We’ve already seen how invasive species, introduced into ecosystems by humans, pushed the kakapo and black robin to the edge of extinction in New Zealand. We’ve seen how the destruction of tropic rainforest for palm oil cultivation is endangering orang-utans, tigers, elephants and other fauna in Malaysia and Indonesia.
Through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, a number of direct and indirect human threats (as well as some natural ones) also combined against the subject of this piece: Lynx pardinus, the Iberian lynx, the world’s rarest cat. It’s a story of predator and prey, and of how human activity can combine with natural phenomena to make a bad situation significantly worse.
Historical Declines in Iberian Lynx Populations
In the 1960s, there were thought to be between 3,000 and 5,000 Iberian lynxes spread throughout south/central Spain and southern Portugal. By the turn of the twenty-first century, there were just 100 or so individuals left in the wild, in two isolated pockets in southern Spain – eastern Sierra Morena and the coastal plains west of the lower Guadalquivir.
As with most iconic species, hunting for fur and recreation played a role in the Iberian lynx’s decline. To an extent, this problem persists today, despite the lynx having been legally protected against hunting since the 1970s. They are still caught in traps and snares set for other animals, or shot by farmers who consider them a threat to livestock. In 2014, 22 lynxes (or about 7% of the population) were run over by vehicles on Spain’s roads. Construction of roads and other infrastructure as well as land-use changes have fragmented traditional lynx ranges over the past few decades and destroyed swathes of their natural habitat. But as much as this is a typical case of human activity endangering a species directly, it’s also a story of rabbits.
European rabbits are the principal prey of the Iberian lynx, comprising as much as 90% of its diet. High mortality rates among the rabbits, therefore, are bad news for lynxes. From the 1950s onwards, as well as being hunted by people, rabbits died off in huge numbers from two particularly virulent diseases – myxomatosis and rabbit haemorrhagic disease (or RHD). Other large predators on the Iberian peninsula, such as foxes, badgers and mongooses, proved able to alter their diets to exclude (or at least become less dependent on) the rabbits, preying instead on birds and other small mammals. The lynx, however, is something of a “rabbit specialist”, and is less able to hunt other prey. Much of the species’ decline in the twentieth century is associated with the reduction in rabbit abundance.
Research has also suggested that the juvenile lynxes dispersed less widely following the arrival of RHD in local rabbit populations. This narrowing of their territorial scope disrupted traditional social patterns and increased competition among lynxes within local contexts, further compounding the problem caused by lower food resources (i.e. fewer rabbits). As mentioned, growth in Spanish road networks and agriculture further carved up and reduced former lynx habitats. It was a perfect storm for the Iberian lynx: smaller habitats and scarcer resources within them. The population plummeted, falling perhaps 90% in just 40 years or so.
Saving the Iberian Lynx
By the 1990s, the true precariousness of the lynx’s situation was appreciated for the first time. In 2002, with just over 100 individuals left, the IUCN (that’s the International Union for the Conservation of Nature) classified the species as “critically endangered”, one category above “extinct in the wild”. This red flag spurred swift action from the Spanish government, the European Union and a number of NGOs.
The Spanish National Nature Conservation Institute (ICONA) has spearheaded much of this work, striving to increase rabbit numbers by improving habitat conditions and removing grazing animals in lynx ranges to give the rabbits fewer resource competitors. Ongoing efforts to stop trapping and educate local communities about the environmental and ecological impacts of human activities are seeing some positive results. Plans to promote genetic exchange within the extant lynx population through the creation of “corridors” of natural habitats have also been drawn up.
In addition to this, the population is now being supplemented with captive-bred lynxes which are being released in remaining lynx-friendly habitats in Spain and Portugal – in the Extremadura, Castilha-La Mancha, Andaluzia and Mértola regions. The lynxes are heavily monitored by a conservation team through satellite and radio tracking, as well as camera traps. The latter enable remote monitoring of the animals, which can be individually identified by their distinctive fur markings.
The current conservation programme, including release of more captive-bred animals, will run until 2018, with the continued support of the European Commission and over 20 other partners. Its success will be measured for the most part by the size of the wild lynx population at its termination, by which point tens of millions of euros will have been put towards the saving of the species. At present, there are thought to be over 440 lynxes in the wild, and, encouragingly, the species’ IUCN Red List status was changed from “critically endangered” to “endangered” in 2015.
But might all these efforts still be in vain?
Climate as a Longer-Term Factor in Iberian Lynx Conservation
Recent research has highlighted the potentially devastating impact of climate change on the lynx’s long-term chances. Climate models forecasting warmer, drier conditions on the Iberian peninsula out to 2050 and beyond make grim reading for lynx conservationists. Such conditions are predicted to make lynx populations unviable in southern Spain, principally because they’ll mean fewer rabbits. Higher average temperatures and less rainfall may also push lynxes into fiercer competition for scarcer resources within their current ranges, as well as forcing some individuals into areas with even scarcer food sources. Worryingly, the models indicate that climatic conditions will become far less conducive to healthy lynx populations in current ranges, even if global greenhouse gas emissions are drastically cut within the next three decades.
Needless to say the climatic changes which will likely affect the Iberian lynx in the coming years will be a direct, unprecedented result of human activity (but you’ll be pleased to know that we’ll not be having a climate change debate here). The bigger picture is that a changing climate is affecting flora and fauna globally, in ways we are only just becoming to appreciate. Scientists have estimated that most species (including plants) will have to “move” faster than 1 kilometre per year if they are to keep within the climate zone which they need for survival. For the Iberian lynx, that might be feasible.
Now that researchers and conservationists are becoming more aware of the potential threats which might be posed to the Iberian lynx by a changing climate in the longer term, they are better placed to plan for such an outcome. Ensuring that the lynxes have sustainable access to healthy European rabbit populations will play a key role in any future conservation efforts. The best summary is probably given in a 2013 study by an international group of researchers, which noted that “a carefully planned reintroduction programme, accounting for the effects of climate change, prey abundance and habitat connectivity, could avert extinction of the lynx this century”.
While further research is needed, this conclusion is a tentative indication that current efforts to save the species may not be totally in vain, and will likely be of central importance to the future of the Iberian lynx. If translocation further north – into northern Spain or southern France – is deemed a viable solution, it will naturally be beneficial for such a project to take place with a larger extant population.
“The lynx was on the brink of the abyss; we are slowly moving it away from extinction.”
For now, thanks to the tireless work of conservationists, the lynx’s situation is stable, if still precarious. Over the coming years and decades, with careful monitoring, active management strategies taking into account potentially dramatic changes in climate – and a bit of luck – these beautiful animals may yet continue to prowl the mountainous scrubland of the Iberian peninsula.
I’ll be going in search of the Iberian lynx later this year, so keep an eye out for a follow-up article in October. Until then, the IUCN Red List is the best place to go to read up on the lynxes in some more detail. If you want, you can also support the ongoing conservation efforts by donating through the WWF website!