The Iberian Lynx

The Iberian Lynx is one of the most elusive wild cats in the world. Unfortunately, it is also the most endangered. However, ongoing conservation work has resulted in the species being downgraded from a ‘Critically Endangered’ status to ‘Endangered’ in 2015 (2).

Iberian Lynx

The population of the Iberian Lynx worldwide based on the latest estimates as of 2021, stands at 1,111 – a vast improvement on the less than 100 individuals that existed in the wild in 2002, but it is still far from safe from extinction (1).

These beautiful animals are slightly bigger than the red fox, or about half the size of the Eurasian Lynx, and are heavily spotted with distinctive facial ruff (2). They are endemic to the Iberian Peninsula, in Southern Spain. The Iberian Lynx was once found in Southern France, Spain, and Portugal, but its populations began declining as early as the 20th century. Despite this, it was not legally protected until the 1970s (5).

Decline and Conservation

The reasons for their decline are varied – loss of habitat due to intensive agriculture and industry, land-use change and a significant decrease in wild rabbit numbers due to diseases such as myxomatosis – rabbits being the main food source of the Iberian Lynx. They are also threatened by hunting and being hit by cars (2). 

Combined, these threats mean that Lynx populations are attacked from every angle, leaving them very vulnerable to extinction. Conservation work such as the Large Carnivore Initiative for Europe (LCIE) and the LIFE project have therefore been instrumental in allowing the Iberian Lynx to have a fighting chance against extinction (4). 

These conservation projects along with collaborations between environmental groups, scientists, and government forces have raised awareness for the plight of the Iberian Lynx. They also tackled declining rabbit numbers, habitat destruction and studied the biology of the Lynx. This multi frontier approach to conservation was enhanced by the reintroduction of the Lynx from captive breeding programmes in both Spain and Portugal (4).  

Wildlife corridors between the Iberian Lynx habitats in Portugal and Spain have also been developed, encouraging genetic variation. Rewilding is also being carried out on previously privately owned land (5), which provides the Lynx with unfragmented habitat and educates farmers and others on the benefits of reintroducing these large carnivores.

Reintroducing the Lynx

Reintroduction measures have also been carried out in new areas of Spain where its populations did not previously exist. This is essential for improving the species’ resilience to climate change, as its previous habitat in the Iberian Peninsula may not be suitable for much longer according to future climate projections (5). 

The translocation of the Iberian Lynx is therefore vital for its future survival – and its survival is paramount for healthy ecosystems. The Iberian Lynx is a keystone species, meaning that it is essential for maintaining healthy levels of other species such as rabbits (6). As a top predator, it ensures that food chains remain balanced, keeping both the local environment and species at other levels of the food chain in check.

Benefits of Rewilding the Lynx

The Eurasian Lynx has been utilised for this reason in rewilding initiatives in the UK – they prey on roe deer, helping to keep their numbers down. In an Irish context, Lynx could theoretically be used to control numbers of sika or fallow deer, however, this would require much thought and planning (3). 

Iberian Lynx

The Iberian Lynx has never existed in Ireland and therefore could not be reintroduced here, but the reintroduction of the Eurasian Lynx does highlight the importance of top predators for allowing ecosystems to thrive. In its own territory, the Iberian Lynx is not preyed upon – hence it being a ‘top’ predator.

As well as preying on animals lower down the food chain, it also instils fear in them, which means that numbers can be controlled without the Lynx having to actually prey on them – for example, scared animals eat less (as they cannot look out for predators and eat at the same time), which impacts survival if it is continued long term (7). This allows the environment to thrive as it prevents habitats from becoming overgrazed and encourages animals at different levels of the food chain to scope out new habitats.

The story of the Iberian Lynx is thankfully one of success. Without the remarkable conservation efforts of those involved the Iberian Lynx would certainly be in a much more precarious situation today – although it still has a long way to come before it is not considered endangered. 

This highlights the importance of conservation work for species survival and shows first-hand why survival is important. The Iberian Lynx is a keystone species in maintaining a healthy food chain – without it, the entire local ecosystem would suffer. As well as conserving this species for its ecological importance, protecting it so that it will continue to flourish is essential so that it may be revered and loved by many future generations to come.

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