The Iberian lynx (Lynx pardinus) is considered Europe’s most endangered carnivore and the world’s most threatened cat species. It is endemic (native) to the Iberian Peninsula and listed as a priority species for conservation under the EU Habitats Directive and listed under the Bern Convention and the Red Books of Vertebrates of Portugal and Spain.
Historical data indicates that the Iberian lynx was present on most of the Iberian Peninsula in the mid 19th Century. By 1960, its distribution range was confined to the southwest part of the peninsula. By 1980, the Portuguese Lynx population was estimated at no more than 50 individuals. And by the time this project was proposed, it was believed to be reduced to just three main areas, two of which were next to the Spanish border. Furthermore, these were fragmented areas that put at serious risk the continued viability of the population. The destruction of the Mediterranean forests, its preferred habitat, and the dramatic decrease of the wild rabbit population, its most important prey species, are believed to have contributed to the strong decline of the Portuguese Iberian Lynx population over the last decades.
The project is of a trans-frontier nature, with actions carried out in both Spain and Portugal. Its overall objective was to reduce the threats to the remaining lynx population on the Iberian Peninsula and to establish a recovery programme for the species. This would be achieved via various specific measures to conserve its habitat, increase the populations of its preferred prey (rabbits) and raise awareness of the importance of the highly endangered species for Europe’s natural heritage.
These specific measures would be supported by further study of the biology and ecology of the species. When the project was launched (1994) the lynx was only found in three areas of Portugal, two of which are on the border with Spain. The project was therefore of a trans-frontier nature, with actions carried out on both sides in a coordinated and complimentary way.
The project achieved a substantial increase in information on the conservation status and distribution of the Iberian lynx population.
Key outputs were the identification of areas that are important for the conservation of the Iberian lynx, as well as the mapping of the current distribution of the large carnivore species in Portugal. The identification of important areas for conservation was crucial for the elaboration of the national list of pSCIs (proposed sites of Community importance according to the Natura 2000 network).
The biological and ecological studies carried out by the project beneficiary – namely through questionnaires and sign identification – indicated that the lynx population was highly fragmented and with low densities. (Note, the project had planned to radio track individual animals. However, there numbers were too low and none were captured.) Five different populations were identified, totalling 39-53 animals in an area of 2 380 km2, representing 4.9- 5.3% of the world population. These areas were as follows:
- Malcata (6-9 animals occupying an area of 450 km2),
- S. Mamede (4-6 animals occupying an area of 385 km2);
- Guadiana valley (4-7 animals occupying an area of 270 km2);
- Sado valley (6-8 animals occupying an area of 340 km2);
- Algarve-Odemira (19-23 animals occupying an area of 935 km2).
Several threats to the lynx were identified by the project. These included: the destruction of habitat by agriculture explorations; intensive afforestation and fires; the reduction of rabbits (a key source of food for the lynx); and illegal hunting. The overall results point towards the need of implementation of urgent conservation measures.
National action plan & conservation actions:
The project developed a national action plan for the conservation of the Iberian lynx in which specific conservation guidelines and actions were defined. Various direct conservation measures, particularly on public lands, were successfully implemented. These included the creation of pastures, plantation of native woods, recovery of degraded water spots, installation of artificial structures for rabbit breeding and cover and the application of agri-environmental measures (through supporting traditional agricultural practices).
Although the project had also planned to implement conservation measures on private land, the beneficiary instead developed formal (signed) management contracts with hunting associations that guaranteed the management of these areas in a compatible manner with the conservation of the Iberian Lynx (indicating a formal commitment to fight against illegal hunting and to co-operate in conservation related studies taking place in the area).
Cross border co-operation:
Negotiations between Portugal and Spain proved to be difficult and the project was not successful in setting up a common conservation plan.
Raising awareness of the lynx:
A number of activities were carried out by the project to raise awareness, especially among young people, of the importance of cosnerving the Iberian lynx. Dissemination outputs included material developed especially for children (e.g., a game and booklet developed for children); this material – that was promoted by science teaches - was distributed to six basic and secondary schools located in the area in which Lynx occurred. Other dissemination outputs were leaflets (e.g., for hunters on the importance of predators) and a brochure (on the Iberian Lynx).
Finally, It is believed that the success of the project’s awareness raising activities helped to contribute to the government’s decision to deny the development of a highway that would have crossed over an important Lynx area in Portugal.