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The Species and its Habitat
The Iberian Lynx is a highly charismatic predator that once roamed the length and breadth of the Iberian Peninsula. Once considered ‘common’, the rate of decline in the Iberian Lynx population during the last 50 years has been dramatic, and during the last decade catastrophic. The most recent reports indicate that there are less than 100 individuals now surviving in the wild. It is acknowledged as the most endangered cat species in the world – and is the only cat species to be recognized as Critically Endangered by the World Conservation Union (IUCN).
A combination of biological and anthropogenic factors contributes to the decline in Lynx populations:
- Loss and fragmentation of habitats: Lynx populations have suffered through loss and fragmentation of their habitat. Large areas of cork oak forest and Mediterranean scrub (maquis) have been converted to intensive agriculture and eucalyptus plantations. These ‘improved’ areas do not provide suitable habitat for the Lynx or their prey, the rabbit.
- Lack of food: The Iberian Lynx specialises in catching rabbits, which are native to the Iberian Peninsula. The introduction of myxomatosis to Spain in the 1950’s, and the subsequent impact of haemorrhagic fever, has resulted in a drastic decline in rabbit populations down to an estimated 5% of original levels.
- Infrastructure development: An increasing numbers of roads, railways and dams have further fragmented the habitat and landscape and increased the number of physical barriers to Lynx, resulting in Lynx populations becoming further isolated.
- Illegal killing: Lynx have been shot or trapped illegally on sporting estates, generally as a result of predator control activities.
- Road casualties: Accidental deaths on roads have increased as new highways continue to be built through the remaining Lynx habitats. Thirteen individuals were killed on roads between 2002 and 2003 in southern Spain.
The Lynx occurs in the most ecologically-rich and unique ecosystems of the Iberian Peninsula - cork oak forests and maquis shrub land. Cork oak forests are very important biodiversity reservoirs and arguably the most biodiverse farming system in Europe. Over 60 different plant varieties have been found per square metre. Species associated with the habitats include a wide range of birds - Bonelli's eagle, golden eagle, peregrine falcon, black vulture, red kite, lesser kestrel, common buzzard, honey buzzard and black-winged kites and black stork, and mammals – in addition to the Iberian Lynx, there are wild boars, genets, and the threatened European Wildcat Felis silvestris. A recent IUCN report on endangered wildlife found more rare species of birds and mammals in Portugal and Spain than anywhere else in Europe. Moreover, these habitats support important local cultures and traditional lifestyles, including the harvesting of cork, production of olive oil, cheeses and local liqueurs, and the rearing of the regional delicacy - acorn-fed black pig. The Iberian Lynx is uniquely adapted to the mosaic of habitats that form these unique ecosystems, hence, actions initiated to protect the Lynx also present an opportunity to secure the long-term protection of these wonderful areas and the sustainable uses associated with them.
The Iberian Lynx Project, Portugal
The project aimed to support the implementation of Fauna and Flora (FFI) strategy for the conservation of the Iberian Lynx in Portugal and Spain. The strategy aimed to identify and secure areas of cork oak forest and maquis habitat under favourable long-term conservation management within a green corridor stretching from the Serra Do Monchique in South-western Portugal to the Sierra Morena in Central Spain. Within this area we aimed to compliment the activities of Spanish Lynx conservation groups by focusing on areas considered to be peripheral, under imminent threat and / or receiving little or no attention. The initial focus has been on Portugal were little activity is taking place. Significant results have been achieved.
A strong partnership has been established between FFI and the Portuguese NGO - Liga para a Protecção da Natureza (LPN). A Lynx project officer has been employed within LPN and a Portuguese Lynx scientific advisory group has been established. An FFI/LPN Lynx strategy has been developed and initial Lynx conservation programme activities commenced:
The work conducted under the auspices of the WildInvest project will provide the basis for further land surveys and negotiations with landowners/managers on land management agreements in 2005 onwards.
Activities commenced with the surveying of 100,000 hectares of habitat in the Serra Do Caldeirão region of Portugal. The survey area included the Caldeirão Natura 2000 site and a 2.5km buffer zone around this site to take into account areas of historical Lynx presence. The overall habitat cover and quality was digitally mapped and the owners of the areas of prime habitat were identified. A total of 132 x 250m transects were completed for rabbits using latrine counts as an index of relative abundance. The results indicate a number of small but fragmented rabbit populations, the best of which coincide with good habitat in the east of the region.
Caldeirão Natura 2000 site has a total area of approximately 47,000 hectares. Approximately 45% of this is covered with cork oak forests, 3,5% with holm oak, 16,9% Mediterranean maquis, and 14,5% is scrubland. This total area of habitat has great potential for Lynx, the prime requirement now being to maintain the habitat in good condition and to re-establish rabbits across the region. Fires in the summer 2004 summer affected 42% of the Natura 2000 site, including some of the best areas of scrubland and maquis. Although some burned areas are regenerating very quickly, the removal of scrub, which is otherwise known as ‘cleaning’ for fire control, is stopping natural succession.
Negotiating land management agreements
Research to confirm the legal status and ownership of areas identified as key Lynx habitat within the Serra Do Caldeirão was also completed. The first contact with two landowners/managers to concerning the development of conservation management agreements was made in November 2004. We are confident that these two negotiation processes will lead to the first land management agreements to secure Iberian Lynx habitat in Portugal being signed in 2005.
A range of contacts within the Lynx conservation sector in Portugal and Spain have been made and the LPN team has been supported to use these as a platform for the further development of the Lynx programme. A number of articles have also been published in Portuguese national newspapers and journals helping to raise awareness of the programme and more importantly the plight of the Iberian Lynx.
WildInvest’s support for the nascent FFI Iberian Lynx programme provided a platform for significant advancement of Iberian Lynx conservation in Portugal:
- The Lynx programme team has been expanded to include three dedicated programme staff.
- The team have completed surveys in two further regions - Moura Barrancos (43,309 hectares) and Vale do Rio Chança (51,042 hectares).
- A total of 11,900 ha of private and government land have been secured under management agreements in the Serra Do Caldeirão and Moura Barrancos regions; a significant achievement in Portugal.
- A range of conservation actions have been implemented on these sites including the seeding of 40 hectares of pasture for rabbits and the construction of 128 rabbit shelters, 103 rabbit watering points, 161 rabbit feeding points and the recovery of 10km of riparian habitat forming corridors across the landscape.
- The LPN Lynx team is acknowledged as a leading conservation effort for Lynx in Portugal, as evidenced by independent news / journal articles, and the inclusion of LPN on the State group responsible for delivering the National Lynx Action Plan.
In October 2007 a previously unknown population of Iberian Lynx was discovered in the Castilla – La Mancha, Spain. In the same month an agreement was signed between the Portuguese and Spanish governments for the creation of a captive breeding centre in Portugal. These together with the success of Lynx projects in Andalucía and the successful breeding of captive Lynx in the main breeding facility in Donana National Park, Spain have increased the estimate of surviving Iberian Lynx to circa 200.
These successes are very encouraging but the threats remain and the future relies on there being suitable habitat and a prey base (rabbits) for the Lynx across Portugal and Spain. The Chair of the The recent success of the captive breeding program in Spain and the relocation of 16 Lynx to a new breeding facility in Portugal further emphasizes the need to secure habitat Securing suitable habitat is now the priority for international efforts to conserve the Iberian Lynx.
The Portuguese State Conservation Agency (ICNB) and Junta de Andalucia, Spain, have announced that an Iberian Lynx has been officially recorded in Portugal. This is the first such record since 2001. The Lynx, which was tracked using a radio collar, crossed the border into Portugal and stayed in the Moura/Barrancos region. Historically, Iberian Lynx roamed all over Spain and Portugal. This is great news and reinforces our long-standing efforts to protect Portuguese habitat for Lynx that will hopefully move back in from Spain. The Lynx is now back in Spain after its fleeting visit.
The initial support of WildInvest for the FFI/LPN Lynx programme was well founded and the commitment to securing habitat for the Iberian Lynx in Portugal has proven well justified!