Iberian lynx is making a comeback

Concerned wild cat observers ask whether the Iberian lynx is endangered or even extinct. At one time, around 10 years ago, there was a real possibility that this rarest of wild cat species was indeed going extinct. The main cause of that dire predicament was overhunting of it by people. And of course the usual problems such as loss of habitat and loss of prey animals for the cat. But it is very pleasing to report that it has been announced that the “Iberian cat claws its way back from brink of extinction” – Guardian newspaper dated 25 October 2020.

Iberian lynx
Iberian lynx. Photograph: BELDAD/EPA
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This is thanks to a 20 year project in which their numbers have risen to 855. A recent survey of the population size of the Iberian lynx concluded that it had risen from 94 individuals in 2002 to 855 today. The experts hope that if they can continue as they are the species will no longer be endangered by 2040. You can see that it is a long haul project. The current status in terms of its survivability in the wild is Endangered (this is misreported by some websites as Critically Endangered which is incorrect). It is also incorrectly reported by some websites that the population is decreasing. This is also incorrect. The Red List websites correctly state that the population trend is increasing. They report that the number of mature individuals is 156 with a continuing decline of mature individuals. This appears to be incorrect, however. Perhaps their website needs updating. They do state that their date of assessment was 15 April 2014. Yes, they definitely need to update their website because of this 2019 census in which they counted numbers using camera traps. The IUCN Red List is five years out of date (as at the date of this post please note)!

The survey concluded that 80% of the Iberian lynx population is in Spain and the remainder in Portugal. There are 188 females of reproductive age and 311 cubs were born on the Iberian Peninsula in 2019.

As mentioned, a major cause of the catastrophic decline in Iberian lynx numbers was because of a sharp drop in rabbit numbers (prey animals) following government efforts to get rid of rabbits which lasted until the mid-1970s combined with myxomatosis in 1950s and rabbit hemorrhagic disease in the 1980s. To which you should add the destruction of habitats due to motorway building and the usual general intrusion of human activity.

Miguel Ángel Simón, a biologist, said that when he started on the conservation of the Iberian lynx in 2000 they didn’t even know how many were left in the wild. They discovered that there were 94 and believed that they would disappear. They were very doubtful whether they could save the species as it was right on the edge of extinction and the most endangered and rarest of wild cat species at that time.

The conservationists worked with politicians, landowners and the public. They coordinated a series of projects organised by the Andalusia government in conjunction with other Spanish regions, the Portuguese authorities, NGOs and the public. Today Miguel Ángel Simón is far more optimistic and relatively relaxed about the prospects for survival of this beautiful cat.

The Iberian lynx had become extinct apparently in Portugal but they’ve built the population in that country. The latest part of the conservation programme has been budgeted at €18.8 million of which 60% comes from the European Union. They needed to boost genetic diversity and join up fragmented populations. The fragmentation of habitat is a major cause of decline in numbers and often conservationists build corridors between fragmented sections of the population to create a whole. This allows them to breed. Inbreeding is an issue when numbers are small.

They hope that eventually the species will be categorised as Vulnerable by the Red List. They expect 20 more years hard work before they can say that they have saved the lynx in Iberia. If they carry on this path they expect to have at least 750 females of reproductive age which translates to more than 3000 lynxes in total by 2040.

P.S. It would have been cheaper to have protected the species way back in the 1950s rather than playing a desperate game of catch up in 2020.

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