Spotty of coat, tufty of ear, and teetering on the verge of extinction less than two decades ago, the Iberian lynx is continuing to claw its way back across Spain and Portugal.
According to the latest survey, the lynx population on the peninsula has increased ninefold over 18 years, rising from 94 in 2002 to 855 this year. Experts say that if the current conservation and reintroduction efforts can maintain their momentum, the species could be out of danger by 2040.
The 2019 census, carried out using camera-traps and large reserves of patience, revealed that more than 80% of the lynx population is in Spain, that 311 kittens were born on the peninsula last year and that there were 188 females of reproductive age. There are populations in the Sierra Morena and Donaña national park.
At the end of the last century, however, things looked decidedly bleak for the bearded cats – and for rabbits, which make up 90% of their diet.
Government efforts to get rid of creatures considered to be vermin, which lasted until the mid-1970s, took a terrible toll, as did a catastrophic drop in rabbit numbers following the arrival of myxomatosis in the 1950s and then rabbit hemorrhagic disease in the 1980s. Both those factors were compounded by the destruction and isolation of habitats that came with motorway building and a greater human presence.
Miguel Ángel Simón, a biologist who spent 22 years conserving and building up lynx numbers before retiring last year, remembers the daunting scale of the task he and his colleagues faced.“When we started back in 2000, we didn’t even know how many lynxes were left,” he says.
“We found out from the first census that there were 94 and we thought that they were going to disappear. We just didn’t know if there was any way to save them – they were right on the edge and in critical danger of extinction. Back then, they were the most endangered felines in the world. Our first aim was just to stop them becoming extinct.”
Their strategy of seeking money and engagement from politicians, and cooperation from landowners and the public, gradually paid off.
A series of projects, coordinated by the Andalucían government in conjunction with other Spanish regions, the Portuguese authorities and conservation NGOs, has arrested the decline, expanded populations and seen lynxes reintroduced to other areas.
“Today, the situation is pretty good and I think we can be optimistic and fairly calm because we haven’t just recovered the population in Andalucía, we’ve also built populations in Portugal – where the lynx was extinct – and in Extremadura and Castilla-La Mancha,” says Simón.Graphic of areas in Spain lynx is prevalent
The latest phase of the programme, the five-year Life Lynxconnect project, has a budget of €18.8m, 60% of which comes from the EU.
Javier Salcedo, the project’s new leader, said the main aim was to join up existing populations and increase their genetic diversity. “We need to see an exchange of animals that will give us an exchange of genes,” he says.
Ramón Pérez de Ayala, the large carnivores coordinator for WWF Spain – one of 21 partners in the latest project – warns that lynx populations are in danger of developing genetic problems if they remain isolated.
“We’re going to do some genetic tracking so we can monitor the situation and see if we need to move individuals artificially.”
Pérez de Ayala is also upbeat about the future of the lynx and hopes to see it move from the endangered category of the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of threatened species into the vulnerable category.
He estimates it will take another 20 years of hard work before Spain and Portugal can claim to have saved the lynx. “If we carry on, if we can maintain the population growth momentum, and if luck stays on our side, we’ll have at least 750 females of reproductive age – which means more than 3,000 lynxes in total – by 2040,” he says.
Between now and then, existing populations will have to be blended and increased, and new ones established in rabbit-rich habitats. Equally important will be the mapping and marking of blackspots: in 2019, 34 lynxes died after being run over.
For Pérez de Ayala and many others, protecting the lynx is a moral and ecological imperative. “Every species has an intrinsic value that can’t be lost – it would be like demolishing a cathedral,” he says. “And you’re talking about an animal that does a really good job of balancing out the food chain of the Mediterranean ecosystem.”
In the absence of lynxes, medium-sized predators that eat rabbits – such as foxes and Egyptian mongooses – put prey species under a lot of pressure. When a lynx comes along, explains Pérez de Ayala, the density of foxes and mongooses goes down and rabbit populations increase.
But, he adds, environmental harmony is only one of the many reasons why the peninsula’s unique wild cat must remain well spotted.
“On a more emotional level, the lynx is a jewel and a thing of beauty to behold.”