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The missing lynx: a conservation success story in the Andalusian mountains

It all started in June 1952 when a celebrated physician decided to introduce the myxomatosis virus into rabbits with the intention of eradicating the individuals on his estate. He had a great success with this project as 98% of the rabbits on his property died over the next two months. Regrettably, his actions were to have consequences over a vast distance and an unspeakable ecological impact. The virus spread rapidly within the wild population of rabbits making its way across the European countryside.

Over 1500 km away, an endemic wild felid which was already facing multiple threats began to see its preferred food, the European wild rabbit, declining at great pace. The Iberian lynx, one of the four species in the Lynx genus, historically called the continental Iberian Peninsula their home. It is a species closely linked to a very particular habitat, the Mediterranean scrubland, dominated by holm and cork oak interspaced with shrubs and grasslands. Over time, herbivores like rabbits and deer played an important role in shaping the vegetal landscape, keeping it open. Non-native pines dot the landscape and create a beautiful although not so natural effect. Red deer, wild boar, Spanish ibex and fallow deer have traditionally been hunted for sport and continue to be game species.

The Iberian lynx was considered to be vermin among the farming communities in Spain and Portugal and were actively hunted. Hunting, habitat loss, declining rabbit population and low genetic diversity were the main causes that led to the species being categorised as “Critically Endangered” by the IUCN. In 2002, the Iberian lynx was thought to be the most endangered felid species in the world. It was evident that serious action and a dedicated team to save this species.

It would take a team of dedicated researchers from Switzerland and Spain find ways to communicate and work together to reverse the decline of the Iberian lynx. Several projects were launched with the European Union LIFE initiative and through these, the lynx and rabbit populations were monitored. Warrens were built to facilitate to breed successfully, a captive lynx population was established, and reintroductions were carefully monitored. Other causes for lynx mortality such as road kills and habitat loss were addressed through road signs and raising awareness among the local population.

Lynx are not the only endemic species which suffered from a severe population decline. The Spanish imperial eagle with their iconic splashes of white on their shoulders were nearly annihilated. In the 1960s with only 30 breeding pairs left in Spain, the species was listed as Critically Endangered by the IUCN. Like the Iberian lynx, these raptors are heavily dependent on rabbits as a food source and the decline in the rabbit population was among the causes for the drop in the eagle population. Conservation efforts which began in the 1980s led to the recovery of the species and today, the IUCN reports 970 mature individuals and an increasing population trend. However, some of the threats persist and are currently being addressed.

I visited Andalusia in January 2020 with great hopes of seeing and photographing this wild cat, the star of an incredible recovery. What was most surprising about this visit was to see the number of local Spanish people willing to wait out for hours in freezing temperatures just to catch a glimpse of an Iberian lynx. Families with young children, retirees, young adults; Spanish people of all ages equipped with scopes, binoculars and high-end cameras lined the roads in search of the lynx. Clearly, somewhere along the way, a change in perception among the local population had occurred and the lynx was no longer considered to be a pest. New generations of farmers and landowners were also changing their attitude towards this wild cat.

Waiting for the cats to move can take some time. On one occasion, we located a young lynx at around seven in the morning. She was asleep among the rocks and did not look like she would move for quite a while. Every time she raised her head to yawn or have a quick wash, there was a flurry of camera shutters going off and hushed whispers of excitement, anticipating her next move. Would she get up? She did not, and by nine in the morning, as the sun began to warm up the surroundings, we went to search along the road for other wildlife. Red deer can be seen in abundance, rabbits, kestrels, vultures, hawfinches, alpine accentors and azure-winged magpies are just some of the other species of interest in the area. For keen birders, the Iberian green woodpecker and moustached warbler are highlights. The ever-present red-legged partridges and magpies are great at signalling the presence and movement of lynx.

A personal highlight was a group of long-tailed tits that were foraging on the lichen in the tree I was sitting in, while waiting for the lynx. A noisy bunch bursting with energy and not sitting in one spot for more than a few seconds, they were a great entertainment during the long wait.

Even though it was January and the temperatures were sub-zero every morning and evening, flowers were bursting with colour along the sides of the road and in the scrubland. Glittering gold miniature wild daffodils, purple and blue wild rosemary, pink herb-Roberts and many more surprises for this time of the year. As the afternoon wore on, the sun made its way across the sky and with the shadows lengthening, we returned to the lynx.

She had moved on to another rock behind a bush and was barely visible. After a while, she slipped off the rock into a cave below. To the delight of all, she suddenly emerged from the shadows just as the golden light touched the entrance of the rock cave. What an incredible moment! But that was not all; she walked towards the fence lined with photographers and began playing with a dead rabbit. This went on for quite a while and as the veil of night lowered, so did the ability of cameras to capture these moments. We continued to watch her until she was barely visible and then headed back to our lodgings with hearts bursting with happiness and cameras filled with incredible images.

The story of the Iberian lynx recovery is indeed one of great determination, extensive biological and genetic studies and changing attitudes. The IUCN Cat Specialist Group played a pivotal role in turning the Iberian lynx’s future into a success; unifying different people/interests together towards a common goal while providing vital scientific support.

The way forward for the Iberian lynx is to surely continue down this path, encouraging ecotourism and creating varied opportunities for people to see these beautiful felids. Some enterprising farmers have begun building hides, providing photography stands with lunchboxes and removing fences; actions which will have positive impact for the general lynx situation. Additional actions in the future could include setting up mobile tea/coffee wagons which could make the wait for the lynx more comfortable during these foot-stamping freezing mornings.

Today the message is clear: a live Iberian lynx is worth far more than a dead one.

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