Europe

Iberian lynx returns to Spain from verge of extinction

Female lynx with cubs (July 2015) Image copyright Junta de Andalucia Manuel Moral

An intense conservation campaign has brought the Iberian lynx back to the south of Spain from the verge of extinction barely 10 years ago, Guy Hedgecoe reports from Spain.

At the La Olivilla lynx breeding centre in Santa Elena, in southern Spain, a group of conservationists are in an office, gathered around a TV monitor.

On it they watch an Iberian lynx cub learn to hunt by playing with a domestic rabbit in one of the centre's compounds. The lynx, the size of a small cat, is only a few weeks old but already has the sharply pointed ears and mottled fur that make the species so recognisable.

It swipes playfully at the rabbit with its paws, but still has a long way to go before it graduates to killing its own prey.

When it does, it will probably be released into the wild, following in the tracks of many other animals born in captivity here.

Just over a decade ago, the Iberian lynx, also known as Lynx pardinus, was on the verge of extinction, with only 90 animals registered, in the Andujar and Donana areas of southern Spain.

'Saving the species'

But an intense campaign over recent years has brought it back from the brink, with 327 lynxes believed to be roaming southern, central and western Spain, as well as parts of Portugal, last year.

Image copyright Junta de Andalucia David Palacios
Image caption It is feared that rabbit haemorrhagic disease, a highly contagious virus, may harm the comeback of lynxes
Image copyright Guy Hedgecoe
Image caption The La Olivilla lynx breeding centre in Santa Elena is at the forefront of the conservation programme

"We're on the way to saving the species," says Miguel Simon, director of the Iberlince lynx conservation programme.

"Losing this unique natural treasure would have been as bad for us as losing the Great Mosque in Cordoba or the Alhambra in Granada."

In June, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) improved the status of the Iberian lynx from "critically endangered" to "endangered". In its appraisal, the organisation saw the mammal's recovery as "excellent proof that conservation really works".

Around 140 specimens have been released into the wild, with the Iberian wildcat programme borrowing reintroduction techniques used by German conservationists.

Not all good news

But this success has not been cheap. Between 2002 and 2018, the programme will have received €69m (£49m; $76m) in funding, mainly from the European Union.

Much of that money has gone into three breeding centres in Spain, including in Santa Elena and one in Portugal.

Image copyright Junta de Andalucia Maria Teresa del Rey
Image caption Last year 22 lynxes were killed by vehicles on Spanish roads
Image copyright Guy Hedgecoe
Image caption Miguel Simon (right) - seen here with veterinarian Maria Jose Perez at La Olivilla breeding centre - says forecasts of the imminent demise of lynxes are "alarmist"
Image copyright Guy Hedgecoe
Image caption Some wonder whether the IUCN was right to take the lynx off the "critically endangered" list

Teresa del Rey Wamba, a veterinarian who works on the conservation programme in southern Spain, says that prior to the animal's recent comeback, a lack of appropriate prey was a major problem, as was illegal hunting.

Clamping down on poaching and encouraging the growth of rabbit populations - the lynx's favoured food - were therefore key, with private landowners, local governments and hunting federations all supporting the programme.

But it is not all good news. Last year, 22 lynxes were killed by vehicles on Spanish roads.

Miguel Simon says that while this is a problem, it also reflects how the lynxes' movement has increased as their numbers have risen.

His team has overseen the installation of underground tunnels, custom-built for the animals to cross busy roads, and more are planned.

Of greater concern however is a recent outbreak across southern Europe of rabbit haemorrhagic disease, a highly contagious virus that has been killing off the lynxes' staple diet since 2011 and reducing their reproductive rate.

In light of this threat, the IUCN decision to take the lynx off the "critically endangered" list was incorrect, according to Emilio Virgos, a lynx expert at Rey Juan Carlos University in Madrid.

"If all the data we have so far about how lynxes live and survive and reproduce are correct, and we have no reason to think otherwise, the number of lynxes… will drop drastically," he says of the outlook for the next few years.

He warns that extinction is still a possibility within decades.

What is a lynx?

  • A medium-sized cat which lives in the wild
  • There are four different species - Eurasian, Iberian, Canada and Bobcat
  • The Eurasian lynx is the biggest - about 60cm tall - roughly the same size as a Labrador
  • The Iberian lynx is one of the rarest smaller wildcats in the world - mainly found in parts of Spain and Portugal
  • The Bobcat is found in North America while the Canada lynx lives in Canada and Alaska
  • Most lynxes are listed as threatened or endangered and are prized by poachers for their fur
  • Lynxes are usually only active at night and hunt deer, rabbits and hares for food

While Mr Simon is worried about the rabbit virus, he describes such forecasts as "alarmist" and points to an emergency plan to boost rabbit numbers. Its success, he says, will depend in great part on continued funding.

"The battle for conservation of the lynx is never-ending," he says.

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