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The eyes of the Iberian Lynx

February 27, 2012

Since a few years, I was hearing stories from friends that it was fairly easy to see Iberian lynx in the wild. I thought this was quite remarkable for such a rare and elusive cat, however with a couple of friends we decided to try our luck in February this year, a time of year when the species is very active and territorial.

Despite its resemblance with the more common Eurasian lynx (Lynx lynx), at about half the size the Iberian lynx (Lynx pardinus) is much smaller and differs in its ecology. The species favors Mediterranean  scrubland and its favorite prey species is the rabbit –making up at least 90% of its diet. The Iberian lynx is, according to IUCN Red List, critically endangered due to its small, fragmented populations and deceasing trend.

The population size, estimated at the end of 2010, puts the total number of individuals at 279. The largest population occurs in the eastern Sierra de Morena, which accounts for 68% of the free-living individuals of the species. The other population is in Doñana, numbering around 77 individuals in 2010. The species is believed to be extinct in Portugal.  The Iberian lynx now occupies just over 0,2% of its historical range in Europe and has become the most endangered cat species in the world.

Saturday afternoon, February 11, 15.00 hrs. After arriving from Sevilla, we slowly drove through the Sierras de Andujar. From here we had received recent reports of Iberian lynx, people watching them passing by at dusk and even during clear day-light. We could hardly imagine.

During our stops we saw large flocks of Azure-winged magpie, a nice pair of Spanish Imperial eagle, Black and Griffon vultures, a pair of Little owls sunbathing on top of a big bolder, and many Red partridges. Dartford warblers were singing their dry rattle in many places, and the call of the Grey woodpecker echoed through the beautiful valleys. Rabbits were all over and we saw them skipping away many times.

We finally stopped the car next to the dirt road at a place which we believed would be good lynx territory. We saw some other people who had also chosen this spot and where using telescopes to scan the green hills of the valley, in search of lynxes. We installed ourselves and were alert for any sign of a predator around – be it alarm calls of Blackbirds, Magpies or Partridges.

Believe it or not, we only had to wait a bit longer than one hour before an Iberian lynx was discovered by the other observers, who alarmed us. It was walking along the dirt road with a rabbit in its mouth. It walked up a low hill, came down on the other side where we could see it walking, down into the valley. It was a beautiful big male, carefully walking close to bushes, big stones and rocky outcrops – so always close to coverage. What a fantastic animal! We clearly saw its typical beard, a beautifully spotted skin and the remarkable ear tops. And what surprised us most: it wasn’t shy at all, it just walked by not paying any attention to us. An ignorance I only know from big cats like leopards in Africa. This all happened in a few minutes, we could hardly believe we had seen an Iberian lynx!

Sunday, 12 February, 06.30 hrs. The next morning we returned to the same spot before sunrise. It was freezing cold but we were encouraged by yesterday’s experience. And we were lucky again: thanks to a continuously alarming Red partridge, we discovered a female Iberian lynx – probable the partner of the male we had seen the day before – and managed to follow her with our binoculars on a similar walk down into the valley. Iberian lynx number two, and fairly easy to find. We were very excited again, to see this beautiful carnivore.

But I still had one wish: so far we had seen the animals from the side and behind, but not from the front. So I made a joke to my companions,  saying that I would now really enjoy looking an Iberian lynx into the eyes…

In the afternoon we drove from our hotel, Los Pinos, back to the sierra to try another time. Pressure was off, since we had seen the Iberian lynx already twice so we were more relaxed. It was even not 20 minutes after we left, I suddenly saw an Iberian lynx standing next to the road. I immediately stopped the car, we saw this beautiful creature looking left, right, and then crossing the road, carefully and relaxed, just 20 meters away from us!  It was the middle of the day, in full sunlight. We were absolutely amazed and could hardly imagine what a beautiful animal just passed the road in front of us! And yes, I looked into the eyes of this one!

The Iberian lynx seems to recover slightly from the worst, at least in Sierra de Moreno. Very intense measures seem to have an impact on the breeding success and survival of this extremely rare feline. The species is also spreading into new areas through reintroduction programmes. It is still on the brink of extinction, however, and a continued and strong effort is needed to protect the species, its main prey the rabbit, and its habitat. Millions of euro’s have already been invested in saving the species, and it seems to have an impact.

There is hope that the Iberian lynx can continue to recover. Just a few years ago it was hard to imagine that it is now possible to see this species in the wild, as we did. I could not resist to send a text message to Diego Benito, our project leader of the Western Iberia rewilding area, expressing my excitement. He answered by congratulating me and saying that ‘’the lynx in Campanarios de Azaba is a beautiful dream that we will work to make happen’’, referring to the plans of reintroducing this species into our project area in the years to come.

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