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The Spanish Tiger

I was surprised a few years ago when I read that the wild species of cat which scientists believed was most likely to become extinct in the 21st century, resided not in Africa or Asia, but in Europe.

The Iberian Lynx is a smaller and more long legged relative of the European Lynx and its cousin, the much larger, Canadian lynx. It has a prominent facial ruff. It is known by several names including Spanish lynx and Pardel lynx. It was originally a common cat of the Iberian Peninsula, especially in Mediterranean scrubland containing dense rabbit populations. However, over centuries it was persecuted by farmers and trapped for its skin. Its habitat was eroded and fragmented until recently there were only two areas in Spain, the Sierra Morena uplands and the Cota Donana coastal plain, where it could still be found. The final nail in its coffin was when the European rabbit population in the area was hit by myxomatosis and Rabbit Haemorrhagic disease. As the lynx’s diet consists of over 85 % rabbit there just weren’t enough rabbits to sustain the lynx population. Numbers crashed and by 2000 there were estimated to be less than 100 individuals left.

Photo of an Iberian Lynx, by Jon Isaacs 2023
Iberian Lynx. Photo Copyright Jon Isaacs 2023

Fortunately, Spain developed the Iberian Lynx Ex Situ Conservation Programme to try and prevent this iconic cat from becoming extinct. There was already a breeding centre for captured lynx which opened in 1992. Under the scheme at least three centres have been developed in Spain and one in Portugal. The centres have a fixed number of pens where lynx are paired and left largely to their own devices. Contact with humans is minimal and the lynx are observed on close circuit tv. The centres are not open to the public. Breeding success since 2000 has been really encouraging. The lynx often produce up to three cubs but cub aggression is frequently a problem resulting in only one or two maturing in a litter. When cubs are ready for release they are taken to areas where the habitat and prey quantity has been appraised as being capable of supporting them. In some areas, particularly when the rabbit diseases reappear, captive bred European rabbits have to be released to supplement the diet. Some of the released lynx have successfully bred and their offspring also appear to be pairing and mating. The number of release areas has expanded to include areas in Portugal, so real progress has been made in the last twenty years. The habitat has been rewilded and, in Spain, many under passes have been created to try and reduce road casualties The breeding programme is continually evaluated, genetics controlled and millions of euros spent. In 2022, there was estimated to be approximately 1668 Iberian lynx in the peninsula. Portugal has increased from zero to 154 in the Guardian Valley alone, including 54 kittens which were born in 2020. Some are still annually lost to road kill and hunting but the number seems encouraging and stable. Despite the scientists’ fears in the 1990’s, the Iberian Lynx is definitely secure for the time being and consequently, its conservation status has been lowered from critically endangered to endangered.

In 2017 I went to Spain to try and photograph the Iberian lynx in one of its two strongholds. I spent five days driving through the scrubland of Donana national park and scanning the valleys and hills of the Sierra Morena. Although the lynx have territories and areas where they frequent rabbit colonies, actually spotting them and trying to photograph them is almost impossible. They are extremely shy and retiring and, despite returning to known sighting spots repeatedly, the nearest I came to seeing one was to find a set of fresh paw prints down by a dam area they frequent. The best shots amateurs seem to have got of them is by being in the right spot at the right time, in other words, pure luck!

A close up head shot of an Iberian Lynx. Photo copyright Jon Isaacs 2023
Iberian Lynx close up. Photo Copyright Jon Issacs 2023

Being fairly obstinate and obsessed about getting a photo of this iconic species, the only course of action left to me was to locate one in a zoo. There are only three zoos worldwide, two in Spain and Lisbon zoo in Portugal that exhibit them. The specimens on show are all unsuitable for breeding due to a variety of reasons ie subject to fits, too old etc. However, they do a good job as an ambassador for the species and in educating the public.

That’s how I found myself in Lisbon zoo one sunny, Spring afternoon looking into the recently constructed and purpose built Iberian lynx enclosure for Gamma and Azahar. The enclosure had been planted with native plants and provided the environment that these creatures would find in the wild. There were plenty of information boards explaining the plight of the species and how it was being conserved. There were also some extensive glass viewing screens that one could observe and photograph the lynx through. I consider myself extremely fortunate that, in the few hours I was there, the two lynx were generally awake and active. Consequently, I was able to take a reasonable number of photographs of this extremely rare creature in a natural setting. Having more recently viewed photos from 2019 of the enclosure, the plants have now matured providing even more cover for the lynx which is good. However, it has made photography even more difficult than when I went.

A road traffic sign showing a drawn image of an Iberian Lynx, with the Spanish word for 'Remember' written below. Photo copyright Jon Isaacs 2023
A road traffic sign showing a drawn image of an Iberian Lynx. Copyright Jon Isaacs 2023

So, this is generally a success story. Personally, I still feel that I have unfinished business with the Iberian lynx for there is still the quest to try and photograph it in the wild if age, money and lockdowns allow. There is also the tantalizing thought of what drawing David could come up with of this iconic species.


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