Return of the Algarve tiger

As a child, I loved writing. From age seven I would write and illustrate short poems and stories for my younger siblings to enjoy (hopefully they enjoyed them...). When I was 12 years old, I started leaning towards a more factual side of writing and combined it with my cat obsession to start my own little feline-themed newsletter (I definitely called it a magazine at the time). I'd write about anything felid-related – from tips on adopting streets cats, to the ethics of cloning pets, to the ecology of wild feline species. It was researching for this newsletter that I first learned about the Iberian lynx (Lynx pardinus). Initially I was drawn to this feline because it is the only "big cat" native to Spain, where I grew up.

© Programa de Conservación Ex-Situ del Lince Ibérico
Cover of the lynx special issue of my childhood
"magazine", Catscraze, and LynxAid campaign.
The Ib. lynx photo is © Antonio Sabater, who
kindly allowed me to use his stunning image
for the issue.
I was shocked to realise how endangered this cat was, who's name I'd only previously seen when I took it upon myself to memorise the common and scientific names of all 37 feline species. At the time, there were at most 150 Iberian lynxes left in Spain and the cats were expected to have already disappeared from Portugal, where it had been known as the "Algarve tiger". It was the only feline species classed as "Critically Endangered" on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)'s Red List of Threatened Species. There were (and are) far fewer Iberian lynx in existence than tigers, which any western three-year-old can recognise despite being born a continent away. This was an extremely rare European big cat that the media largely ignored.

Thankfully, things have changed in the last 11 years. More people have heard of the Iberian lynx, for a start. Since the birth of the first Iberian lynx in captivity in 2005, the species has very very gradually gained more media attention and, perhaps more importantly, it is talked about more in its native Iberian peninsula. Conservation in the media works by having a few pretty poster species, which draw people's attention and attract support and resources for its protection. This system generally works because if you are promoting the preservation of the species in question's natural habitat, even if it is not the most endangered species in that habitat, you are preserving all the other – potentially "uglier" – species in that ecosystem as well. The Iberian lynx has arguably become that poster species for Spanish and Portuguese wildlife. What is more, the Iberian lynx's story has been transformed from one of despair to one of hope.

When I started raising awareness and funds for the conservation of the Iberian lynx a decade ago (an effort which today I am ashamed to say I have not kept up in recent years), there were two captive breeding centres in Spain desperately hoping to reverse the feline's drastic decline. Although we may be used to zoos producing a constant stream of newborn animals, these are usually animals that have few qualms with breeding in captivity or have have such a long history in captivity that they have become accustomed to doing so. Although one of these Iberian lynx captive breeding centres is a zoo, Jerez Zoo near Seville, because the idea of the breeding programme has always beens to eventually release the animals into the wild, the lynx are off-display – a fact I admittedly had mixed feelings about when I went to Jerez in hope of catching a glimpse of my favourite animal, but it is definitely the right thing to do to ensure the cats do not become accustomed to humans. The other was the first breeding centre set up for the Iberian lynx, the Centro de Cría el Acebuche in Doñana National Park (which I was invited to visit and was again a little dismayed not to be allowed to see any lynx, but glad that they had taken that approach).

A captive-born Iberian lynx kitten.
© Programa de Conservación Ex-Situ del Lince Ibérico
Today, five Iberian lynx breeding centres, including one in Portugal, comprise the Iberian lynx ex-situ conservation programme (Programa de Conservación Ex-Situ del Lince Ibérico, Dozens of lynx have been born in these breeding centres since the birth of the first captive Iberian lynx litter ten and a half years ago. However, perhaps the clearest indication of the programme's success is that several lynx have been reintroduced into the wild. The Iberian lynx's numbers have at least doubled in the last decade, with an estimated 300 individuals around today. Last month, after 13 years classified as  "Critically Endangered", the IUCN upgraded the Iberian lynx's status on the Red List to "Endangered", noting the cat's increasing population trend. However, this move was not met without hesitation by experts and environmentalists, some of who fear this may reduce the urgency of the lynx's situation in the eyes of the European and Spanish government bodies funding conservation efforts to save Iberia's only large cat.

It is important to note that 300 animals representing an entire species is still not very much at all. There are still huge hurdles to overcome before we can consider the Iberian lynx's future secure. Importantly, most of the threats that have contributed to the lynx's disappearance from over 90% of its former range are still very much present in the wild. To begin with, much of their natural habitat has been degraded, urbanised, or transformed into farmland. Although it is illegal to kill Iberian lynx, the odd lynx is still shot by farmers to protect their livestock and many more are trapped in snares. Roads through the lynx's territory have resulted in many casualties as the felines attempt to cross them. Perhaps the most important factor in the Iberian lynx's demise was the drastic collapse of the wild rabbit population in Spain and Portugal in the 20th century, due to the introduction of myxomatosis, a disease which wiped out most of the peninsula's rabbits, which make up about 95% of the Iberian lynx's diet. All these problems need to be addressed before Spain can truly claim to have saved the Iberian lynx. It is clear, however, that the Iberian lynx's increasing numbers in a world of perishing wildlife shows that it is possible to bring species back from the brink when local and EU governmental entities support the efforts of scientists and environmentalists.

© Programa de Conservación Ex-Situ del Lince Ibérico
I wrote this as a brief update on the Iberian lynx's status, since it is something people who knew me in my lynx campaigning years always ask about. I'll endeavour to write a more detailed piece on the biology and threats to the Iberian lynx at some point in the near future!


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