The Iberian lynx slowly leaves the ICU where it was just two decades ago. The efforts of environmental groups and public administrations to rescue an endangered species continue to bear fruit and the last population census confirms that their number has multiplied by ten since 2002 and there are already 894 specimens of this feline that run around in freedom through the Iberian Peninsula. After a first step focused on increasing individuals, conservation programs are now focused on connecting the different colonies to create a self-sustaining population that allows, incidentally, to improve their genetic variability to strengthen the species.
The jump has been spectacular, and has managed to multiply by 10 the population detected at the end of the 90s, when environmental associations raised the alarm. before the inevitable disappearance of the feline. Since then, and thanks to the Life programs of the European Union In which public administrations and conservation groups participate, a career has been developed with several goals. The first was to stop the decline of the species at its roots, then to start with the captive breeding and reintroduction tests of the feline in the most favorable habitats and finally, to settle the population in its historical territories.
The latest data coordinated by the Ministry for Ecological Transition shows why the Iberian lynx project is the most successful conservation program and the example to follow for other endangered species. There are currently 583 wild lynx specimens, of which 476 live on Spanish soil (81.6%) and another 107 on Portuguese territory. They are joined by 311 puppies born throughout 2019.
The bulk of the specimens registered in the Iberian Peninsula live in one of the four nuclei of stable and consolidated population that exist in Andalusia: Andújar-Cardeña (145), in the Guarrizas river area, in Jaén (71), Doñana-Aljarafe (69) and Guadalmellato in Córdoba (46), in addition to up to three individual specimens located in different parts of the region. But they are also distributed by Castilla-La Mancha, with 84 lynxes (17.7%) and Extremadura, with 58 (12.2%).
One of the parameters that allows evaluating the success of these efforts is the number of breeding females. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) establishes a population of 125 specimens that remains stable for at least five years the line that supposes for a species to make the jump from “endangered” to simply “vulnerable” .
The figure has been exceeded for two years, and at the moment there are already 188 registered Breeding females throughout the peninsula, 120 of them in Andalusia. But environmentalists prefer not to throw the bells flying. “We are still halfway there, there would be at least another 20 years to consider the species recovered and in normal conditions”, specifies Ramón Pérez de Ayala, coordinator of large carnivores at WWF.
Pérez de Ayala explains that in the next five years, the Life program will focus on consolidating these populations and the settlements in which they are located, as well as connecting those territories with each other. A fundamental task, since it involves improving the genetic diversity of the lynx and avoiding that inbreeding that weakens any species and makes it less resistant to any change or threat to the ecosystem. Cases have already been experienced in Doñana, with specimens with malformations.
«To connect them naturally, the best formula is to create small population centers in intermediate areas to shorten distances», Explains the ecologist,« but it is not easy ». The most suitable habitat must be selected, with an area of at least 10,000 hectares and with a sufficient density of rabbits, and where the nearest human nuclei do not pose an excessive risk, neither from poaching nor from abuses, the two main causes of mortality that they threaten the lynx.
By reintroducing a small number of individuals, the risks from any threat are greater and any incident greatly unbalances that population. “If there are two females and two males, and they move, when the heat comes the females will also go in search of another male,” he exemplifies. «You have to start the whole process from scratch, it is not easy, but now we have previous experience and we know what we want to do, although now we have to think about how we do it “, concludes Pérez de Ayala.