giménez Gómez, who introduced him to literature, research and articles on these marvellous winged insects.

"I took exams to become a biology and geology teacher and after a few years in different places, I ended up in Granada, very close to my beloved Sierra Nevada," he says. Through his brother he met José Miguel Barea, a technician at the National Park, and the two of them began a photographic documentation project that culminated in 2011 with a compilation publication. "At that time there were 121 species of butterflies in the Sierra Nevada; in recent years we have discovered four more.


Why are these animals so photogenic? You only have to take a look at the photo on the left, an Erebia from the Sierra Nevada, to see for yourself. "Because of their aesthetic beauty and their diversity," says Javier. But also for other characteristics, such as the fact that each group has its own habitat or its dependence on weather conditions. Just like flora, they are more abundant in rainy years than in dry ones.

Monitoring work on the Alpine butterfly of Sierra Nevada.
Monitoring work on the Alpine butterfly of Sierra Nevada. Javier Olivares.

Immortalising them also requires skill. You don't have to run after them, but wait for them where you know you'll find them," he says, "The ideal time to shoot them is when they are just hatched and camouflaged in the plants. "You can get as close as you want". As for the best times of day, without a doubt, sunsets, "because that's when they look for places to rest after a day of fluttering around". This also prevents the light intensity from being too strong, as can happen in the Sierra Nevada when the sky is clear. "It is best if there is a light layer of cloud".

Blanca de Mann.
Blanca de Mann. Javier Olivares.

Among the ten thousand butterfly photos that Javier keeps on his hard drives, there is one that was particularly satisfying. That of a Parnassius Apollo which flies like a bird. "I set up the tripod in a place where I knew they were going to pass and every time they did, I took a series of photos. "I caught not only a male in the foreground, but a female in the background," he says proudly. Then came 124 more great moments.

Harlequin. Javier Olivares.

The most abundant butterflies and also others which, although not in imminent danger, are in danger of extinction in Grenada. In general, populations have declined by thirty percent in the last fifteen years, but in the cases of the Agriades Zulluchi, the Polymmatus Golgus and the Agrodiaetus Violetae the situation is particularly worrying, so much so that the Association for the Conservation of Butterflies in Europe launched recovery plans in 2015.

Climate change is forcing butterflies to move to higher ground, where space is more limited. The destructive capacity of human beings has no understanding of existence, beauty and nature. Existences, beauties and natures like those 125 species of butterflies that live in Sierra Nevada.

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