Lynx on the Brink

Two years ago, the Iberian lynx made the news when the IUCN downgraded it from ‘critically endangered’ to ‘endangered’.

You might have congratulated those involved in the conservation work that led to this indication of recovery with a “well done for not allowing this cat to go extinct” and then return to your tea and toast and move on, but if things had turned out differently — and they still could — the little known Iberian lynx would have been the first feline to be wiped out for 2,000 years.

On the surface, with 2016’s count of 483 individuals living in the wild,  it might seem fair to say that the Iberian lynx (Lynx pardinus) is no longer critically endangered, but on closer inspection it is obvious that this stunning cat — with its tufted ears and iconic “ruff” or facial whiskers — is far from safe.

A female Iberian lynx in the Sierra de Andújar Natural Park in Spain.

A female Iberian lynx in the Sierra de Andújar Natural Park in Spain.

I travelled as a journalist with wildlife photographer Luke Massey to see the combined efforts being made in Spain by the government’s Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Environment in the captive breeding centres, by the EU LIFE project which is funding the re-introductions of the lynx in both Spain and Portugal, and by the local NGOs working to maintain key habitats for the lynx and also the wild rabbit population: their main source of prey.

Known only to breed in areas of Mediterranean scrub and pasture with high rabbit populations, the Iberian lynx once roamed throughout all regions of Spain and Portugal. Serious population decline began in 19th century, mainly due to rabbit epidemics and loss of habitat and reached alarming levels towards the end of the 20th century. Despite a ban on trophy hunting in the early 1970s, the pockets of land where lynx were recorded dropped from twelve populations in 1988 to only two populations in Spain in 2009.

By the turn of the millennium, barely 100 Iberian lynx survived in the wild. This was a creature on the brink of extinction. It would take a bold and collaborative effort to save Europe’s most threatened feline.

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It is highly likely that these days there would be not a single Iberian lynx left in the world had intensive conservation action not been taken sixteen years ago, when its future existence hung so precariously in the balance. Launched in 2001, there is no doubt that significant successes have been made through the EU LIFE project attempting to save the lynx: the population in the wild has risen nearly tenfold from the 52 individuals counted in 2002.

By the end of 2015 two small new nuclei of lynx were present as a result of successful re-introduction programs: one in the hills of Extremadura in south-western Spain and another in southern Portugal. However, scientists at the forefront of the work have emphasised that the IUCN downgrade from ‘critically endangered’ to ‘endangered’ was premature and that the Iberian lynx has been re-categorised at a time when it needs the most support.

Re-introduction projects began in Spain during 2009 and successfully expanded into Portugal in 2014.

Re-introduction projects began in Spain during 2009 and successfully expanded into Portugal in 2014.

The two remaining natural populations are found in Doñana, Spain’s largest natural park, and the main lynx stronghold sits in the foothills of the Sierra Morena mountains, just outside Andujar and Cardeña. Hardly a stone’s throw from the Costa Del Sol, this is a region that attracts the majority of the eight million foreign tourists who visit Andalucia each year, and yet you would be surprised at how few visitors have even heard of this iconic creature. Today, these two natural populations are far from safe and population growth has not proved stable in recent years. For instance, from 2014 to 2015 the number of individuals living as part of the Doñana population decreased.

These days, the Iberian lynx remains especially vulnerable to extinction from sudden random events such as a natural disaster or disease.

Victoria Ascencio, head vet at the Iberlince Extremadura breeding centre in Spain, checks the health of a young lynx cub.

Victoria Ascencio, head vet at the Iberlince Extremadura breeding centre in Spain, checks the health of a young lynx cub.

The ongoing vulnerability of the Iberian lynx comes partly from the fact that over ninety percent of its diet consists of rabbits, making them almost totally reliant on a prey species that is highly susceptible to rapid population declines. Viral hemorrhagic disease and myxomatosis have slashed rabbit numbers within the Sierra Morena, and for those rabbits that survive, lynx are not the only ones who prey upon them. More than thirty other species hunt rabbit in this region — including the Spanish Imperial eagle, golden eagle, and eagle owl — and now there is not a sufficiently large rabbit population left to support the lynx with territories in this area, resulting in direct competition for survival within their own species.

Another serious risk posed to the lynx is the deadly destruction that could be wrought by a large forest fire. There had been no serious incidents in the past twenty years until June 2017 when a huge fire swept through Donana, though it is too early to tell of the impacts on the lynx population. With rising global temperatures and ongoing drought, the risk of further widespread forest fires remains high. The most recent could spell disaster for an animal that has only small localised populations.

A habitat-specialist, the Iberian lynx breeds only in areas of Mediterranean shrubland, which remain vulnerable to a forest fire.

A habitat-specialist, the Iberian lynx breeds only in areas of Mediterranean shrubland, which remain vulnerable to a forest fire.

In recent years, the EU LIFE project has also found that when it comes time for new cubs to find their own territory, the lack of rabbits is forcing them to travel further afield, which correlates with the lynx’s next biggest threat: road deaths. Increasing industrial, real estate and agricultural development has continued to destroy natural corridors for the lynx to move through, which brings them into frequent contact with traffic. Despite preventative measures, fifteen lynx were killed on Spanish roads in 2015.

Between 2002 and 2016 a total of 212 lynx deaths were registered. However, not all of these were from road accidents. While 48 percent are as a result of car collisions, 23 percent are attributed to illegal trapping and poisoning.

Forced to travel greater distances for food, the lynx has became far more susceptible to road accidents in recent years. Preventative measures are being trialled in a number of locations, but lynx are still being killed.

Forced to travel greater distances for food, the lynx has became far more susceptible to road accidents in recent years. Preventative measures are being trialled in a number of locations, but lynx are still being killed.

The Iberian lynx who are still clinging on today are also dealing with another threat from humans: competition for their prey. Despite having been identified as a species in distress, rabbits are still the most commonly hunted animals in Spain, even in areas where lynx are being re-introduced from breeding centres, which exacerbates the pressure from wild competition.

Another related problem is the use of snares and traps for small predator control, which unfortunately catch indiscriminately. However, this is an issue that can be solved with education. Today, conservationists are emphasising that the lynx is in fact the hunter’s friend. Whilst we were sat in a small rural bar in an area where a lynx had re-located of its own accord, on learning that we were tracking the lynx, the barman exclaimed enthusiastically, “It is true! Where lynx exist, numbers of other small predators such as fox, Egyptian mongoose and genet are greatly reduced.” And the barman is right.

Research confirms that restoring the Iberian lynx as an apex predator will help re-establish a critical balance within a region’s ecosystem.

Restocking rabbit populations has been one of the conservation measures implemented in recent years.

Restocking rabbit populations has been one of the conservation measures implemented in recent years.

It is important to emphasise not all communities are continuing their hunting traditions. Some estates are instead choosing to collaborate closely with lynx re-introduction projects and have banned rabbit hunting on their land.

For instance, we learnt that local landowners in the Extremadura region are starting to take great pride in giving the newly re-introduced Iberian lynx a home. One Spanish general has allowed a soft release enclosure of two hectares to be built on his estate and, since 2014, seventeen lynx have been successfully released from this location. These individuals are the first lynx to live wild in Extremadura since they were locally eradicated twenty years ago, and two of the females successfully raised six new cubs in 2015.

Another positive sign is that other lynx released in this area have covered distances of hundreds of kilometres to set up new territories in promising habitats. It is hoped that when the time comes to mate they will find each other or, if permissions allow, other lynx will be released in these new areas which have already been found acceptable by the cats themselves.

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Undoubtedly, the future looks much brighter for the lynx, and progress since 2001 is a positive sign, but it is clearly still on shaky ground.

There simply aren’t enough different pockets of lynx to ensure that a crash wouldn’t render the population unviable. And with so few lynx in existence when the program began, the gene pool is precariously shallow, at risk of a catastrophic crash.

It is primarily for this reason that many see the IUCN’s downgrade to ‘endangered’ as premature, and in reality, it is going to take time and a lot more research before it can be said with confidence that the Iberian lynx is truly out of imminent danger.

Pedro, a game ranger on a private estate scans the scrubland for signs of lynx.

Pedro, a game ranger on a private estate scans the scrubland for signs of lynx.

Meanwhile, those on the ground are doing everything they possibly can to ensure that they get it right — not an easy goal for the technicians of the EU LIFE project who need to keep track of multiple cats across large areas. Luckily, they have a secret weapon: the GPS collar, which allows the cats to be tracked and monitored. Now all of the cats released are fitted with one and even some wild individuals are being caught and collared.

Providing valuable information on territory choice and use, and other biological parameters, these collars may prove the key to saving the lynx from extinction. Already they have unearthed some astonishing journeys.

One lynx named Khan was released 70 kilometres south west of Madrid and travelled 500 kilometres — a journey that took him across motorways, mountains, and over the Tejo river — back to his birthplace in Portugal.

A young female lynx sports a GPS collar. Each is patterned differently for easy identification in the field.

A young female lynx sports a GPS collar. Each is patterned differently for easy identification in the field.

These collars have shown that in the search for a new habitat, the lynx can travel up to 25 kilometres a day. Some will even test the waters, leaving their release site, then trying out new areas, and returning multiple times before they find somewhere suitable to settle. We have also learned that for a female lynx to raise her cubs successfully she will need to hunt three to four rabbits a day. It is unlikely that any of these findings would have ever been made without access to the detailed behavioural data via the GPS collars.

There is also talk of utilising the collars further, as has been done in North America, where some collars have been fitted with a frequency that triggers road-side alarms announcing an animal’s presence to road users, who can then reduce their speed. Looking at the GPS data for the Iberian lynx population so far, there do seem to be road crossing hotspots, and so another method under consideration is to use sensors at these spots to flash warning lights to cars when an animal is in close proximity.

LEFT: A breeding enclosure at the Extremadura Iberlince project. RIGHT: A newly collared cub is released.

LEFT: A breeding enclosure at the Extremadura Iberlince project. RIGHT: A newly collared cub is released.

With the EU LIFE grant ending in December 2017 a further project has been proposed to improve connectivity of the two major populations, but funding has yet to be confirmed for this. However, regional and national governments in both Spain and Portugal intend to continue with the conservation work, and in Andalusia the idea of connecting the Sierra Morena population with the Doñana population to improve genetic diversity still exists.

The latest demographic projections suggest that the long-term viability of the Iberian lynx is strongly dependent on continued reintroductions.

In their absence, a marked decline in population and range is predicted to quickly re-occur and extinction would be likely to take place within only 35 years. Coupled with ongoing uncertainty about the source and intensity of environmental pressures on rabbit populations in regions where re-introduction efforts are currently concentrated, and about the suitability of these regions for lynx under future climate change, these projections emphasise the need for continued intensive conservation efforts.

A wild female Iberian lynx.

A wild female Iberian lynx.

As with any conservation success, these direct actions in the field, from the restoration of habitat, to maintaining prey and re-introducing animals into the wild, only represent half the battle. In large part, it is our attitudes towards the species that have driven the Iberian lynx to near extinction, so changing them is equally important. Education is key and increasingly becoming the focus in the battle to save this beautiful creature.

Let us hope, that as conservationists work tirelessly on the ground, the size, resilience, and range of the Iberian lynx will continue to increase, and man can go another 2,000 years without a feline extinction.

 

THIS ARTICLE WAS PREVIOUSLY PUBLISHED ON MAPTIA.

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AUTHOR - KATIE STACEY

Writer and assistant to wildlife photographer and cameraman Luke Massey.  Stacey uses mixed media to tell wildlife & conservation stories that educate & inspire people to be eco-conscious travellers.

 

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PHOTOGRAPHER - LUKE MASSEY

24 y/o wildlife photographer & sometimes cameraman. Attempting to take nice photos & make a difference. Young Environmental Photographer of the Year 2016.