What happened? The Iberian lynx's decline

Updated: Apr 16, 2018

Imagine if all but 61 of your fellow species disappeared for good. That's the story of the Iberian lynx in the 20th century.

We often talk about endangered species in a way that suggests the "endangered" label gets people interested in helping save them. Often that's true, especially in the case of super cute, fluffy animals. But we often don't share all that much about the history of how that species became so in need of help to survive.

At the beginning of the 1900s the Iberian lynx inhabited the entire area of the Iberian peninsula and souther France, by the 2000s the population resided in just two small pockets in southern Spain.

We'd like to take a moment to share with you the story of the Iberian lynx which is quite sad and quite happy at the same time. When numbers of the species reached less less than 100 individuals, the European Union and governments of Spain and Portugal funded breeding programmes which brought incredible results. Three breeding centres were singlehandedly responsible for increasing the Iberian lynx population to the 547 we know are out there today. However, in 2017 alone, 58 were found dead, mostly due to road collisions.

The Iberian lynx has increased its population in recent years based on an artificial breeding program in captivity and regular releases into the wild that create a false image about the species' true situation.

Ecologistas en acción

The Iberian lynx is not out of the woods yet. There is still a lot of work to do before a stable wild population can thrive.  So let's look at how we got to this situation. 

We know the Iberian lynx by its scientific name of Lynx pardinus - a distinct species because it varies in terms of genetics to the Eurasian lynx and other relatives. The Lynx pardinus was first assessed on the IUCN Red List in 1965 and described as "very rare and believed to be declining in numbers". By 2001 there was a maximum population of just 62 mature individuals. It's fair to say the species was at the brink of disappearing. 

What led this dramatic population increase during the 20th century?  Quite a few factors:

  • changes in agricultural methods over the 20th century meant the Iberian lynx lost a significant proportion of its natural habitat to large-scale farms. The enormous greenhouses in southern Spain, quite famous for their sheer scale, were built directly upon the Iberian lynxes' "homes" while the roads built around them split the remaining populations from one another,

  • the divided populations made it increasingly difficult for populations to survive and grow since breeding pairs became fewer,

  • further, deforestation and the planting of non-native species such as eucalyptus instead of native cork trees meant the loss of even more habitat,

  • all of the above factors, in turn, reduced the number of wild rabbits - the main food source for Iberian lynxes,

  • further to these devastating changes in habitat, hunting and trapping of Iberian lynxes made a big dent in their population as people sought to reduce the number of predators across Spain, not quite realising the value of these animals to a balanced ecosystem (now we have a much better understanding that they are essential),

  • the increase in infrastructure and number of roads brought more deaths by traffic collisions. This is now the leading cause of death for Iberian lynxes following their release from breeding centres and the main issue that our research project addresses.

Our principal investigator Yulán Úbeda is already beginning her research, having spent the majority of her professional life studying the personalities of several endangered species and their welfare.

The overarching goal of Yulán's work is “to assure a prosperous future for the populations of Iberian lynxes”. The focus is on the importance of the selection of Iberuan lynxes for a successful reintroduction and on educational programmes for local people. The project has six objectives to achieve this goal:

  • Rate Personality in a group of Iberian Lynxes hosted at the breeding Centers for the “Iberian Lynx Ex-situ Conservation Programme”, so as to obtain results for understanding the Felids personality from an evolutionary perspective.

  • Assess which profiles of personality are related with a successful reintroduction after release.

  • Apply the observed assessment to select the most appropriates subjects for following reintroduction programmes.

  • Evaluate the success of the selection criteria.

  • Create an educational programme by creating engaging stories about the lynxes studies, their personalities and day to day lives. Deliver the stories to school children in the areas where the Iberian lynx lives to raise awareness. Distribute this content more widely online with the help of videos and written articles targeting media outlets in Spain, Portugal and more widely in Europe to raise further awareness.

  • Influence policy makers and local actors perception of the Iberian lynx as an important member of the ecosystem and encourage better conservation of their habitat, especially in new release sites.

We'll keep you update on our work, but in the meantime you can find our more about our project and how you can help here.

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