Once common across southern France and the Iberian peninsula, Iberian lynx have been dramatically reduced in number by hunting, habitat loss and a lack of prey. The species was officially protected in the early 1970s, making it illegal to hunt them – but the other threats remained.
As recently as 1990, 1,100 individuals were estimated to survive in Spain. But a 2004 study found just 100 adult Iberian lynx remaining in the wild, concentrated in two populations in southern Spain.
Significant conservation efforts have resulted in some improvement: at the beginning of 2008, the population was estimated to be approximately 180, including 40 females capable of breeding.
This is a positive trend, but there is still much to be done to ensure the long-term survival of the species, which is listed as ‘critically endangered’ on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species.
The Iberian lynx lives in a mixture of habitats, including Mediterranean woodland and maquis thicket. It favours a combination of dense scrubland for shelter and open pasture to hunt rabbits, which account for at least 80% of its diet. It occasionally eats rodents, hares, partridges, ducks, geese, juvenile deer and fallow deer.
A solitary animal, except during the mating season, the Iberian lynx is a highly efficient hunter, using its keen eyesight and powerful sense of smell to detect prey from up to 300 metres away.
Challenges and threats
One of the biggest threats to the Iberian lynx is starvation due to a shortage of rabbits. Epidemics such as myxomatosis in the 1950s and rabbit haemorrhagic disease in the early 1990s dramatically reduced rabbit populations in Spain.
Habitat loss presents a further risk: between 1960 and 1990, the Iberian lynx suffered an estimated 80% loss of its range. In addition, the remaining habitat has been fragmented – particularly by infrastructure developments such as roads, dams and railways. These create barriers that prevent individual cats from travelling between the remaining isolated populations.
With only small numbers of individuals surviving in isolated groups, there are fears for the genetic viability of the species, and its resistance to disease. Iberian lynx are also killed in road accidents, with the number of deaths increasing as infrastructure development continues.
WWF in action
WWF aims to stabilise and increase the number of Iberian lynx by protecting, connecting and improving the management of key habitats.
We’re working with regional and national government in Spain to prevent the most damaging infrastructure developments, and to drive forward the designation, management and protection of Spain’s Natura 2000 sites. (Natura 2000 is a European network of protected sites that represent areas of the highest value for rare, endangered or vulnerable plants and animals.)
And we’re working with local landowners to establish well-managed habitat that provides the right environment for rabbits and the lynx to live without fear of poaching. Populations of both the Iberian lynx and rabbits are being frequently monitored.