The Iberian lynx (Lynx Pardinus) is a wild cat found on the Iberian Peninsula in southwestern Europe, and more specifically here in Spain. It is currently listed as endangered on the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) red list, which is the world’s most comprehensive inventory of global conservation of biological species. In recent years, the threat category of the Iberian lynx has changed from “Critically Endangered” to “Endangered”. Despite this, the Iberian lynx remains the most endangered feline in the world.
In this article, we will review its current conservation status, explain what makes this feline especially vulnerable, and assess the reasons why the Iberian lynx is in danger of extinction today.
Characteristics of the Iberian lynx
The Iberian lynx is one of the most elusive species in the world, in fact very few people have ever seen an Iberian lynx in the wild. To better understand this mysterious feline, we are going to explain its most striking physical and behavioral traits:
- It has a tawny coat of brown colors with spots that vary in each individual. Their fur also allows them to perfectly camouflage themselves with the bushes.
- Its head is small and is characterized by having a kind of “beard” on its chin, which is present in both males and females, although it is longer in males.
- Their ears are elongated and triangular, ending in furry tips, which are longer in females.
- Its tail is short and ends in a black fur tassel. They hold their tails up when they are alert.
- Its legs are robust and long. They have four fingers with retractable claws that allow them to hold onto their prey.
- It is difficult for them to adapt to environments other than their own, which makes their survival even more challenging.
- Regarding its diet, the favorite prey of the Iberian lynx is the wild rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus), which accounts for up to 90% of its diet.
- Bobcats are solitary and territorial creatures that do not normally interact with each other. They only come together during the breeding season.
- Adults defend their territory and rely on scent markings to deter other individuals of the same sex.
Where exactly does the Iberian lynx live?
As we mentioned before, the Iberian lynx is endemic to the Iberian Peninsula, so its wild population is limited to this area. Its area has decreased by 99% in the last 50 years, since it occupied about 5,800,000 square hectares in the 1950s, but only about 35,000 square hectares in the year 2000.
Both its geographical limits and the size of its populations are currently not known exactly. It is estimated that lynxes inhabit Extremadura, Andalusia (the region with the largest population), Castilla-La Mancha and some areas of Portugal.
The typical habitat of this species is the well-preserved Mediterranean scrub, where it hunts its prey (rabbits) and finds caves that it uses as burrows. There is a low probability of finding lynxes along the roads or in urban areas in general in the Iberian Peninsula. In addition, lynxes avoid open spaces, farmland, and forests, except during breeding season.
Why is the Iberian lynx in danger of extinction?
The Iberian lynx is one of the most endangered animals in Spain. Several factors are responsible for the decline of the Iberian lynx population, which has caused this species to be currently classified as endangered. The main reasons for the precarious status of the Iberian lynx include:
- Destruction and modification of its habitat: during the last 50 years, the population of the Iberian lynx has decreased due to changes in the landscape and the transformation of scrub areas into agricultural and forest areas, which has caused a drastic reduction in its habitat.
- Fragmentation of their habitat: to reproduce, lynxes need to be able to move freely to find a mate. However, they are increasingly isolated from each other as their territory fragments. There is little chance that this species will develop a large and viable population due to the fragmentation of the Mediterranean scrub where they live. In addition, the loss of their environments favors the mortality of young lynxes when they move to other areas.
- Prey decline: Iberian lynxes and several other animal species rely primarily on rabbits, making them an important part of the food chain. However, in the last decade, numerous diseases have caused wild rabbit populations to decline. The decline in rabbit populations, along with the destruction and conversion of former lynx habitats, have played a key role in reducing the lynx population. Despite being excellent hunters and being able to take larger prey such as roe deer, there is no evidence that the lynx hunts other prey when rabbits are scarce.
- Traffic accidents: Traffic accidents, which have become more common in recent years, are another threat to the future of the lynx. In fact, being hit by a moving vehicle still poses the biggest threat to these cats. Although the number of Iberian lynxes has quadrupled in the last three years, the number of lynxes killed on the road has grown at an even higher rate in the same period of time.
Conservation of the Iberian lynx
Due to the near disappearance of the species in recent decades, a series of measures have been taken to ensure its protection and conservation. In 2002, there were only 94 of these animals in the wild. Thanks to the efforts of different organizations, the lynx population reached 547 in 2020. It is expected that by 2025 the Iberian lynx will be listed as “vulnerable” if the trend continues in this way. Different measures are being carried out to ensure the survival of this species:
- Different plans and budget for its conservation: there are currently several projects underway to increase the chances of survival of the Iberian lynx. Some of these projects, such as the Iberlince conservation programme, have received more than €70 million since 2002, half of which comes from the EU and the other half is a combination of funds from local authorities and private donations.
- Captive breeding: There are several programs that aim to conserve the species outside of its natural habitats for a variety of reasons, including being able to maintain a genetically healthy and viable population in captivity. As soon as the population center in Andalusia was secured, it became imperative to create new populations in other parts of the country for the lynx to reproduce.
- Reintroduction of the species: by releasing captive-bred specimens, the aim is to increase wild lynx populations and develop genetic diversity, thus ensuring their future survival. So far, 305 of these wild cats have been reintroduced since 2011, more than was expected when the program began in the early 2000s. In addition, new Iberian lynx populations have also emerged naturally, that is, without need to reintroduce them.
- Recovery plans for its main prey: there are plans to restore the wild rabbit population in these areas. This will help maintain the food chain and provide food for the Iberian lynx and other species. In addition, it has been proven that, depending on the rabbit population, a female lynx can give birth to more or fewer offspring. In regions where more rabbits are available to hunt, the number of pups can double.
- Creation of an action plan to prevent road deaths: Local authorities have implemented a series of urgent measures to combat this problem, including the installation of more traffic signs to alert drivers, the reduction of the speed limit in certain areas, the inspection of road fences and the facilitation of wildlife crossings.
At Hospital Veterinario Glòries we hope that all these measures continue and bear fruit, making the conservation of the Iberian lynx stabilize in Spain and Portugal.