Handsome, with burnished sideburns, a look that could kill, and a dazzling coat perfectly camouflaged to the Mediterranean colour palette, the Iberian lynx is truly the Iberian ‘jewel’. Today, the species has found a special place in the heart of the Spanish people, and it is thanks to the collaborative work of conservation groups, who together achieved one of the most dramatic population recoveries in the history of European conservation.
The species was once abundant across the Iberian peninsula. But by 2002, a vortex of human threats had brought the population to its knees, with fewer than 100 individuals remaining wild. ‘It was a silent extinction,’ says Carmen Rueda, field technician at Conservation of Biodiversity and its Habitat (CBD-Habitat) – an organisation at the forefront of the lynx recovery programme, partnered with The European Nature Trust. ‘People in the villages in the south of Spain believed there to be lynx present during the 1980s, as they always had been, but it was becoming rarer and rarer to actually see them. Many local extinction processes happened simultaneously,’ Carmen explains.
The Iberian lynx has had a tumultuous history: in the early 20th century, the species began to be intensely persecuted for hunting sport and the trade in its exotic fur. Later, a drastic decline in the abundance of the Iberian lynx’s main prey, the wild rabbit, hammered a nail into the coffin. In the 1950s, an unscrupulous French doctor purposely introduced myxomatosis – a rabbit-specific disease – to his garden, in order to keep rabbits from his vegetable patch. But by the 1990s, it had swept across Europe, spreading to the Iberian peninsula. Together with a second rabbit disease, Rabbit Haemorrhagic Disease (RHD), the introduced diseases killed off 95% of wild rabbits. The Iberian lynx was unable to adapt fast enough to these changes in the food chain. The lynx’s diet is more than 75% rabbit; having co-evolved together during the Pleistocene epoch, the Iberian lynx evolved a smaller and slicker body shape than the Eurasian lynx, allowing it to stalk and hunt rabbits in patchy Mediterranean shrubs. While introduced diseases were ravaging the lynx’s prey, development in many key areas was destroying and degrading lynx habitat – a perfect storm for the species’ extinction.
A rare success story
Seeing that the population was on the brink of collapse in 2002, the European Commission’s LIFE programme brought together more than 20 organisations, including CBD-Habitat, to step in and revive the population. ‘The dangerous situation really brought groups together,’ says Carmen. The strategy was relatively simple: establish a network of breeding centres at carefully selected sites across their historic range; create a genetically-resilient stock population; and gear up for an eventual wild release to create ‘seed’ populations that would in time disperse to fill the historic range. Since those early days, those ‘seed’ populations have successfully been established, growing the number of wild Iberian lynx from a historic low of below 100 individuals to more than 1,000 today, now spread across eight distinct populations. ‘There was the financial backing of the LIFE programme to really start building a network of reintroduction projects,’ says Carmen. ‘It was an example of what can happen when conservation groups come together.’
Today, Carmen is working with her small team at CBD-Habitat to monitor many of the reintroduced populations, track their movement and behaviour with camera trapping and geotagging surveys, and observe their progress. ‘In just a few years, we’ve seen a significant population recovery. The challenge now is to manage the expansion of the reintroduced populations,’ she says. But that entails significant monitoring work. ‘With the reintroductions, the sites were heavily scrutinised and carefully selected. Now, those ‘seed’ populations are dispersing into new areas, which is great, but we don’t necessarily know how they will behave. That’s where monitoring comes in’
Another critical challenge is to recover the habitat. Much of the lynx’s former scrubland habitat has been lost to human development over time. As such, Carmen and CBD-Habitat are working with other conservation groups on the LIFE LynxConnect project. Launched in 2020, it aims to create at least 10 wildlife corridors of rabbit-rich, diversified habitat, which scientists call ‘stepping stones’ – passageways of plentiful habitat encouraging isolated lynx populations to disperse and connect with one another. This year, organisations like CBD-Habitat will work to establish these wildlife corridors, while reintroducing lynx to new Spanish locations currently missing the species, such as Granada and Murcia. In time, supplemented populations of wild rabbit will help to spread the seeds of scrubland species, allowing natural processes to improve the habitat quality.
In many areas of rural Spain, the population recovery has been helped by a willingness of local communities to welcome back the carnivore. Fortunately, ‘the lynx is not a very conflictive animal,’ says Carmen. ‘It’s handsome, people like watching the animal and ecologically speaking, it is beneficial for hunting groups.’ It has been proven that lynx also control the numbers of other predators, such as fox and mongoose, by killing them or expelling them out of the territory. This takes the pressure off of the prey species such as the rabbit, which is a species highly prized by human hunters in the area.
For a select few however, the lynx is still viewed as a pest for supposedly harming livestock. Around 12% of the lynx deaths each year are caused by illegal killings and poisonings. To mitigate these threats, CBD-Habitat are working on education initiatives to help communities realise the value of the lynx as an emblem of wild Iberia, and a critical part of the ecosystem. Around 50% of lynx deaths are caused by collisions with traffic, while another 12% are caused by diseases. CBD-Habitat advises on planned infrastructural projects to minimise damage to the growing lynx population, as well as carrying out health monitoring surveys in collaboration with regional government teams.
A critical step for the lynx is for local communities to embrace the species as a catalyst for enterprise. ‘In many areas, the lynx population recovery has helped new businesses to start: wildlife watching tour operators, wildlife photography businesses, hotels and restaurants, for example’ says Carmen. ‘However, it comes down to the local people’s perception of the species, and what they want for their local area: if they want these kind of developments, they’re the ones that have to make the first step. But if we come together with a shared vision, the recent history of this beautiful species tells us exactly what is possible.’
“One of the most important duties we have in the field is the monitoring and surveillance of the Iberian lynx. The Leica equipment will help us with this work, from monitoring dens with cubs to interactions between lynx and other species (including humans). It will also help us to observe lynx that may have a physical problem, such as a limp, to determine with the veterinary team if it’s necessary to intervene. Lynx have peaks of activity during dawn and dusk, when the light is not very good, so good optical equipment is crucial to observe the lynx in these conditions.
The Leica optics will also be very helpful with our educational activities. Observing animals whilst maintaining our distance, to make sure we are not disturbing them, is very important. Having good quality optics will help people that visit our work to observe the lynx in their natural habitat. Good observation of such an impressive species is incredibly powerful. It’s an experience that stays in the eye and heart forever.”
Copyright © Images courtesy of CBD-Habitat Foundation.