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One of the 722 lynx cubs born last year in Spain and Portugal. R. C.
Iberian lynx population in Spain and Portugal has doubled in just three years
Nature

Iberian lynx population in Spain and Portugal has doubled in just three years

Over 2,000 of these felines are now living in the wild for the first time since proper records began and the species is increasingly stepping back from the brink of extinction

Alfonso Torices

Madrid

Friday, 24 May 2024, 12:11

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The lynx population on the Iberian peninsula has doubled in just three years. There are now 2,021 specimens of this native feline roaming freely throughout the southern half of these two countries. Iberian lynx can be found in the grasslands, marshes and mountains of Andalucía, Extremadura, Castilla-La Mancha, Levante and southern Portugal.

This tally means three things, and all three are positives. Firstly, that the lynx is finally beginning to break free from the clutches of extinction. If nothing goes wrong then, in a few years, the species will be fully established in its own natural habitat. Such a recovery is the result of a successful, scientific operation in which, unusually, everyone involved - institutions, experts and society - have been rowing hard and pulling in the same direction to make it happen.

"We can be optimistic", concluded the report on the conservation status in 2023 of this protected animal, drawn up by the Iberian lynx working group, which is coordinated by Spain's Ministry of Ecological Transition and includes experts, regional representatives and Portuguese officials. The lynx, after being on the brink of extinction just 20 years ago, is now seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, although the recovery work, according to the specialists, needs another 15 years or so of effective progress to pull the species off the endangered list.

Andalucía and Castilla-La Mancha account for 70% of lynx releases, but these felines now inhabit territory in 14 locations

The data could not be more encouraging. All the objectives set by the experts to try for population recovery are being steadily met, so the lynx's conservation status should reach 'favourable' levels before 2040.

The population now exceeds 2,000 for the first time since reliable data have been available. This is 21 times more lynxes in just 20 years than the 94 lynxes surviving on the verge of extinction back in 2002 in their last refuges in the Doñana national park and the Andújar mountains of Jaén. This was before the ruling authorities and naturalists conspired to save the species. The figure is fast approaching the 3,000 to 3,500 specimens needed to be able to breathe easy.

So lynx numbers are not only increasing, they are increasing at an accelerated rate. It took more than 15 years to reach the first 1,000. The second 1000 has been surpassed in just three years from the 1,100 back in 2020. The reason is that, since 2019, the rate of re-population has exceeded 20% per year, as shown by the fact that last year alone the breeding packs had 722 more cubs.

More than 400 breeding females

The second important fact is that the number of healthy, free-roaming, breeding females is now 406, some 80 more than just a year ago, an increase of 25% in twelve months. Their birth rate is almost two births per lynx (1.77) and they are getting closer and closer to the target of 750 breeding females (the figure considered necessary to be able to protect the species).

The third positive is an objective in the process of being achieved: stable and widespread territories for the lynx. The population nuclei frequented by these native felines have now reached a total of fourteen different areas, spread over four regions of southern Spain and the south of Portugal. Only sixteen stable and connecting territories are needed, according to the specialists, to provide security for the lynx. The collective triumph lies not only in the recovery of the lynx population, but also in the fact that the free-roaming individuals have returned to colonise parts of their traditional habitats. In addition to the two locations that were their last stronghold (Doñana and Andújar), lynxes have returned to both sides of the grassy slopes of the Sierra Morena (the ones in Andalucía and those in La Mancha), the Montes de Toledo, the Matachel valley in Extremadura and the Guadiana valley in Portugal. These areas have been joined by the Sierra Arana, Valdecañas-Ibores and Ortiga (Extremadura), the Tierras Altas de Lorca (Murcia) and the Campos de Hellín (Albacete). New areas are already being studied and prepared due to the interest of several autonomous regions in joining this project.

Last Christmas there were 1,730 lynxes in Spain, 86% of the total, and 291 in Portugal. The two regional powerhouses for lynx in Spain are Andalucía, with 755 felines (43.6% of the total), and Castilla-La Mancha, with 715 specimens (41.3%). Only in two other regions in Spain have lynx settled down: Extremadura (253) and Murcia (7).

An exemplary partnership

The year was 2002 when, finally, everyone got together to pull their weight for the lynx. They started out with very modest objectives, but these gained in ambition over time. The Ministry of Ecological Transition, the Portuguese government, the Junta for Andalucía, and later the regional governments of La Mancha and Extremadura, the naturalists from WWF (World Wildlife Fund) and the European Union joined forces and pooled resources to make this happen, leaving aside egos and political persuasions.

The joint effort allowed for the creation of four captive breeding centres and the implementation of a carefully studied and controlled strategy to ensure that the subsequent reintroduction of these young specimens into the wild would be a success. Since the release of juveniles from these centres in Huelva, Cáceres, Jaén and Silva (Portugal) began in 2011, some 372 specimens have been reintroduced into their natural habitat. As part of this drawn-out task, the breeding specialists and political leaders have also had to count on the collaboration of several hundred landowners and hunting associations. The Iberian lynx rescue programme will go down in history as a global success in the recovery of an endangered big cat breed.

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