Four small Iberian lynxes sleep peacefully next to their mother, Nota. A touching scene made possible by a breeding program and captive breeding of this emblematic species in Spain, which is close to extinction.
Sheltered from the sun, Sismo, Sicily, Senegal and Susurro, just three months old, rest in the center of El Acebuche, located in the Doñana National Park, a gigantic protected area in southern Spain.
This center is one of five sites (four in Spain and one in Portugal) created in the 2000s to breed the “Lynx pardinus” in captivity with a view to reintroducing this spotted cat into its natural environment.
Victim of poaching and the scarcity of wild rabbits, the basis of its diet, the species had just 100 individuals in 2002 against more than 100,000 at the beginning of the 20th century and was then “in critical danger” of extinction, according to the International Red List. of the Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
But the efforts of the authorities and NGOs made it possible to reverse the trend thanks to the fight against poaching, the reintroduction of rabbits in the area and, above all, captive breeding. In 2020, for the first time, 1,100 individuals were identified.
Although still threatened, the animal with long pointed ears ending in a thin tuft and thick white whiskers multiplied in Andalusia and reappeared in other Spanish regions from where it had disappeared (Extremadura, Castile-La Mancha), as well as in Portugal.
– Lynx “factory” –
“We are very satisfied and surprised with the result” of the breeding and reintegration program, explains to AFP Antonio Rivas, coordinator of El Acebuche, for whom the network of centers is a true “factory for the production of lynx”.
In a vast enclosed park recreating their natural habitat, lynxes live and breed while trainers strive to disturb them as little as possible to prevent the animals from getting used to human presence.
“The main cause of death (of the lynx) in nature is linked to human activities: they are crushed, victims of poaching”, so “the less interaction they have with humans, the better”, explains Antonio Rivas.
The cats feed on live rabbits, which are fed to them regularly.
“We put two or three rabbits” in a kind of box that will automatically open several hours later so that “the lynxes don’t associate their presence with the coach’s presence”, explains António Pardo, one of those coaches.
The lynxes are monitored day and night thanks to a system of cameras and microphones that allow them to study the animal’s behavior, closer to the tiger than to the cat.
Sitting in front of screens and speakers, no detail escapes Blanca Rodriguez. “It’s nap time, let’s see them rest”, she explains, showing on a screen “Note and her little ones” who “are fast asleep”.
To protect the felines, “sensitive to SARS-CoV-2”, sanitary measures have been reinforced and the mask is mandatory at all times in the center, specifies veterinarian Yasmin El Bouyafrouri.
In March 2005, El Acebuche won the bid to register its first captive birth: three Iberian lynx cubs, two of which survived.
The first litters remained in captivity for several years to give birth to other lynxes and to avoid capturing wild ones. But from 2011 onwards, reintroduction into the wild began and by 2020 305 lynx were released.
“When they are about a year old, (…) we put them on a GPS collar and take them to an area of the Iberian Peninsula where we open the cage and… we go free!” exclaims Antonio Rivas. 85% of captive-born bobcats are released. Its survival rate is around 70% in the wild, where the female lynx has up to six cubs a year.
But despite the very good results of this program, the IUCN keeps the “Lynx pardinus” in the “endangered” category and the WWF estimates that it will take more than 3,0000 individuals to consider that the risk has disappeared.