Until recently the survival of the Iberian lynx, one of the world’s rarest wildcats, was in doubt. But conservation efforts are finally paying off.The 17th century Accademia dei Lincei (“Academy of the Lynxes”), which counted Galileo Galilei among its members, was named after an illustration in Magia Naturalis, a work of popular science first published in 1558. The preface included the words: “…with lynx-like eyes, examining those things which manifest themselves, so that having observed them, he may zealously use them.” The Academy’s emblem was a lynx battling with Cerberus, the guardian of the underworld, recalling the animal’s reputation for being sharp-eyed and able to see through lies.
Once considered a subspecies of the Eurasian lynx, the Iberian lynx is now classified as a separate species. Both originate in the Pleistocene epoch, although subsequently evolving in isolated habitats.
In the 1800s, Iberian lynx roamed from Portugal through Spain and into southern France. A century later, their survival was threatened by hunting, and later by severe loss of habitat from agricultural and industrial encroachment.
The elegant Iberian lynx has long legs, a very short tail with a black tip, and a tawny coat with dark spots. It has a characteristic fringe of hair around its face and prominent black ear tufts.
Iberian lynx mostly depend on wild rabbits to feed, but they will also take ducks, young deer and partridges. Epidemics, such as myxomatosis and the haemorrhagic disease, have affected rabbit numbers over the years, which has had an impact on the Iberian lynx population.
After efforts by Spanish national and regional administrations, together with NGOs (such as the World Wildlife Fund) and the European Union, the Iberian lynx has stepped back from the brink of extinction. An assessment in 2015 downgraded it from “critically endangered” to “endangered”, after a 2014 census found 327 individuals in its hunting grounds in Andalusia.
In the delta of Spain’s Guadalquivir River, south-west of Seville, the Parque Nacional de Doñana is one of Europe’s most important wetland reserves. The Park is well known for its enormous variety of bird species, either permanent residents, winter visitors from Europe or summer visitors from Africa, such as geese and flamingos. It also has one of the world’s largest colonies of Spanish imperial eagles and is home to one of the last surviving populations of Iberian lynx.
Unfortunately, the edges of the park are being exploited by farmers and other areas are drying out due to intensive water extraction. The park’s wildlife is also being threatened by run-off from agriculture, toxic waste from mines, and rampant fishing along the coast. It would be a sad day indeed if, after thousands of years and the success of recent conservation efforts, the Iberian lynx were to become extinct. Hopefully, this beautiful cat will survive.