An Iberian lynx cub drinks water at a pond. Antonio Liébana
Comeback cat: the Iberian lynx is no longer an endangered species

Comeback cat: the Iberian lynx is no longer an endangered species

It has officially been removed from the list of maximum risk animals after having increased its population twenty-fold to 2,021 in just 20 years

Alfonso Torices

Friday, 21 June 2024, 16:34

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"A historic milestone" and "a success for the country", as declared by both the Ministry of Ecological Transition and NGO the WWF (World Wildlife Fund). As of Thursday 20 June 2024, the Iberian lynx has been officially removed from the list of animals at risk of extinction. The official announcement was made by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the world reference body that at the end of the last century sounded the international alarm for this big cat species, placing this wild feline on its Red List of Threatened Species - the worst category, a species on the brink of extinction.

The reason for coming off that list is that, in just 21 years, the Iberian peninsula's number one native, wild feline has gone from being on the brink of extinction, with 94 specimens holding out in their last places of refuge in Doñana and the Sierra de Andújar mountains in Jaén, to the impressive number of 2,021 cubs and adults (counted last Christmas) spread over the green pastures, marshes and hills of Andalucía, Extremadura, Castile-La Mancha, Levante and southern Portugal.

In just two decades its population has multiplied by 21, with an average annual growth of 20% since 2019. This is the result of a successful scientific operation in which, unusually, everyone - institutions, wildlife experts and the general public - have not gone for personal glory, but pulled together to aim for the same goal, in particular the WWF, Andalucía's regional government and the European Union.

This animal, still threatened by roadkill and poaching, can be considered safe when it reaches 3,500 cats in a decade or so

Such success explains why the IUCN now classifies the lynx as a "vulnerable species", which means that in just over 20 years it has climbed two steps on the longed-for path to finally coming off the IUCN's Red List, something that WWF officials stress no other species has achieved so quickly until now.

The lynx can now see the light at the end of the tunnel, although the recovery work, according to the specialists themselves, will still need more than a decade of effective progress to bring the species fully out of danger. In fact, naturalists warn that other threats have yet to be minimised, such as roadkill, which last year cost the lives of 144 lynxes. Other threats include poaching and the near disappearance of the wild rabbit, their main source of food, in decline by 70%.

Despite the general caution, the data could not be more encouraging. They are beginning to converge with each of the objectives set by the experts to convert the lynx into a species with a 'favourable' conservation status by 2040. Its population is approaching at a good pace - 722 cubs were born in 2023 - the 3,000 to 3,500 specimens that would be needed to be able to breathe easy.

The second relevant fact is that the number of breeding females is now 406, some 80 more than a year earlier, which means an improvement of 25% in twelve months. Their fecundity rate is almost two births per lynx (1.77) and they are getting closer and closer to the 750 mothers that would protect future numbers.

A large and connected habitat

The habitats for these felines now cover fourteen different areas, spread over four autonomous regions and southern Portugal. This fact strongly supports the third objective of the recovery plan. We are very close to the sixteen stable and connected territories that the specialists believe are necessary to give a solid base to the future of the lynx.

The collective triumph lies not only in the recovery of the lynx population, but also in the fact that the free-roaming specimens are once again colonising other parts of their traditional habitat. Apart from the two aforementioned areas in Doñana and Andújar where the lynx dug in back in 2001, lynx can now be seen in the wild on both sides of the Sierra Morena (in Andalucía and 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 area (Albacete). There are other areas under study and being made ready due to the interest of several autonomous regions in joining this project.

Last Christmas there were 1,730 free lynxes on Spanish territory, 86% of the total, and 291 in Portugal. The two Spanish powerhouses for the lynx are Andalucía, with 755 felines (43.6%), and Castilla-La Mancha, with 715 specimens (41.3%). The remaining sites are in the two provinces of Extremadura, with 253 specimens, and Murcia, with seven.

2002 was the year in which all the alarm bells went off to take urgent action. At first with very modest objectives, but these gained in ambition over time. The Ministry of Ecological Transition, the Junta de Andalucía and the Portuguese government, WWF and the EU joined forces and resources, forgetting the usual political flag-waving and self-interest. They were later joined by the regional governments of Castilla-La Mancha and Extremadura.

They created four captive breeding centres and implemented 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 the centres in Huelva, Cáceres, Jaén and Silva (Portugal) began in 2011, 372 specimens have been reintroduced into their natural habitat. In this patient endeavour, the experts and political leaders have also counted on the collaboration of several hundred landowners and hunting associations. The Spanish lynx rescue programme will forever be remembered as a world-class success in feline recovery.

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