The Iberian lynx survives today in just two areas of Andalucía, with fewer than 150 existing in the wild. James Fair went in search of the world’s rarest cat knowing that the odds were stacked against him...
From the air, Andalucía looked like a dried-out corpse. I imagined that one blast of wind would blow all the earth of the region into the Gulf of Cádiz, leaving just bare rock gleaming like a skeleton that had been picked clean by vultures and bleached by the sun.
Crossing the Río Guadalquivir on the way out of Seville, I could see that this was already happening: silt from the hills had stained the river the colour of milky tea, and I wondered how much longer Andalucía can continue to sustain the way it farms and irrigates the land.
Still, we all buy Spanish tomatoes, strawberries and peppers, so we’re all to blame.
The search for gold
A group of strangers, we were met at the airport by James and David, fresh-faced naturalists and our guides for the week, who’d already struck felne golid on reconnaissance in the Sierra Morena.
“They were good sightings, too,” said James. “One of them for about 20 minutes.”
The news hung in the air like a spider’s web, binding us together with the most delicate of gossamer threads. Nobody commented, nobody smiled. Probably nobody wanted to tempt fate, but the fact is that we were all there for the same reason – to see an Iberian lynx.
Was it really possible, I thought, to find the world’s rarest cat in less than six days?
The surprising location
A couple of hours later, we arrived in El Rocío, a town on the edge of Doñana National Park that looks like it’s auditioning for a part in a Sergio Leone film. Sand laps at the doorsteps of the white-washed houses, and there are hitching posts outside the hotels.
In May, this sleepy settlement attracts nearly one million pilgrims for a festival, but we were there in September, and El Rocío was as listless as a leopard in the midday sun.
The next morning, it was dark when we set off with Jesus and Miguel, two local guides. We drove along sandy tracks through the stone-pine forests, looking out keenly for the spectral figure of a lynx illuminated in the headlights. Realistically, it was the best we could hope for.
The quest begins...
With daylight, we found lynx tracks in the sand, faint impressions that rippled gently like a scallop shell. When we came across more defined spoor, we were met with baleful stares from park personnel. We couldn’t stop, Jesus said, we had to keep moving.
We were shunted out to Doñana’s marismas, vast plains that form inland lagoons in the spring, providing sustenance to hundreds of thousands of waders and wildfowl.
By September, however, they are completely dry and almost devoid of life. In the distance, we could just make out a flock of circling white storks some 150 strong; through the heat-haze, they appeared as dots darkening and fading on a monitor.
Goldfinches perched on the heads of dying thistles and, above a stand of trees, a black-shouldered kite hoved into view. But the lynx is a woodland beast, and we weren’t going to find one in a desert. It was 10 o’clock, and the fierce Andalucian sun beat down upon the dry earth.
Any number of statistics indicate the Iberian lynx’s tenuous grasp on survival, not least the World Conservation Union’s most recent estimate of its global wild population – between 84 and 143. For comparison, that’s roughly 10 per cent of tiger numbers in India alone. But a report on a lynx conference held in 2004 is in some ways more revealing.
Conservationist Nicholás Guzmán compiled a table of the status of the lynx in 1988, 2002 and 2004. Twenty-one years ago, there were 12 known separate populations, including more than 500 individuals in Andújar-Cardeña in the Sierra Morena and viable numbers in the mountains of Toledo and around Badajoz, close to the border with Portugal.
But the stats for 2004 read like a computer malfunction print-out. For 10 of those 12 populations, the words “not detected” are all that can be said. In just 16 years, the lynx had virtually vanished from the face of the Earth.
A sanctuary for lynx
Today, the species is found in Doñana, both in and around the national park, and Andújar-Cardeña only. In the former, it makes its home in the gloomy pine forests and is carefully monitored.
In the past four years, rabbits that have been immunised against myxomatosis have been introduced into the park and it’s possible, Miguel said, that they are passing this immunity on to their offspring.
Iberian lynx need to eat one rabbit a day and require a population density of at least three rabbits per hectare. Some parts of Doñana now have a density of 14, but still the lynx only clings on.
A cat in hell's chance
It quickly became apparent that we were about as likely to see a lynx in Doñana as we were to hear that Gaudí’s Sagrada Familia was to be finished by Christmas. It wasn’t just the impenetrable pine woods providing the obstacles – the national park authority shares little information about the whereabouts of its precious cats and restricts access to the park.
In only a few areas can you get out of your vehicle, and Jesus and Miguel insisted they couldn’t stop for long, even if we saw half a dozen lynx holding a tea party. On our early morning and evening outings into the park, we drove round and round the same tracks, spewing out carbon dioxide and seeing little.
On our last evening, we surprised an eagle owl that flew up into a tree, its ear tufts silhouetted against the inky-blue sky. That was as good as it got.
So, I wasn’t sad to leave Doñana. Being there ‘out-of-season’ didn’t help, but there was something else, too – the endless wire fences, the shabby concrete posts, the monotonous stone pines, the air of secrecy and failure.
Miguel said to us one afternoon: “Some people want the lynx to go extinct. They want to build a road down to the coast to ease congestion and they believe that if the lynx disappears, it can go ahead. It is very sad. Some people are still unsure whether the lynx is real or a myth.”
Out of a rut
From El Rocío, we drove north to Seville, then east through rolling hills of vast olive plantations until, after three hours, the Sierra Morena appeared on the horizon like a dust-storm. The olive groves gave way to dehesas, grasslands populated with gnarly, stunted holm oaks.
These scrubby hills are parceled up into private shooting estates bursting with red and fallow deer, wild boar and even the odd mouflon, ancestors of domestic sheep. Think of it like Highland Scotland, but warmer and not as wet.
You can’t get onto these estates, but you can spy on the wildlife from the many tracks that traverse the region, and that was our plan. Renewed enthusiasm infected the group. This was how to see a lynx.