The Iberian lynx (Lynx Pardinus) is an endemic feline from the Iberian Peninsula and is considered to be a critically endangered species. Only around 300 lynxes are still alive today, compared with the 4000 in 1960. This makes them the most endangered felines in the world. The WWF warned that if the Iberian lynx becomes extinct, it will be the first cat species to disappear in the last 2000 years.
In 1981 the Natural Reserve of Serra da Malcata was created after one of the most important "green" demonstrations held by Portuguese society “Salvemos o Lince e a Serra da Malcata” (Let’s save the lynx and the Serra da Malcata). The reserve became the last sanctuary in Portugal for the Iberian lynx. Quercus, the Portuguese association of nature conservation, said in 2007 that the species did not exist in Portugal and had probably disappeared in Portugal since 1990.
The Iberian lynx has visited the south of Portugal a few times, but there are no signals that they are reproducing in Portuguese territory. The last sign was in Vila Nova de Milfontes in 2013. The lynx was 250km far from the Doñana National Park, his home, being one of the two areas where populations remain free in South of Spain.
The Iberian lynx prefers to have a solitary
life and hunts alone, being more active during the night than most other cats.
The species is a very good hunter and is a rabbit specialist. More than 75% of what they eat is European rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus), and this is probably one of the
main reasons for them becoming a critically endangered species. The population of rabbits in the
Iberian Peninsula is also facing problems, two diseases have caused a big decrease of their populations, and the Iberian lynxes are not able to change their food habits to
adapt to this drop in their natural food source.
Now with only a small surviving population another problem that the Iberian lynx is facing is inbreeding. This leads to a lower quality of their semen and also bigger rates of infertility in males from the species. A small population provokes a low genetic diversity, some researchers have suggested joining the two separated populations of lynx in order to decrease the degree of inbreeding.
Esperanza was the first Iberian lynx to be part of a program to preserve the specie. The Spanish name of this female means “Hope” in English, as a sign of the hope she brings to the captive breeding project. She had five kittens during her life, and died at the normal age of 13 in the Jerez Zoo in Spain, which was the first center to develop a captive breeding program in 2002 and her first home.
Saliega was the first female to give birth in captivity in 2005 in El Acebuche Breeding Center. She had three healthy kittens with Garfio; they were called Brezo, Brisa and Brezina (in the photo), the last one died in a fight with her brother. Fights between kittens are common, sometimes the mothers also eat their kittens or reject them. When rejected by the mother, the researchers in the breeding centers take care of the kittens, though they are not able to be freed from captivity after this human interaction and instead they remain in centers helping the breeding process.
Saliega is still alive and is now retired in the Jerez Zoo, which is the only place in Spain where it is possible to see the Iberian lynx in captivity. Since the end of 2014 it is also possible to see the Iberian lynx at the Lisbon Zoo. The individuals living in the zoos are infertile or sterilized due to diseases and are not able to help in the breeding process, though they still have other important roles such as being appreciated by visitors and raising awareness about the problems their species are facing in the wild.
Portugal and Spain have signed an Iberian Lynx Pact in 2007 in order to preserve the species and try to prevent the extinction of the Iberian lynx. The main goal of this pact between the Iberian countries is to co-ordinate the cooperation in the conservation processes of the lynx populations. The pact also permitted the creation of new captive breeding centers, one of them being in Silves, Portugal.
In 2009, Azahar was the first Iberian lynx in Portugal after years without any presence of this feline in Portuguese territory. Azahar, with an Arabic name that means “orange blossom” (by coincidence or not, the region of Silves, Algarve, is famous for their oranges), brought more hope to Portugal and to her species. The Captive Breeding Center in Silves now has an important role in the preservation of the Iberian lynx, together with the other four centers in Spain. Azahar is now one of the two Iberian lynxes in Lisbon Zoo.
When Saliega and Azahar die, they will still be helping the survival of their species; their embryos and ovarian pieces are preserved and stored in liquid nitrogen at the Museum of Natural Science in Madrid. Researchers are discussing the possibility of implanting these embryos in a foster mother - a Eurasian lynx female could be used for this process.
At the end of 2014 the first 6 Iberian lynxes (3 males, 3 females) were put in freedom in the Guadiana River area, in the South of Portugal. Unfortunately one female, Kayakweru, died last week, it was probably a natural death, but until now no further information has been given. It is always sad to see the death of one of the Iberian lynxes, and especially a female, but the introduction of the lynx in Portugal was an important step to the preservation of the Iberian lynx.
The Iberian Lynx Pact has plans to bring the felines to their former habitats in Portugal and Spain, and this will help to create distinct groups that will be able to preserve their genetic diversity. Since the pact, the number of felines in freedom has been increasing; the captive breeding centers have played a big role in helping the preservation of the Iberian lynx, but the species is still facing some problems such as diseases, low density of rabbits in some areas and destruction of their habitats by human behaviour.
Most of the Iberian lynx deaths are caused by roadkill. The signs on the routes warning the drivers of the presence of Iberian lynxes in the area are not enough. The Spanish government needs to create natural passages for this feline.
The Iberian lynx is back in Portugal, but there is still much work to do to get the Iberian lynx off of the list of endangered species, and now that they are growing in numbers, it is the time to build on this success. The governments, populations and researchers need to collaborate to save the Iberian lynx and their environment.
Their Mediterranean habitats and the rabbits also need to be preserved; without this the work will be a waste of time. The Iberian lynx is a beautiful animal and deserves to live in its natural habitat not in Natural History Museums.