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  • Writer's picture@ Cynthia Adina Kirkwood

Iberian Lynx Claws Its Way Out of Extinction in Portugal

Updated: Aug 28, 2023


One of the kittens who has been at the National Center for the Reproduction of the Iberian Lynx (CNRLI) in the Algarve (Photo by CNRLI)

 

In 1992, there were no lynxes in Portugal and only 94 in Spain.


In 2022, a total of 261 lynxes were counted in Portugal and 1,407 in Spain.


So, in only 30 years, there was a total of 1,668 lynxes in the Iberian Peninsula.


Conservation programs at five captive breeding centers, one in Portugal, have accounted for the significant increase, according to Wilder: Rewilding Your Days, an independent journalism outlet (May 19).


“The species has gone from ‘critically endangered’ to ‘threatened’,” Rodrigo Serra, director of the National Center for the Reproduction of the Iberian Lynx in the Algarve region, told Expresso (August 15). “This year, in 2023, I believe that 2,000 lynxes will be in the Iberian Peninsula.” The wild cat is “very close” to being included in the “vulnerable” category: “If not this year, then next year.”


The National Center for the Reproduction of the Iberian Lynx (CNRLI) was founded in 2009 in Silves Municipality. In that first year, one lynx was brought to it. Then, 16 more cats arrived for breeding and, consequent, reintroduction into the wild. In 2015, the first two lynxes were released in the Algarve, reported Expresso.


By 2022, the 261 lynxes in Portugal were in the Guadiana Valley in the municipalities of Mertola and Serpa, both in Beja District, and Alcoutim Municipality, in Faro District. In Spain, the 1,407 lynxes were counted in Andalusia (627), Castilla-La Mancha (585) and Extremadura (195), reported the Institute for the Conservation of Nature and Forests (ICNF) along with the Spanish Ministry for the Ecological Transition and Demographic Challenge (MITECO), according to Wilder.

 

The distribution of Iberian lynxes in Portugal and Spain, and dated figures from 2021

 

Since the Portuguese center began its mission, 162 lynxes have been born there, of which 103

have been reintroduced into the wild with a subcutaneous chip and collars with a Global System for Mobile communication (GSM) transmitter. There are now enough lynxes to make studies of their behavior in the wild.


After a nine-week gestation period, a female gives birth to a litter of between one and five kittens. Of the 10 kits currently in captivity, eight were born on site, and seven are scheduled to be released in 2024 as one will remain as a breeder. The other two kits arrived at 50 days old when their mother was run over in Castile-La Mancha, Spain. They are in training to return to nature.


Why is it important to increase the feline numbers? In the mid-19th century, there were about 100,000 lynxes scattered throughout the Iberian Peninsula, according to Wilder.


“The lynx is an ecosystem referee. It is at the top of the pyramid,” said Rodrigo Serra, who has a technical team of 14, four volunteers and a security force, in Expresso. “This is an attempt to balance the ecosystem and also to restore other types of economic and social dynamics that are necessary in the interior of the country” such as hunting and ecotourism.


Without the lynx, foxes reappear in villages looking for food, said the center’s director. Very few people have seen an Iberian lynx in the wild because it is one of the most elusive species in the world, according to World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF).


Rodrigo Serra, a veterinarian, who specializes in wild species conservation, said: “An adult male lynx grows to the size of a Labrador (dog), weighing about 40 pounds (18 kilos). Males weigh between 10 (22 lbs.) and 18 kilos, females between eight and 14. A lynx’s hand is just like mine, the nails like this, the teeth about two centimeters (nearly 1 inch). So, it’s not an animal we want to come across.”

 

The Iberian lynx has short fur, bright yellow to tawny colored, and spotted. Its head is small with tufted ears and a ruff. Its body is short with long legs and a short tail. Females’ head-to-body length is about 68.2-77.5 centimeters (26.9-30.5 inches). Males are bigger at 74.7-82 centimeters (29.4-32.3 inches).

 

Two main factors caused the near extinction of lynxes: hunting and the shortage of (European)

rabbits, its main prey, reported Wilder. A male requires one rabbit per day, while a female raising kittens will eat three per day, according to The Iberian Lynx Emergency (2004), European Union Commission, which said:


“The Iberian Lynx is a food specialist, and its diet consists of 80-85% wild rabbits. Thus, the fate of the lynx is inextricably linked to that of the rabbit.”


Two diseases ravaged European rabbits: myxomatosis in the 1950s and Viral Haemorrhagic

Pneumonia (VHP) in the 1980s. Both diseases destroy whole populations unless, and until, the

rabbits develop resistance.


Wilder reported: “In addition to the near disappearance of the wild rabbit and indiscriminate

hunting, there is also loss of habitat due to agricultural campaigns and reforestation with

eucalyptus and stone pine, which have destroyed Mediterranean scrubland since the first half the 20th century.”

 

Iberian Lynx (2019), an installation made of garbage, stands in Parque das Naçoes, Lisbon. Antonio Guterres, the Union Nations Secretary-General, inaugurated the piece. The provocative artist, Bordalo II (1987, Lisbon), who calls himself an activist, often uses trash as a material. “The idea I have is to create images of victims of pollution and human action with exactly what destroys them.”

 

According to World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), founded in 1961 to protect places and

species from human development:


“In the past, the species was regarded both as an attractive hunting trophy and as vermin (a

mammal that preys on game).”


Coenraad Jacob Temminck, a Dutch zoologist and museum director, described the Iberian lynx

that a French baron killed in 1818 on the banks of the Tagus River, 10 leagues (a league is any of various units of distance from 3.9 to 7.4 kilometers) from Lisbon, as “a beautiful adult individual, deposited today in a gallery of the museum of Paris.


“I have seen these Lynx skins at the suppliers of London and Paris. We see mounted ones in the museums of the Netherlands and Paris,” wrote Temminck, whose father was treasurer of the Dutch East India Company with links to many travelers and collectors, in Monographies de

mammalogie, ou description de quelques genres de mammiferes, don’t les especes on tete

observes dans les differens musees de l’Europe, Volume I (1824).


In the early 1970s, the Iberian lynx became a legally protected species. However, the World Wide Fund for Nature said that poaching and road kills remain threats.


“(In Spain), their already fragile habitat is under threat from illegal farms and wells, mining, river dredging and gas extraction that risk stealing or polluting what little water Donana (National Park in Andalusia) has left.”

 

Felines are separated by families in enclosures. Handlers place their food, rabbit, in pipes that end in their backyard. The team does not get too close so that the cats do not grow accustomed to humans and are prepared for the wild.

 

The National Center for the Reproduction of the Iberian Lynx receives mandatory funding from Aguas do Algarve until 2025 and funding from the State budget through the Institute for the Conservation of Nature and Forests (ICNF), which manages the national lynx center, director Rodrigo Serra told Expresso.


The lynx center was built as an environmental compensation measure for the effect of the construction of the Odelouca Dam, located about 40 kilometers northeast of the center at Vale Fuzeiros, Sao Bartolomeu de Messines Parish, Silves Municipality. It covers 36 hectares in a natural setting with enclosures for lynx families.


In 2009, the Odelouca Dam began operation. It is the second largest embankment dam in Portugal. The reservoir is the main source of water in the Algarve, according to Aguas do Algarve.






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