The Iberian lynx is the world’s most threatened carnivore (family Felidae). Although smaller in size, it resembles the Eurasian lynx (Lynx lynx), possessing the same characteristically bobbed tail, tufts on the ears and jaw, a spotted coat, muscular body and long legs. Based on estimates of density and geographic range, the total effective population size of the Iberian lynx is estimated at 250 mature breeding individuals and no subpopulation containing more than 50 mature breeding individuals. The Iberian lynx is classified as critically endangered on the IUCN Red List 2002 and listed on Appendix I of CITES. It is fully protected in Spain and Portugal.
The Iberian Lynx is restricted to Spain and Portugal. The population is confined to scattered groups in the southwestern quadrant of the Iberian peninsula in Spain (about 14.000 km2) and a few small populations in the Algarve mountains and Serra da Malcata Nature Reserve ( about 700 km2) in Portugal as a result of the fragmentation of their natural habitat by agricultural and industrial development. Only two or three groups are considered to have populations which could be viable in the long term. The Spanish populations live in controlled hunting zones called “cotos”.
The highly fragmented habitats of Iberian lynx consist of moutainous areas where rabbit populations are highest. These areas tend to be a mosaic of scrubland, open pasture, trees, and thickets. Occupied habitats may include wetlands and coastlines that fade into the scrub mosiac. Pastures are prefered for nocturnal hunting, while scub areas are used more for rest and protection during daylight hours. Human encroachment and hunting have left Iberian lynx with sometimes little more than few nuclei of safe havens with connecting corridors. Lynx are mainly found between 400-900 m elevation, but will range up to 1600 m.
Iberian lynx act as important top predators in the areas in which they live, controlling populations of rabbits and other small mammals. Iberian lynx primarily feed on European rabbits. When rabbit numbers are low, as during summers when the poxvirus myxomatosis ravages rabbit populations, Iberian lynx have been recorded preying on red deer fawns, fallow deer, juvenile moufflon, and ducks. Iberian lynx are primarily nocturnal animals. Their activity peaks around twilight as they prepare to hunt through the night. They traverse an overall average of 7 km throughout their waking hours, males average a longer travelling distance than females. These cats are strong tree climbers when there is a need. When prey is caught, Iberian lynx drag or carry the carcass for quite some distance from the kill site. Then it is consumed and the remains buried.
Females reach sexual maturity at one year of age, but will not reproduce until they have their own territory. Often this happens only after an aging female has died and the younger female has moved in to claim the territory as her own. Females mate with males whose territory overlaps their own. Gestation lasts approximately 2 months. Breeding lairs of females include a variety of places such as hollows under thickets, burrows, hollow trees, and old stork nests. Females give birth between March and September. A litter consists of 2-3 young, but can have as many as 5 young. After her kittens have reached an age of several weeks, the mother will move the cubs to a larger lair, often under a bush. Females nurse and care for their young in the den until they reach the age of independence. The young stay close to their mother until she has mated again the year following their birth. They remain within her territory for approximately another 20 months after that, after which they disperse to find their own territory.
Massive clearance of marquis vegetation in the 1940s led to the disappearance of the lynx from much of its range. Rapid economic development in Spain led to many dams, highways and railways being built; most scrublands were converted to agriculture. Plantations of pines and eucalypts has resulted in a drastic reduction in potential lynx habitat. Population fluxes in the lynx’s main prey, European rabbits, due to infection with the pox virus myxomatosis, have taken a large toll on the lynx population also. With the main food source decimated, the lynx population crashed, and when rabbit recovery seemed possible, viral haemmorrhagic pneumonia struck them. Additional threats to the species come from injuries caused by being caught in snares set for rabbits, accidental deaths caused by speeding vehicles on the expanding road network and illegal shooting.
The Spanish government is in the process of developing a national conservation strategy for the Iberian lynx, with the goal of enabling the lynx to occupy as large a range as possible on a permanent basis. Management measures will be applied first to the largest population nuclei (the eastern Sierra Morena, the Toledo Mountains, the corridors between these two zones, and certain parts of Extremadura). Measures include completion of detailed surveys of the conditions faced by each lynx subpopulation (land use, land ownership, habitat condition, rabbit density), banning rabbit trapping, taking active steps to increase rabbit populations (such as brush clearance) and establishment of a captive breeding programme.