FIGUEIRA DE CASTELO RODRIGO, Portugal — On a rainy winter morning, Antonio Mónteiro and two colleagues were pushing and pulling an ailing, reluctant bull along a stony track in the Faia Brava nature reserve in northeast Portugal.
Suddenly, Mr. Mónteiro pointed up. “Look! Africa!” he said.
A dozen or so griffon vultures, huge birds with white heads and tawny wings, were wheeling like hang gliders in the gray sky above the boulder-strewn scrubland.
It was to protect these magnificent birds and other rare and threatened raptors like the golden and Bonelli’s eagles that Mr. Mónteiro and his wife, Ana Berliner, both wildlife biologists, began about 15 years ago to piece together Faia Brava, or “wild cliff” in Portuguese.
They started in 1999 by buying for 10,000 euros a 20-hectare, or 49-acre, parcel of rocky crags where the birds nest above the Côa River. With very little money, they have amassed about 800 hectares in a five-kilometer, or three-mile, stretch along the river. Today, an organization of seven people, in addition to Mr. Mónteiro and Ms. Berliner, aid the effort, and a variety of visitors come to observe the creatures.
The farm villages in the area, with their stone houses and narrow streets, are picturesque but dying as their inhabitants age and their children look for work in Portugal’s big cities or abroad.
Few people want to try to eke out an existence from cereal crops and olive trees planted in tiny patches of soil. The economic crisis, which continues to hit Portugal hard, is making life even tougher.
“We are in the middle of a generational crisis that is more than an economic crisis,” Mr. Mónteiro said.
Whatever it is, a small group of what may be called environmental entrepreneurs, like Mr. Mónteiro and Ms. Berliner, are taking advantage of it to bring a new vision and energy to the Côa Valley.
Many are university-educated young people from Lisbon, Portugal’s capital, or Porto, the second-largest city, who are attracted to the countryside or want to get away from the urban rat race.
While the hilly, near-desert terrain may be hell for small farmers, it is an unspoiled heaven for those who appreciate it. Along with the spectacular birds, there is a wealth of prehistoric rock carvings and medieval castles. And the Côa River runs into the Douro River, whose valley is a wine-lover’s destination.
“This is an area where conservation can be a motor for local economic development,” said Paule Gros, a program manager with the Switzerland-based MAVA Foundation, a vehicle of the Hoffmann family of heirs to a pharmaceutical fortune.
MAVA’s founder Luc Hoffmann, a conservationist whom Mr. Mónteiro met through European birding circles, provided the funding for the first Faia Brava land purchase, and MAVA recently made a commitment of €400,000, or $545,000, spread over five years.
“This is not a huge donation,” Ms. Gros said, but money goes a long way in the region, where land is cheap and wages are low. Aid from the European Union is also available to invest in projects like hotels that may create jobs.
The Faia Brava is already partly earning its keep through fees paid by visitors. Photographers pay €80 a day to take pictures from a blind next to the reserve’s vulture feeder, a fenced-off, rocky hilltop where the staff put out carcasses of horses and donkeys for the birds to scrap over.
Mafalda Nicolau de Almeida, who runs a tour group called Miles Away, brings wealthy urban residents to Faia Brava and the Douro to enjoy good food and wine under the stars. “It is like a safari,” she said.
Mr. Mónteiro and Ms. Berliner serve as president and treasurer but are not employees of the organization. Mr. Mónteiro works as a wildlife monitor for the nearby International Douro Natural Park, and Ms. Berliner manages a hotel, Casa da Cisterna, which they have built on the walls of an ancient fortress.
Visitors to Faia Brava and other attractions also help sustain a network of small hotels like the one run by Sada Noro, an architect, in the nearby village of Quinta de Pêro Martins. Ms. Noro and her staff also churn out Faia Brava-branded products like a spread made of local olives and honey.
The Faia Brava staff are working on bigger ideas, including a permanent lodge and a 200-kilometer hiking trail through the valley with strategically located bed-and-breakfast establishments.
Driving visitors up and down the reserve’s almost impassable tracks in a battered Land Rover, Alice Gama, Faia Brava’s manager, outlined a rosy vision of what the future might look like.
An expanded reserve grazed by wild horses and cattle would serve as an anchor, she said. In a wider area outside, there might be organic farms and other enterprises dedicated to serving visitors to the region.
The staff arranges workshops for “nature entrepreneurs,” to attract people to the region, she said.
“The hardest job,” she said, “is changing the minds of local people” who believe that to remain in the area is to condemn themselves to a life of poverty.
But whatever the difficulties, the experiment has to be rated a success so far: The birds are still present, and the reserve is growing. “We are happy with our ambition,” Mr. Mónteiro said. “This allows you to create jobs in this poor countryside.”