Pawing Back From Extinction

After receiving special permission from the government to visit the Lynx captive breeding programme, approximately 14 km north of the city of Silves, Tomorrow Magazine sent Sophie Sadler to investigate how the Iberian Lynx has come back from the brink.

Driving into the countryside behind Silves with its rolling hills you soon start to feel like you are travelling away from civilisation into a barren land of Eucalyptus topped peaks and rocky valleys. Exactly the sort of place you could imagine wild animals thriving.

Located near the village of Vale Fuzeiros on a hillside above the Arade River close to the Funcho Dam, live a population of 29 lynxes, which have a vital role in the reintroduction of their species back into the wild. They are not, however, roaming free but living in enclosures, guarded within an enclosed compound in the hope that their descendants will once more successfully inhabit the Iberian peninsula.

The Iberian Lynx National Breeding Center was inaugurated in May 2009 and received its first animals in October. Cubs (Lynx Pardinus) are bred in captivity then when they are ready to become independent, released into the wild. 

Of the 108 born in the facility, 63 have been released to the wild, 11 are kept in captivity as breeders and 28 have died. 6 Juveniles born in 2018 are awaiting release in February 2019. 

Such has been the success of the programme that the species was recently downgraded from critically endangered to endangered and thanks to captive breeding and release efforts, there is an expanding, albeit small community of around 60 cats living in the wild around Mértola in Portugal.

I meet Rodrigo Serra, the wild cat’s answer to Steve Irwin. The animal action-man lives in a humble villa on top of the mountain overlooking the enclosures while his family reside in his home-town, Lisbon. A veterinary doctor, his impressive resumé includes a Masters degree in wild-animal health which he gained at the Institute of Zoology in London Zoo and working with lions in Botswana.

He tells me he has just returned from hunting wild lynx in Mértola, to which I raise an eyebrow, but of course, this is now done as part of the research project. The new juveniles born in the wild are captured to analyse their health, DNA and in order to microchip them.

The barren environment of the site and the guarded entry gate does give the place an air of area 51 about it. Rodrigo tours me around the main office where a dedicated group of 17 scientists, vets and keepers, work 365 days a year 24-hours-a-day, eating, drinking and as a bedroom shows evidence, even sleeping on site.

The Lynx has The Odelouca Dam to thank for the establishment of the breeding programme in Silves. In order to compensate for the negative impacts associated with building the dam, Águas de Portugal implemented environmental overcompensation in the dam’s area of influence. As such, they jointly fund the breeding centre along with the ICNF. (Institute of conservation, nature and forests.)

Rodrigo tells me why he believes this project has been so successful: “The expansion of the wild populations, prey management, conservation and captive breeding.”

“The lynx programme has been the most successful reintroduction of a mammal species on a vortex towards extinction anywhere in the world. To be part of this experiment has been the pinnacle of my career.”

In 2002 there were 94 lynxes living in the wild and after a 15-year programme, this has increased to 547 in the whole of Iberia. “Their release into the wild is not random but decided by genetic analysis. We manage the scarce existing genetic diversity and provide healthy Iberian lynxes suitable for reintroduction projects.” The centre pair the animals which are more distantly related to each other, so as to prevent high levels of inbreeding in the resulting litters.

In order to try to make more genetic diversity avaliable for the conservation program, some of the captive lynxes are now being artificially inseminated at the facility with the sperm of captive specimens. Once the technique is established, the frozen sperm of other founders and wild lynxes can be used to introduce more genetic diversity to the captive breeding programme.

The project for the release of the Iberian Lynx, LIFE is co-funded by the European Commission and involves 22 partners of which five are Portuguese. This is an entirely separate project to the Silves breeding programme but they help each other and work in conjunction. Zoos also participate in the ex situ conservation programme by using surplus animals for exhibition and education purposes, which are expected to breed in the future.

The only Portuguese release site is near Mértola in the Vale do Guadiana, where, in 2016, the first Iberian lynx was born into the wild in decades. Rodrigo believes one of the contributing factors to the success of the project is habitat protection and restoration. “In Portugal, so far, we can confirm at least 44 cubs born in 3 years in the wild,” says Rodrigo. There are 5 more release sites in Spain. These animals are monitored by a team on the ground through radio and GSM tracking and photo traps.

In fact, Mértola is a huge success story for the project, having worked with the community to re-introduce the predator and gathering social support for the species. Where they encountered opposition, the programme worked with farmers, building fences to protect livestock and persuaded hunting groups and landowners that reintroducing the lynx will not inhibit their use of their land or prove a threat.

Compare this to the attempt to re-introduce the Eurasian lynx in Alpine communities where there is a low acceptance of the species. In these areas, many are poisoned and after a successful reintroduction, they have almost been wiped out again.

“The lynx is the people of Mértola’s panda! It brings in the crowds. The town has already re-branded the popular Portuguese biscuit cats-tongue to Lynxtongue which are sold as souvenirs;” laughs Rodrigo.

The Iberian lynx is undoubtedly aesthetically pleasing addition to the countryside with its tawny spotted coat, tufted ears and handsome whiskers, is it just being brought back because it looks cute?

“The Iberian lynx has an important role in Mediterranean ecosystems as a flagship species, helping to control the numbers of smaller mammals. If we can establish the lynx population the ecosystem will remain healthy. It’s also a unique element of Portugal and Spain’s natural heritage, creating jobs for biologists, ecotourism and nature tours;” explains Rodrigo.

The Iberian lynx population is heavily reliant on the rabbit as its source of food and when its population dropped by 90% in two decades due to myxomatosis and viral haemorrhagic disease, it effectively drove the lynx population out of Portugal. The success of reintroducing the lynx into the wild depends on teaching them to hunt, so live rabbits are released into a series of tunnels which have outlets in each lynx enclosure which imitates burrows in the wild.

The lynxes to be reintroduced, receive absolutely no friendly contact from their human attendants. Occasionally keepers will enter the enclosures and exhibit threatening behaviour and loud noise, teaching the animals to be frightened of man and means when they return to the wild they will not be tempted to migrate into populated areas. Instead, their behaviour is monitored by CCTV fed to a bank of monitors in the main office where they analyse their behaviour to assess their capability to be released into the wild. This includes an assessment of their success in socialising with the other animals, the ability to hunt, a healthy fear of humans and good genetics.

So what of the future? The Iberian Lynx reproduction centre in Silves is to be extended with the project granted a €551,000 budget. From our viewpoint, Rodrigo points out the as yet undeveloped plateau where the new enclosures will be located. He tells me; “The expansion aims to allow for better training for the release of cubs born at the breeding centre and providing each litter with 2000 m2 and naturalised settings in two new enclosures. It also releases space for breeders in the original enclosures, increasing their well-being.”

“We need to stabilise the Mértola population in 2020 and the next LIFE project will be to find another release area.” It is believed the Mértola area can support a population of 30 breeding pairs and there are now over 60 animals believed to be in Portugal.

It is fantastic to see that Portugal and Spain are world leaders in this fascinating story, where science, conservation and the dedication of individuals like Rodrigo, have combined to rescue a species that would otherwise be almost extinct.

Emergency wildfire evacuation at lynx project

When I visited the complex in October, there was one crucial thing missing and that was the lynxes! The project was badly hit by the summer’s fires. This is what happened:

The wildfires in the Monchique area on August 3rd burnt 27,000 hectares and started to take hold near the centre. Firefighters were unable to halt the flames which spread with alarming speed. Rodrigo said: “The flames reached that pylon, when we made the decision to evacuate;” he tells me pointing at the neighbouring hillside, which is alarmingly close by. “Of course attempts were made to stop the fire and we have sprinklers but nothing can stop a fire moving that fast. We had an emergency procedure in place for this eventuality which we put into action.”

On Wednesday August 8th the experienced keepers were able to capture most of the lynxes naturally, with three having to be sedated. As military vehicles moved into the centre, a special marine corps were involved along with over 70 personnel including military, nature rangers, fire specialists and veterinarians. All helped secure the successful evacuation of the precious cargo which was loaded in crates into military trucks.

The army and a specialist marine force from the navy attempted to keep the fire away from the centre for as long as possible to allow the 29 endangered animals to be transported away from the danger zone. Rodrigo confirmed that some of the enclosures caught fire 30 minutes after the lynxes left the centre.

Before being transported across the border the lynxes spent a night in a pavilion at a school in the neighbouring municipality of Lagoa. They were there for 24 hours inside animal carriers with access to water.

The lynxes were distributed to centres in Spain – mothers and cubs and couples were kept together. 12 were moved to Olivilla in Jáen, nine to Zarza de Granadilla in Cáceres and the final eight to El Ecebuche in Huelva. All were confirmed to be in good condition on their arrival.

Rodrigo has confirmed that 25 lynx were returned to the centre between December 5th and 14th. The Secretary of State also visited the breeding centre last month.


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