Saving a Fussy Predator in Europe, With Help From 50,000 Rabbits
VILCHES, Spain — The Iberian lynx is a picky eater. Despite its agility and speed, it almost only chases rabbits.
This narrow choice of prey helps explain why this feline came close to extinction less than two decades ago, after disease wiped out large numbers of rabbits from the Iberian Peninsula. But a vast breeding and relocation program has now turned the lynx into a flagship example of Europe’s efforts to maintain its biodiversity.
The program, mostly financed by the European Union, was begun after the Iberian lynx became the world’s most endangered feline, based on a 2002 census that showed fewer than 100 individuals remained in the wild. Now, the lynx population has rebounded to almost 550 animals, living in nine different parts of southern Spain and Portugal, compared with only two areas when the lynx came close to extinction.
An Iberian lynx was first born in captivity in 2005, but the task of breeding them remains complicated and costly, like “having a nursery for rich kids, in which you have one teacher for each kid,” said Angelo Salsi, an Italian official in Brussels who manages the European Commission’s Life environmental program, which has financed the return of the Iberian lynx.
An Iberian lynx named Oretana running free after her release in the mountain range of Sierra Morena in southern Spain.
In one of four breeding centers, veterinarians and other staff members follow strict rules to keep the young lynx both protected from germs and fearful of people, ahead of its release into the wild after one year in captivity. When set free, the young felines are spread across different areas, to avoid inbreeding.
Each release is attended by local town officials, farmers and hordes of schoolchildren, who applaud wildly as the animal — whose name they have selected in class — sprints out of its cage and vanishes among the bushes.
Such crowd celebrations can feel odd in a remote natural setting, but environmentalists say they help local communities feel like stakeholders in a project that requires not only a lot of money, but also continued support from people on the ground. In the past seven years, the program has cost at least 34 million euros, or about $42 million, about two-thirds of which came from Brussels.
Pending the award of more Spanish and European funding, Miguel Ángel Simón, a Spanish biologist who is the director of the Iberian lynx program, wants the final chapter of the lynx’s rehabilitation to focus on building infrastructure — mainly fencing and passageways — to help the animal travel safely between the southern areas in which it has been reintroduced. Last year, drivers ran over 31 lynxes in southern Spain, a record.
“The road is dangerous for all fauna, but lynxes are territorial animals, so as their population increases and their space gets taken up, they just have to move on to find new territories,” said Maribel García, a biologist.
The moment Oretana was released for the first time in her life. Samuel Aranda for The New York Times
The Iberian lynx is smaller than other species of lynx living in northern Europe, but it has the same pointy, tufted ears, large paws and glowing eyes. “We like to say beauty isn’t everything, but it does count and — let’s be frank — the lynx sells extremely well,” Mr. Salsi said.
As a counterexample, he cited another European project to protect a freshwater mussel from pollution. “People don’t really care about what’s at the bottom of the river,” he said.
Because rabbits are often considered pests, the lynx has also been welcomed back by farmers, in contrast to the tensions incited by the return of brown bears and wolves in many parts of Europe, where they can also threaten the livestock.
Iberian farmers have allowed environmentalists to build artificial rabbit burrows on their land to help feed the lynxes.
In southern Spain, landowners and tourism operators are also combining to take visitors on day-trips, in search of this elusive feline. Agustín Navarro, a rancher, said he has a couple of lynxes living near a pond on his farmland, but “it’s been more about feeling their presence than ever seeing them properly,” he said.
Even if the Iberian lynx is no longer facing extinction, its future continues to depend upon that of the rabbit, whose population first decreased significantly because of myxomatosis, a highly infectious disease, which was introduced as a control agent worldwide in the 1950s. More recently, rabbits have been killed by a viral hemorrhagic virus.
Without enough rabbits in a territory, the famished lynx will be driven to cross more dangerous roads in search of its staple diet, while females will have smaller litters.
To address the prey question, the Spanish program released 50,000 rabbits into lynx-populated areas over the past five years.
“It’s paradoxical that each rabbit is costing us €10, where there’s a plague of them in some other places,” said Montserrat Fernández San Miguel, an official from the state agency that runs Spain’s national parks. “It’s actually a fight involving two very complicated species, in which nature can raise new and unexpected obstacles every day.”
Urs Breitenmoser, a cat specialist at the International Union for Conservation of Nature, which keeps a list of endangered species, said the Iberian lynx presented unique challenges because of its narrow geographic footprint, as compared with other endangered felines like the tiger.
While its constrained range makes it easier to monitor the lynx population, it also makes it harder to safeguard the feline if something like a new virus suddenly infected rabbits in this southwestern corner of Europe.
“This lynx clearly evolved to be a rabbit hunter on the Iberian Peninsula — and the price for being such a precious and specialized hunter is a higher vulnerability,” he said.
Still, Javier Madrid, an environmental official within Andalusia’s regional government, got visibly irritated when asked about the cost of saving the lynx. When the lynx population was shriveling, he said, “Andalusia was getting a lot of criticism for allowing the loss of this great species.”
Now, he said, some “ignorant” pundits were drawing unflattering comparisons between how much money was spent on the lynx compared with funding allocated to offset social issues like unemployment.
“The problem is that everybody wants to put a number on everything, but not everything has economic value,” he argued. “Has friendship got a cost? If the lynx disappears, we will of course continue to live on this planet, but I don’t think with the same quality of life.”