The Iberian Lynx, the most endangered of the world’s 36 cats, stands on the edge of extinction. The latest studies, based on DNA analysis, make depressing reading. Despite decades of protection, millions of pesetas and euros spent, hundreds of studies, and the work of some of Europe’s best conservationists and zoologists, just over one hundred viable adults remain in the wild (in comparison, say, with some 8,000 tigers) divided between two unconnected breeding populations in Andalusia. Whoever and whatever is to blame, the lynx’s imminent disappearance will be the first extinction of a world feline, discounting sub-species of tigers and lions, since the sabre-toothed tiger some 10,000 years ago and will forever leave a dark mark on Spanish conservationism.
Status and distribution
Tourist leaflets and guidebooks proclaim the presence of the lynx in at least 12 sites in southern Spain. It’s either wishful thinking or hype. Although there are probably isolated lynxes in several other areas of southern Spain, these are to all intents and purposes biologically extinct. The only biologically viable populations are in Doñana with a rapidly declining population of 20-25 adult lynxes, and Andújar-Cardeña in the Sierra Morena (accommodation here) which is perhaps home to the last desperate hope: a stable population of some 80 adult lynxes. Between the two, there are thought to be around 25-30 breeding females. In 2004, Doñana supported just 6-8 females with breeding territories, though this number fluctuates wildly from one year to the next. In the Andújar area in 2002, 21-22 females raised 36-42 cubs; in 2003 just 11-12 females raised 18-21 cubs; and in 2004 17-21 brought up 33-39 cubs. The Doñana population raised just 4-8 cubs in 2004. Added to these two groups is the discovery in March 2005 of a residual and possibly still breeding population of several lynxes in the Montes de Toledo. See here. This recent good news raises the slim possibility in the future of expanding the Andújar-Cardeña area into the Montes de Toledo and creating a viable meta-population along the Sierra Morena, and between Andújar and Montes de Toledo. With 30 odd breeding females left, the expression 'clutching at straws' comes to mind.
Archaeological findings from 4500-1100 BP indicate that the lynx was present and moderately common, always in association with rabbits throughout the Iberian Peninsula. The Iberian tribes worshipped animistic gods and saw lynxes as a beast with supernatural powers and a link to the underworld. The animal’s strength and prowess was also recognised by Rome, which formed a legion exclusively made up of Hispanic soldiers. Their breastplates and standard were emblazed with the image of a lynx.
The decline of the Iberian Lynx has been a long one. At the start of the 20th century the lynx was probably already uncommon in northern Spain, though recent estimates reckon there were still around 100,000 individuals left throughout the Peninsula in 1900.
The animal still occupied 10% (60,000 km2) of Iberia in 1960. Until then its historical decline had been chiefly through hunting for sport and for its fur, but through the 1960’s and ‘70’s its fall was accelerated as Spain began to modernise with the destruction and fragmentation of habitats resulting from dam and road building and the intensification of agriculture, and by the destruction of much of the lynxes ideal habitat through fire. By the 1980’s the Iberian lynx still covered some 11,700 km2 but with a population of just over 1,000 individuals. Many of these lived in fatally isolated communities of a dozen or so individuals. Since then, these isolated pockets have succumbed one by one till it now covers just 350km2 (figures for 2000). Its breeding area is estimated at barely 120km2, a pinprick on the map of Spain.
In all probability, like the wolf and the bear, the lynx would have withstood Spain’s rush into modernity, if it had not been for the single most important factor in the animal’s extinction: the catastrophic decline of the rabbit.
More than any other factor it is the decimation of its favourite prey, the rabbit, by two successive diseases: myxomatosis and VHD that has brought the lynx to its sorry current state. Myxomatosis was released in France in 1952 by a doctor who wanted to protect his vegetable patch. By 1953 the disease had crossed the Pyrenees and had reached Gibraltar by 1959 - killing 95% of rabbits in many areas and decimating the lynx through starvation. However, rabbits are rabbits and breed like them, and in most areas by the early 1980’s their populations were recovering. Just when things were beginning to look up a second pandemic, a viral infection VHD, hit their number. The virus was first detected in China in 1984 and by 1988 had reached Spain. It spread quickly (virulently) with close contact (saliva, coughing, stools, urine) and indirectly (through livestock, footwear, transport, etc). In just three years it had touched every corner of Spain, killing 70-90% of adult rabbits. The death rate has now fallen to 30%. Myxomatosis continues to kill too, particularly in the summer months when mosquitoes, and fleas, which spread the disease, are most common. The rabbit is now absent from large parts of Northern Spain and is only managing to return through the aid of conservation and hunting groups. Quite simply, where there are no rabbits, there are no lynxes.
When the Phoenicians first ventured westwards in search of trade some 2500 years ago, they came across a land inhabited by tribes which the Greeks would later call the Iberians (after the river Iberus- the Ebro). They also saw (and no doubt roasted) some strange floppy-eared animals which appeared in great numbers everywhere. So they called the land i-shepan-im, or the land or coast of rabbits or to be more precise from the Phoenician for hyrax, the animal they knew from their North African home and confused with the rabbit. To the Romans, it became Hispania, and under Hadrian, they even struck a coin in Spain bearing the image of a rabbit.
The personification of Spain, Hispania, reclines holding a branch, with a rabbit in front. (AD 134).
Then in the Middle Ages the country became España: the land of rabbits. Although they could not know it, they had chosen the name well. The rabbit (as opposed to the hare) is originally from Iberia, and was virtually restricted to the Peninsula until the Phoenicians and then the Romans began to export the animal around the known world (e.g. they arrived in Britain in Roman times).
The rabbit is (or was) as essential an element to the Spanish Mediterranean ecosystem as an elephant is to the African savannah. Rabbits clean and clear the dense undergrowth opening up their own meadows and forever upturning the soil with their burrowing. Ironically, for an animal that evolved here it is difficult to bring it back. Like the elephant, with its disappearance, the habitat changes and a new dynamic balance is reached from which it is very difficult to return. Warrens cave in, the bush thickens, the land becomes overgrown, and the mosaic habitat they created reverts to a denser more uniform maquis. Moreover, as lynxes are starved out the population of non-lynx predators (foxes, mongooses, genets – see below) rockets, making it even more difficult for the rabbit, even without disease, to gain a suitably dense population for the lynx to live. Whatever the case, it is remarkable when one considers the speed with which rabbits breed and spread in many parts of the world, that here in their ancestral home, they find it so hard to re-establish themselves.
In tandem with its role as a habitat creator is the rabbit’s role as a prey species. In comparison with Northern Europe, few small mammals can survive the harsh, grassless summer drought of Central and Southern Spain. The rabbit, which, as we have seen, evolved precisely here, is superbly adapted at eking out a life from the driest of roots and bulbs. Some 35 odd species depend to a greater or lesser extent on it (wolves, birds of prey, snakes etc), but none, with the exception perhaps of the almost equally endangered Spanish Imperial Eagle (which unlike the Lynx appears to be recovering) is so dependant on the rabbit. At times of the year, rabbits make up 90-100% of the lynx’s diet. Quite simple, no rabbits, no lynxes. The history of the two species is so entwined that they to some extent evolved together in pace, turn and skill. Wherever you are in the world, the next time you see a rabbit dart across a field, consider that perhaps part of its speed is an evolutionary adoption to the Iberian Lynx
Origin of the Iberian lynx and relation to Eurasian lynx.
The ancestors of both the Iberian lynx and the Spanish Imperial Eagle came originally from far to the East in the steppes of Asia Minor, and did not arrive in the Peninsula until one million years ago. The Iberian species separated from their Eurasian counterparts around one million years ago at the start of the Quaternary, when a series of intense ice ages swept across Eurasia. As the weather grew colder both south western populations were pushed into the Mediterranean in search of ground squirrels until they finally reached Iberia. With the cold, prey must have become scarce from Greece to Italy and the Eurasian imperial eagle and the lynx died out there. The populations which reached Iberia were saved by the presence of rabbits. The Eurasian lynx then moved back into Europe from Asia as the ices receded. To the north of Spain, the Eurasian Lynx was eliminated in Western Europe during the 18-19th centuries, but unlike its Iberian cousin its range is much greater, once extending from the Pyrenees to Siberia. (The Eurasian Lynx possibly existed in Spain and formed the northern boundary of the Iberian Lynx). Eurasian Lynx are still relatively common in parts of the ex-URSS which is enabling reintroduction programmes in Switzerland, France and Germany. A million years ago there was probably one species from Cadiz to Vladivistok.
Diet and hunting
Lynxes need around just under a rabbit a day. The crucial time determining the lynx’s population is autumn when rabbit numbers are at their lowest. Rabbits make up 75-100% of lynxes’ diet, depending on the area and the time of the year, though experienced adults are capable of bringing down roe deer and even red deer. (In parts of Spain they were known as lince cerval or lobo cerval – the deer wolf). They will also take small birds, ducks, partridge, rodents, hares, especially when the availability of rabbits is low. But nowhere can they survive for long with a sizable rabbit population. Like most European carnivores, lynxes hunt mainly at night, herein the difficulty in actually seeing and photographing them. Lynx will stalk their prey though their most common technique is to lie in wait for hours behind a bush or rock, until the prey is sufficiently close to pounce in a few lightning strides.
Other reasons for the decline in the Iberian Lynx
There are of course other factors in the lynx’s decline. The extensive use of traps and snares in recent times to kill foxes rather than lynxes have claimed many individuals. In fact the setting of traps to kill foxes in areas where there are lynxes is totally counterproductive. Lynxes, even more so than wolves, like to keep their backyard clean. They will kill any foxes, genets or mongoose they come across as they are a threat to their food source and so consequently these animals, the object of many a snare, keep a wide girth of areas where the lynx is present. When lynxes and foxes, are eliminated from an area by snares, hunting or poisoning, the fox population quickly recovers from neighbouring areas and then explodes as there are no lynxes left to keep it in check. Genets and mongoose follow suit. Unsurprisingly all three have enjoyed a significant rise in number in southern Spain in the last 20 years. I think this is worth underlining: the best pest control for a farmer is the presence of lynxes. Lynxes mean less chickens killed and more, not less rabbits to shoot.
In recent years the biggest cause of unnatural deaths has been road kills. Of the total number of deaths recorded between 2000 and 2003 (16 in Doñana and 8 in Andújar-Cardeña), almost 80% were caused directly by humans: 13 of these were on the roads (10 in Doñana). When we are dealing with such as a small population, it becomes patently clear that this must be stopped. Just one lynx death means a lot when the population of Doñana is around 25 adults. Unfortunately, with more and more traffic around Doñana and roads illegally tarred across the park this doesn’t look like happening. Only by guaranteeing the lynx’s safety in the wild, will it be hypothetically possible to release lynxes into the wild from the captive breeding programme, if indeed the latter is successful.
Of the two populations, Doñana will probably succumb first. Although it is four times as large as Andújar, human pressure on its edges and the failure of rabbit reintroductions because of disease appear to be leading to its inevitable disappearance here.
An Iberian lynx is just over twice the size of a domestic cat, but with longer legs, giving it a more lanky appearance, particularly in younger individuals on their trek to find a territory for themselves, when hunger making them leaner. By the time they reach full adulthood – around three years old- they become heftier and less gangly. They are frequently confused with wild cats, although a sure identification (DNA apart) is the much larger paw prints of the lynx – even when cubs.
An adult lynx weighs 8-15 kilos (females a little less than males) and sports a stubby bob tail, characteristic pointed ears topped by strands of hair. These puff out when the animal is frightened or irritated.
The ideal habitat for lynxes is a mosaic of mature Mediterranean scrub with open forest, and meadows in which to hunt (the scrubby edges of meadows are a particular favourite where it can hide and pounce on rabbits) with a presence of old trees, for example corks, areas of dense vegetation in which to rest and raise cubs and an absence of pines and eucalyptus. Fire has reduced much of this mosaic to a dense thicket of rock rose (jara) stands. The animal seems unconcerned by differences in relief, as the flat expanses of Doñana and the craggy hills of Andújar testify.
Classic lynx landscapes in the Sierra de Andújar
Although the lynx, having evolved in the Iberian Mediterranean, is resilient to drought, it does require water holes. Another element favoured by the lynx is, strangely, a (very) limited presence of man – Like everywhere in Europe (and most of the world), for all the talk of wild Spain with its pristine and unspoilt habitats, the Spanish landscape everywhere –even in sites like Doñana has been modified and recreated by humans. Probably the ideal habitat for a lynx would be one in which there is a very low, though not zero, human impact: the presence of a mosaic landscape with meadows opening up grazing for their prey and free range cattle -lynxes prefer to travel along paths, tracks and firebreaks rather than cross-country. They will even use such human ways to mark out their territory. This is probably because it prefers the silence afforded by padding over bare ground rather than the dry leaves of open country.
Breeding, territory and dispersion
Females breed once a year, when they breed which is not every year, and give birth to an average of 3 cubs of which 1-2 will reach 10 months. Young lynxes abandon their place of birth at around 18 months, and take some 6 months to find their own territory, typically some 10-20 kilometres away. In modern times, this period of ‘dispersion’ has proved fatal. 50% fail and die – generally because of human causes (road kills, drowning in wells, snares…). Any lynx conservation strategy must address this problem by providing areas sufficiently big and safe enough to allow dispersion. Moving lynxes artificially is also an option.
Adult lynxes defend a territory of 3-4km2 against individuals of the same sex, though when rabbits are plentiful this area may be much smaller. Interactions between individuals are limited to brief mating and the mother-cub relationship.
Captive breeding and the future
One of the last hopes for the Iberian Lynx is captive breeding. In March 2005 an Iberian lynx successfully bred in in captivity for the first time. See Iberian lynx breeds in captivity for the first time
Aside from the captive breeding programme, the strength and stability of the Andújar-Cardeña population is the only ray of hope for the lynx. Unlike in Doñana, the reintroduction of rabbits seems to be working here. The density of rabbits in Andújar-Cardeña is the to allowing the numbers of female lynxes to raise a greater percentage of cubs. As a majority die before they reach adulthood, some of these cubs are being captured for captive breeding, for an eventual reintroduction on the wild within the next ten years.
Would the loss of the lynx matter? Yes, Spain and Portugal would lose a potent symbol but the most important loss would be the loss of the top predator in the Spanish Mediterranean. Once it is gone a new system as we have seen will develop. As Pablo Peiro in “El Lince Ibérico: Un tesoro expoliado” points out this has already happened. The Iberian lynx as the mediator of the Spanish Mediterranean is to all intents and purposes extinct. Its role as a key element is today beyond a joke, bar two pinpricks on the map of Iberia. Even if a captive breeding programme is successful there is no guarantee for safe areas for the lynx (at present, just 20% of the lynxes range in 1980 has anything like enough rabbits to support lynxes.)
Without the collapse of the rabbit populations, in all probability the lynx would be threatened rather than on the edge of extinction. Like wolves and bears, it might well have supported the hazards of living in a modern industrialised state, and perhaps with help be on the road to a partial recovery in some areas. Who is to blame? The many tiers of government for inaction and complacency often too afraid of the big lobbies, road and dam builders, blinkered farmers and hunters, a certain French doctor. Today the vast majority of Spanish people are in favour of conservation and protection of fauna. The generational change in huge. However, a significant but powerful minority of industrial, agricultural, construction and hunting lobbies still have great power. It seems unfair to put the blame on Spanish conservation workers and zoologists. Texts going back 30 years warn of the coming extinction of the lynx, highlighting above all the need to increase rabbit populations. Their warnings have fallen on death ears. Is there any room for optimism? In a sense there is: for the first time, there is a cordinated government-backed programme to save the lynx; the existance of only two viable areas seems to be helping to concentate the mind; the fact that one, Andújar-Cardona, appears to be stable or possibly growing; the potenial for the captive breeeding programme. But it is a desperate last-ditch optimism born in a critical situation. It may work, but I have the terrible feeling that I will live to read about the death of the last lynx in Andalusia’s hills, say, run over by a hydrogen-powered car in El Pais 12th March 2035...
Since writing this my pessimism has disapated somewhat with news of: See Iberian lynx breeds in captivity for the first time
I have leant heavily on the writings of Miguel Delibes for this piece, along with web and newspapers, and the excellent “El Lince Ibérico: Un tesero expoliado” Pablo Peiro (Edilesa 2002)
http://www.vertebradosibericos.org/mamiferos/lynpar.html (excellent follow sub-links)
Nick Lloyd 12th March 2005
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