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Iberian Lynx Is Back from Brink,
But Still Faces Major Challenges

By William H. Funk
Captive breeding and habitat restoration efforts have helped revive the Iberian lynx, whose numbers had fallen to less than 100. But human development and the decline of its chief prey, the European rabbit, still threaten this elegant predator.

22 Dec 2015

Of all the world’s imperiled wild cats, few are as threatened as the Iberian lynx, whose numbers plummeted in 2002 to fewer than 100 individuals surviving in two isolated breeding populations in the southernmost Spanish province of Andalucía. Today, thanks to captive breeding efforts that have brought together landowners, scientists, and government officials, Iberian lynx numbers have edged back up to 160. But while this elegant, 25-pound predator — a close relative of the American bobcat — has been pulled back from the brink of extinction, serious challenges remain in ensuring that it will continue to survive in the dry scrub and Mediterranean woodlands of its native land.

The Iberian lynx (Lynx pardinus) was historically widespread throughout the Iberian Peninsula and the south of France. But by the early 2000s its numbers had been decimated by centuries of habitat destruction and poaching, as well as the rapid decline of its chief prey, the European rabbit, due to an exotic viral

Click to enlarge

Wikimedia Commons
An Iberian lynx in the wild.
disease. Only about five percent of the lynx’s natural habitat remains, the rest having been lost to agriculture, dams, highways, housing, and other development. As the cat’s numbers plummeted, its genetic diversity became increasingly impoverished.

Captive breeding programs have played a central role in staving off the first extinction in the feline family since the saber-toothed cat died out 10,000 years ago at the hands of our Pleistocene ancestors. One of these programs is run by the Instituto da Conservação da Natureza e da Biodiversidade in the Algarve region of Portugal, which, along with other Portuguese and Spanish facilities, breeds lynx for reintroduction to the wild. On March 3, 2012 the first kittens were born to a female named Biznaga, then one of nine females at the center that together produced 17 kits that year.

Over the years approximately 100 million euros have been poured into conservation efforts on behalf of the Iberian lynx, from scientific analyses and educational efforts, to habitat improvements, and, most importantly, the reintroduction of dozens of the speckled-gray, captive-bred cats to Andalucía. In a promising development, a lynx was recently seen prowling far to the north, in Don Quixote’s old stomping grounds of Castile-La Mancha in central Spain.

Under the auspices of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), Spanish scientists with the Large Carnivore Initiative for Europe are seeking to restore habitats in southern Spain and Portugal to mimic the agrarian Mediterranean terrain that since classical times was home to the
In June, the status of the Iberian lynx was upgraded from critically endangered to endangered.
European rabbit. A 2009 report found that marginal olive groves close to the Natural Park of the Sierra de Cardeña y Montoro, in Córdoba, would be suitable lynx and rabbit habitat if landowners were paid to allow a percentage of their olive orchards to return to the dry meadows and maquis thickets in which the lynx evolved. A program proposed by the Spanish government envisions wildlife corridors linking 72 core habitats to allow for further genetic exchange of isolated lynx populations.

But recovery is being impeded on several fronts. The toll taken by roads is significant, with a record 22 lynx struck and killed by Spanish motorists last year, up from two in 2008. Wildlife corridors over or under highways can do much to reduce vehicular mortality, with scientists estimating that an investment of 6 million euros would go far to secure the cats’ safety from these largely avoidable traffic fatalities. So far, though, little has been done to snatch what seems to be the low-hanging fruit of Iberian lynx conservation.

In June, the IUCN upgraded the status of the Iberian lynx from critically endangered to endangered, saying that the cat’s recovery was “excellent proof that conservation really works.” But some scientists have challenged this more optimistic assessment, given the threats the species still faces.

Researchers also are concerned about climate change, which, according to a 2013 study in the journal Nature Climate Change, is expected to cause Spain’s rabbit population to seek higher, cooler habitat. The study’s authors found it doubtful that the cats can adapt fast enough on their own to keep up with the rabbits, saying that reintroduction efforts must allow for links to cooler upland habitats to allow the rabbits — followed by the lynx — to seek shelter from the heat. Unless climate change is figured into reintroduction efforts, the scientists say, years of hard work invested on its behalf could vanish with the Iberian lynx within 50 years.

William H. Funk is a freelance writer with broad experience in natural and human history, conservation biology, land preservation, traditional cultures and environmental law, policy, and politics.

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