The future of the world’s rarest cat is looking brighter at last. Pete Oxford and Reneé Bish discover that to save the Iberian lynx, you first need to help the humble European rabbit.
It is ironic that the rarest cat of all – the Iberian lynx – depends upon an animal many of us consider too common, its populations rocketing to plague proportions in some parts of the world.
The creature in question? The unassuming European rabbit. But where this species shares its range with the surviving lynx populations, it is suffering a drastic decline. Herein lies the problem for lynx conservationists.
Land of rabbits
An early name for the Iberian Peninsula, Ispania, means ‘Land of rabbits’. For it was here, in the unique Mediterranean landscape of cork oak woods and sweet-scented scrub, that this famously fast-breeding vegetarian species originated.
It evolved together with the Iberian lynx, the latter becoming a specialist predator adapted to an almost exclusive rabbit diet. So it’s no surprise that the cat came to be seen as a competitor by people who enjoyed hunting rabbits and, as a result, it was poisoned, trapped and shot.
At the same time, the combined effects of hunting and disease (myxomatosis and the rabbit haemorrhagic virus) caused rabbit numbers to crash in Spain. With its prey vanishing fast, and with licences to hunt lynx freely available, the population also began to plummet, hitting an all-time low of just 100 individuals.
In 2001 a bold conservation project was launched in a last-ditch attempt to rescue the Iberian lynx from what looked like a near-certain demise. Called Life Lince, after the Spanish for lynx, it was headed by Miguel Ángel Simón, already renowned for the successful reintroduction of lammergeiers (bearded vultures) in Andalucía.
The project adopted two main approaches. Its ex situ captive-rearing programme was developed by Astrid Vargas, who was part of the team that restored the black-footed ferret to the prairies of the USA.
Lynx are actually quite easy to breed in captivity, and when news of the first one to be born in captivity was released in 2005, it was hailed as a major triumph by politicians and the media. Cue over-optimistic headlines declaring “The lynx is saved!”
The Life Lince team cringed. While the birth was a step in the right direction, the Iberian lynx was still firmly on the critical list.
Astrid is the first to admit that, though captive-breeding creates a valuable reservoir of genetic diversity, it is but a small part of the overall conservation strategy. “Until our captive-bred lynx have reproduced in the wild – and until the cats are fully restored to their former range – there is no hope for the species,” she says.
In the meantime, at least the cats in her care are doing what comes naturally: by 2009, the breeding programme was looking after 78 lynx – 42 of which had taken their first steps in captivity.
The Life Lince project also works in the field. It aims to restore lynx habitat, reintroduce the species to its former haunts and help rabbit numbers to recover, while spreading the word among people in the last two strongholds of wild lynx (Doñana National Park and the Sierra Morena mountains) about the great rarity living on their doorstep.
The support of landowners is vital, because neither of these locations is truly a safe haven. In the Doñana, large pine plantations are a major barrier to lynx expansion: they cannot support rabbits – or lynx. A new road and the growth of polytunnel agriculture have piled further pressure on the national park’s cats.
To the north-east, far too many lynx are also meeting a sad end on the twisting roads of the Sierra Morena, but here things are starting to look somewhat better for the beleaguered felines. In fact, in some places with a thriving – and therefore dense – lynx population, it is not unheard of for them to die of wounds inflicted during territorial disputes.
In 2003, there were just a single adult male and female in the core area of Valquemado in Sierra de Andújar. Today, there are more than 30 individuals, six of them territory-holding females. In nearby Yeguas, researchers counted an impressive 60 lynx.
These ‘saturated’ areas will provide a ready supply of lynx for reintroductions elsewhere, and potential release sites are being prepared for the cats by encouraging the local rabbits to breed.
This is achieved by the novel technique of building enclosures from chain-link fencing that is high enough to keep out foxes, badgers, mongooses and boars, but over which lynx can leap comfortably.
The final piece in the jigsaw? Making the rabbits feel at home. Artificial warrens or ‘rabbitats’ are installed to ensure that they flourish.
At 1–7ha, the enclosures are ample for a lynx in need of a territory, which is all-important. “We should not be talking simply about lynx numbers,” Miguel tells me. “Territorial females are the future of the species. But before they can breed, they – like the rabbits – need a home to call their own.”
Winning hearts and minds
Some parts of the species’ historic range have good rabbit populations, but no lynx. These locations are ripe for reintroductions, but it is too risky to release precious lynx here until local landowners embrace the project.
Encouragingly, farmers are being won over by the idea that having lynx on their land will keep foxes, mongooses, feral cats and other ‘pests’ at bay. The lynx keep their large territories free of rival rabbit predators, enabling their favoured prey to thrive.