The Iberian lynx – the rarest species of cat in the world – is now also one of European conservation’s greatest success stories, with numbers in the wild up more than five-fold in just 15 years.
The most recent figures, from the 2017 census, show that there are now at least 547 lynxes on the Iberian Peninsula: an increase of 61 from the previous year. Roughly three-quarters of these (402) were found in the species’ southern stronghold of Andalucía, with the remaining 145 spread across the Spanish regions of Extremadura and Castilla-La Mancha, and parts of neighbouring Portugal to the west.
Photo Credit: Manu Mojarro – Wild Doñana
Given that 15 years earlier, in 2002, the entire world population of this elusive and mysterious cat was just 94 – all of which were confined to a small corner of Andalucía – this is a truly astonishing comeback from the brink of extinction. Today, the range of the Iberian lynx covers 1500 square kilometres, compared to less than one-tenth of that area at the turn of the millennium. Thanks to the rise in numbers, lynxes are now exploring new areas, and have recently been sighted around Toledo, Badajoz and Ciudad Real.
The main reason for this rapid success is a dedicated reintroduction scheme. Started in 2014, and costing a total of €70 million, lynx cubs are bred in captivity and then, when they are ready to become independent, are released back into the wild. They are fitted with radio collars so that the project scientists are able to track their movements.
“It is quite amazing how successful the reintroduction scheme has been and the results achieved in less than four years. They are a magnificent animal to see in the wild, and there are starting to be sightings beyond the heartlands of Andalucia.” Commented Martin Kelsey, Birding Extremadura.
Roughly 50 animals are released each year, across all the regions where lynxes are found, and the first reintroduced individuals are now breeding successfully in the wild. This boosts the tiny population and also creates a more diverse genetic mix, as animals move from one area to another.
As a result of this project, and its success in growing the population, in 2015 the Iberian lynx was officially downgraded from Critically Endangered to Endangered. Although the species may not be completely secure yet, it has undoubtedly been brought back from almost certain extinction.
Photo Credit: Jose Luis Sánchez Balsera – Iberian Lynx Land
“The conservation of lynx is now seen not only as an ethical principle, but a key element of healthy Mediterranean ecosystems and a way to improve the local economy due to the importance of ecotourism as it is one of the “highlights” for most of the nature lovers that come to Andalusia”. Commented José Luis Sánchez, Iberian Lynx Land.
Iberian lynx still face many dangers. In 2017, of 58 animals reported as being found dead, 31 – more than half – had been hit by motor vehicles. So, despite a scheme to build tunnels under major roads through which the cats can pass safely, and warning signs telling drivers to slow down where lynx are present, traffic is still a major threat to the future of the species.
Shortage of prey – mainly rabbits, which suffer from a virus which has reduced their numbers – is also a problem. And despite a campaign to encourage people to treasure this special animal, several are also killed each year by hunters, either being shot or trapped. Finally, habitat loss is a perennial issue, especially the construction of major roads, which fragments the large areas of wild habitat this animal needs to survive.
The Iberian lynx is more brightly coloured and noticeably smaller than its cousin, the far more widespread Eurasian lynx, weighing roughly half as much, but still growing up to one metre long. They hunt mainly at night, or at dawn and dusk, using their excellent night vision to catch rabbits, and also deer and birds.
As with other cats, they are highly territorial, the males regularly marking their territory with their urine. After breeding, females give birth to a litter of two or three kittens, which become independent just before their first birthday.
Like other top predators, the Iberian lynx is what scientists call a ‘keystone species’ – helping to rebalance ecosystems by controlling populations of the species on which it preys. It also has a major cultural importance, as it is one of only a handful of cat species still found in Europe. And it is becoming increasingly important for wildlife tourism, as many people come to Spain to see this beautiful creature for themselves.
Other wildlife on offer in Spain includes a wide range of raptors, such as Spanish Imperial eagle, lammergeier and lesser kestrel; large and spectacular waterbirds, especially white and black storks, cranes and flamingoes; and a range of mammals, including Spanish ibex and brown bear.
Are you interested in seeing an Iberian lynx in Spain?
For more information, contact one of our local wildlife specialists to show you an Iberian lynx in the wild.
Birder, author and wildlife TV producer