Wildlife & Biodiversity

On International Lynx Day, Iberia offers a story of miracle and hope

The Iberian Lynx is back from the verge of extinction and now has a fighting chance at survival

 
By Rajat Ghai
Published: Tuesday 11 June 2024
An Iberian Lynx. Photo: iStock

Bengal tigers, Asiatic lions and Indian leopards are the charismatic members of the family Felidae that most Indians are usually familiar with. However, the family has many other members, one of which is the lynx.

The lynx is found in India, in the frozen cold desert of Ladakh. But given the remoteness of Ladakh, not many people in India know about the species.

In Europe though, the lynx has been regarded as one of the three major predators of the continent along with the gray wolf and the brown bear.

Indeed, the world’s second-smallest continent is home to two of the world’s four types of lynx: The larger Eurasian lynx, which is also found in Ladakh, and the smaller Iberian lynx found in the Iberian peninsula (Spain and Portugal).

“The Eurasian lynx is one of Europe's largest predators. It has bounced back from the brink of extinction in Europe but it is still critically endangered in some areas, such as in the Voges, in the Palatinian forest, the Bohemian-Bavarian forest and the Balkans,” according to WWF EU.

But it is the Iberian lynx that we should talk about. For its story is one of miracle and hope.

A complete rebound

The Iberian lynx was down to just 94 individuals when the new century began. According to WWF Spain, a number of reasons were responsible for the cat’s decline.

The main cause though was the decline in food supply. Wild rabbits, the lynx’s main food source, have sharply declined. This, in turn, has caused the cat’s numbers to reduce.

WWF Spain attributes the decline in the wild rabbit population of Iberia to various diseases. A paper published over a decade ago agrees.

“Historically, wild rabbits have sharply declined in the Iberian Peninsula, mainly as a consequence of habitat loss and the arrival of viral diseases. Most Iberian rabbit populations are still declining so different management techniques are employed to revert this scenario,” the paper titled Wild Rabbit Management in the Iberian Peninsula: State of the art and future perspectives for Iberian lynx conservation notes.

This, then, was the status of the Iberian lynx about 25 years ago. Conservationists got to work to save the animal before it was too late. Last month, their efforts paid off.

Welcome news

In mid-May, Spain’s Ministry of the Ecological Transition and the Demographic Challenge (MITECO) released the results of the latest Iberian lynx census.

They found that there were a total of 2,021 specimens in 2023, 21 per cent more than in 2022, in 14 populations in Spain and Portugal. There was also a 23 per cent increase in the number of females.

Of the 2,021 animals, Spain had 1,730 individuals, comprising 85.6 per cent of the population, while Portugal had 291 cats, comprising 14.4 per cent.

Of the 14 populations, 13 were in Spain and one in Portugal. In Spain, there were four in Andalusia, three in Castilla-La Mancha and six in Extremadura.

Andalusia in the southern part of Spain constitutes the bulk of the country’s population with 755 individuals (37.4 per cent of the total). It is followed by Castilla-La Mancha with 715 (35.4 per cent) and finally Extremadura with 253 (12.5 per cent). The lynx is being introduced into Murcia. But it is still rare there.

The ultimate aim of conservationists is for the lynx to reach between 3,000 and 3,500 individuals. Once that happens, the lynx will be considered out of danger.

The number of females is currently 406. The plan is to help increase this figure to 750.

“Despite the population growth of the Iberian lynx, we are especially concerned about the decline in the wild rabbit population, which has decreased by 70 per cent in the last 10 years and is the main food of the lynxes. On the other hand, poaching, illegal hunting and road accidents continue to put the survival of the species at risk,” according to Ramón Pérez de Ayala, WWF Iberian lynx expert.

But for now, conservationists in Spain and Portugal can finally hope as the Iberian lynx has a fighting chance at survival.

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