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European Climate, Infrastructure and Environment Executive Agency
News article | 20 July 2021

The comeback cat: Iberian lynx numbers up tenfold in 20 years

According to a recent census, the population of this endangered feline has risen from 94 individuals in 2002 to 1 111 in 2020. LIFE projects have been key to achieving this remarkable feat.

Introducción Lince Andalucia

Agricultural intensification and illegal hunting saw the Iberian lynx population diminish during the 20th century. But the cat’s fortune has turned around due to a combination of EU legislation and LIFE projects working on the ground.

Today the Iberian lynx is legally protected from hunting by the EU Birds and Habitats Directives and its numbers are rising. This success story shows how important EU laws are for enhancing Europe’s biodiversity.

Also, the European Commission will this year put forward legally binding targets to restore nature – a key element of the EU Biodiversity Strategy for 2030.  Reaching these targets should increase the connectivity of the habitats that help wildlife like the lynx to move around and breed.

LIFE projects too have played their part in this transformation. Their sterling work on several Natura 2000 sites in Spain and Portugal has had a significant positive impact as can be seen below.

A 33% jump in 10 years

In just ten years, the transnational LIFE+IBERLINCE project managed to triple the number of Iberian lynxes in Portugal and Spain; from 100 individuals in 2002 to more than 400 in 2015. The team worked closely with landowners and managers of private hunting estates to encourage captive breeding and the reintroduction of species to the wild. They also improved various habitats to support rabbit populations - the lynx’s main prey. And they built multiple underpasses and fences to prevent the feline from being hit by cars on roads.

Linking lynxes

The Habitat Lince Abutre project team worked with hunters, olive growers and others in southeast Portugal to improve conditions for the Iberian lynx. Together, they enhanced conservation and land management across 18 000 hectares, an area around two-thirds the size of Edinburgh. They developed more than 56 hectares of ecological corridors in the Adiça-Ficalho mountains to help the cat move around more freely. They also built eight artificial dens and improved pastures to help rabbits thrive. An extensive communications and public outreach campaign were also performed successfully.

More space, more species

The Andalusian Lynx Introduction project forged land stewardship agreements with 147 private estates on 200 000 hectares across the region. Activities included improving the existing lynx habitat and creating new reintroduction areas for the species.  Leasing hunting rights, introducing compensation schemes for damage caused by the lynx, erecting feeding and drinking stations, as well as lynx enclosures, were also key. Their work saw the total surface occupied by the Iberian lynx in Andalusia increasing from 510 km2 in 2006 to 979 km2 in 2011. Its population also increased to 326 individuals.

Changing negative perceptions

The Lince Moura/Barrancos team improved natural feeding conditions for the Iberian lynx by sowing 60 hectares of pastures and improving natural refuge by planting 3 200 trees and bushes. Faced with the initial distrust of both locals and landowners, the team ran a successful public participation programme on nature conservation issues and the Natura 2000 network, which changed many people’s attitudes.

The future

As a result of these and other successes, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has lowered the Iberian lynx’s threat category from ‘critically endangered’ to ‘endangered’.

However, continued conservation efforts are critical to reaching a viable population of at least 3 000 to 3 500 individuals.

Image: LIFE06 NAT/E/000209/SOPEÑA Aixa

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