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Iberian lynx back from the brink

Stephen Burgen
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Healthy growth:A female Iberian lynx and her cubs at the captive breeding centre of the Donana National Park, southern Spain.— Photo: AFP
Healthy growth:A female Iberian lynx and her cubs at the captive breeding centre of the Donana National Park, southern Spain.— Photo: AFP

Ten years ago the Iberian lynx was nearing extinction but today, thanks to an imaginative conservation programme that has brought hunters, farmers and the tourist industry under its wing, its numbers have tripled from 94 to 312.

“We can’t claim victory yet but now there is hope,” said Miguel Angel Simon, the director of the programme for the recovery of the lynx in Andalusia, southern Spain. Only five years ago the animal was classified as critically endangered.

The project, jointly funded by the Andalusian government and the European Union (EU), has been singled out for the second time by the EU as an exemplary conservation programme. Brussels is funding 40 per cent of the €26 million needed to extend the project into the neighbouring regions of Extremadura, Castile-La Mancha and Murcia, as well as Portugal.

According to Mr. Simon, when they first carried out a census in the lynx’s key habitats in the Sierra Morena and the Donana national park, not only were there few lynxes but the rabbit population had also been severely depleted by disease. Rabbits are the lynx’s main source of food. Mr. Simon says they began breeding lynxes in captivity in case they became extinct in the wild.

When the current project was launched in 2006, the Andalusian government worked with farmers and hunting clubs and persuaded them that saving the lynx was in everyone’s interest.

Lynx-spotting has become a tourist attraction in the area; as well as creating 31 full-time jobs, forestry work carried out under the programme has provided much-needed work for hundreds of small businesses in the area. Unemployment in Andalusia is running at nearly 37 per cent.

The second phase of the programme involved trying to expand the narrow gene pool of the lynxes in the Donana region.

Lynxes from the Sierra Morena were released into the area and, thanks to the efforts of one male in particular, nicknamed Caribou, last year 61 per cent of new-born lynxes in Donana were descended from Sierra Morena animals. In May 2014 the third phase of the programme will begin, introducing animals into Portugal and other regions. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2013

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