Saving the Rarest Cat – the Iberian Lynx

Iberian lynx (Lynx pardinus) (source: Wikipedia)Two endemic carnivorous species live in Europe: one is the European mink (Mustela lutreola) and the other is the Iberian lynx (Lynx pardinus). The Iberian lynx is the most endangered carnivorous species in Europe and the rarest feline species in the world. Thus this species is listed as critically endangered by IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature). The Iberian lynx were distributed throughout the whole Iberian Peninsula in the middle of the 19th century, but today only a small population survives in Central and Southwest Spain in the Sierra Morena, Montes de Toledo and Doñana National Park. There is no confirmed information regarding their occurrence in Portugal.

Iberian lynx (Lynx pardinus) (source: Wikipedia)Iberian lynx live in Mediterranean arid forests and scrublands. They prefer habitats where densely vegetated areas – that provide hiding places – alternate with open areas that offer hunting grounds. However, Iberian lynx avoid agricultural lands and eucalyptus and pine plantations because prey is scarce in these areas.

While the size of the Iberian Peninsula and Southern France (where some thousand-year-old fossils of the species have also been found) has never been big enough to support a large number of Iberian lynx, the population started to shrink since the 1950s, mainly as a result of two facts. One is the destruction and fragmentation of the habitats. Agricultural lands and plantations replaced the natural vegetation, so the lynx could not find suitable conditions.

Iberian lynx (Lynx pardinus) with prey (source: Wikipedia)The other fact which threatens the survival of the Iberian lynx is their relatively specialised diet. More than 90% of the diet of the Iberian lynx consists of common rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus). Myxomatosis is a fatal disease that appeared among rabbits, what – combined with overhunting by humans – resulted in a decrease of the rabbit population. Moreover, another illness, the viral haemorrhagic disease, also appeared in the 1980s, which resulted in a further decrease of the rabbit population. The Iberian lynx is protected in Spain and Portugal since 1974, so the hunting of the species came to an end, but certain specimens still fall victims for traps for other species. Furthermore several lynx die on the roads by being run over by cars.

Iberian lynx (Lynx pardinus) with cub (source: Wikipedia)A program was begun to save the Iberian lynx, coordinated by Doñana National Park and Zoobotánico Jerez with support of the European Union in Spain and Portugal in 2002. In the scope of this program farmers living in the habitat of the lynx get support if they agree to stop hunting for rabbits. Captive breeding is another important element of this program. There are three breeding centres in Spain and one in Portugal. The first captive born Iberian lynx were born in 2005. The first two captive born females were set free in February 2011. They were followed by 71 other specimens in the next three years.

Iberian lynx (Lynx pardinus) (source: Wikipedia)Great efforts are made in the breeding centres so that the animals do not meet people. Thus the animals are under 24 hour surveillance by cameras. Moreover, an intermediary insect species, a bloodsucking cimicid is used for blood tests instead of artificial intervention. Due to this carefulness a prior rehabilitation program is not necessary before the lynx are released to the wild; animals can be placed directly into their natural habitats. Only 84-143 adult animals were living free in two separated breeding populations in Spain in 2007 as estimated by IUCN. Thanks to the reintroductions, the wild population consisted of approximately 300 specimens in six populations at the end of 2014. There are more than 136 Iberian lynx living in breeding centres, Jerez Zoo and Lisboa Zoo.

For now, the saving of the Iberian lynx can be regarded as a successful program, but the long-term future of the species is still uncertain.

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