How the Iberian lynx bounced back from the brink of extinction
In the early 2000s, extinction seemed inevitable for the Iberian lynx.
The chances of spotting the short-tailed, bushy-bearded feline in the Iberian scrubland, where lynx have roamed for millennia, were as good as finding a needle in a haystack. The population was devastated by loss of prey, erosion of habitat, road accidents and hunting. In 2002, fewer than a hundred animals remained, the New York Times reported, and of those, only around a quarter were breeding females. However, against all odds, a conservation program has brought the Iberian lynx back from the verge of extinction.
The success of the LIFE+Iberlince program, involving more than 20 organizations, has brought the current count to almost 700 animals. “If someone told me 20 years ago that we would achieve such results, I would have thought they were out of their mind,” says Miguel Simón, the recently retired director of the Lynx LIFE program.
The recovery initiative is pillared by a breeding program and habitat safeguards. Prompted by the critically low numbers and partly funded by the European Union, the breeding program was initially an emergency strategy surrounded by uncertainty. According to Simón, scientists had little knowledge of lynx biology: would the animal be capable of adapting and breeding in captivity? And, if so, could a captive-bred lynx survive in the wild?
In hindsight, biologists had little to fear. Following the program’s implementation, the number of cubs soon exceeded the facilities’ capacity, and more centers were opened to house the animals. Over the years, nearly 500 hundred lynx were born across five captive breeding locations in Spain and Portugal: El Acebuche, La Olivilla, Silves, Zarza de Granadilla and Zoobotánico de Jerez. Though the captive lynx are divided across these five areas, scientists consider them a single population and have carefully distributed the animals to ensure maximum genetic diversity.