They once numbered in their tens of thousands, stalking the grasslands and hunting down rabbits in south-western Europe. But by 2002, after extensive persecution from farmers and a massive reduction in their prey, only 100 Iberian lynx (Lynx pardinus) were thought to survive in a few isolated populations in southern Spain. But since then, after concerted conservation efforts and breeding programs, their numbers have been steadily climbing.
There are now thought to be more than 300 of the cats living in the Mediterranean forests of Spain and Portugal. The efforts to save the species have been considered to be so effective that last year, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature down listed them from “critically endangered” to “endangered.” Much of this effort has focused on intensive breeding centers, such as the La Olivilla lynx breeding center in Santa Elena, Spain.
The number of Iberian lynxes is steadily increasing, with over 300 now thought to be living in the wild. Antonio Rivas Salvador/Rewilding Europe
It is estimated that around 124 of the cats have been released since 2014, with an impressive 20 having already been set loose since the beginning of this year. The Iberian lynx is distinctive for its characteristic “beard,” as well as a heavily spotted pelt and small body size, probably an adaptation to its specialization as a rabbit hunter in grasslands. If the Iberian lynx was to go extinct, it would be the first feline to have done so since the saber-toothed smilodon died out 10,000 years ago. While cats such as the Bali tiger and eastern cougar have gone extinct, these were classed as subspecies and not full species in their own right.
In 2015 there was an impressive total of 53 cubs born across the Iberian Peninsula. Yet the cats still face many threats that challenge their survival in the wild. The decimation of their main prey, rabbits, has been one of the biggest drivers of their decline, especially when the viral disease myxomatosis wiped out large chunks of rabbit populations. Now, a new strain of hemorrhagic disease is currently an issue for rabbits. Another rising problem is one of encounters with traffic, with 2014 being particularly deadly for the cats, as 22 died on the roads.
Many conservationists want to see the larger Eurasian lynx returned to the rest of Europe. Rudmer Zwerver/Shutterstock
The lynx is one of two species native to Europe, the other being the far more common and larger Eurasian lynx (Lynx lynx). Even this species, however, has seen its range significantly reduced over the last few hundred years, with its population now concentrated in northern Europe and Siberia. This has led to growing calls from environmentalists and conservation groups from across the continent to reintroduce the Eurasian lynx to the areas in which it was hunted to extinction.
This has been met with success in Germany, France, and Switzerland, as well as in numerous other countries where they have been released, and adds to an increasing demand to have the animals released back into Britain, where they have been absent for the past 1,300 years. This year will probably see an application to Scottish National Heritage and Natural England for a license to reintroduce the lynx back into the island nation’s forests.