From fragile to mobile: Lynx population may be on the move

Recently recorded evidence suggests critically endangered species is branching out

The motion-capture image of Fontana, a female Iberian lynx, in Castilla-La Mancha in April.
The motion-capture image of Fontana, a female Iberian lynx, in Castilla-La Mancha in April.

The critically endangered Iberian lynx rarely ventures out of his Andalusian refuges of Doñana and Andújar. But on April 19, a motion-capture camera recorded one in the southern part of Ciudad Real. It was Fontana, a female born in 2009 in Andújar-Cardeña, who had last been photographed in 2010. Fontana was caught on film when she came near a log that had been soaked with lynx urine, a technique used to attract this elusive animal towards the cameras that biologists employ to follow up on the species.

This is not the first time that lynxes have been seen in Castilla-La Mancha. In 2008, there were a few sightings in the Montes de Toledo range. It was said at the time that there were at least 15 animals and three breeding territories. But official information now points to an unknown number of isolated individuals. In the meantime, the regional government is working on two projects to restore the Iberian lynx’s historical habitat.

A years-long study by Luis Garzón, a natural history scholar from CBD-Hábitat Foundation, also detected these felines in the regions of Extremadura and Castilla y León, more specifically in northern Cáceres and southern Salamanca, along a route that rises up from the Tajo River Valley and crosses the Tiétar River Valley, Jerte River Valley, the Tormantos Sierra, Béjar, the valleys of Alagón and Ambroz, and all the way to Granadilla.

Researchers estimate that this one million hectares of land is home to at least 30 to 50 individuals. These are isolated populations that fall outside the close control that Iberian lynxes are under in Andalusia, where there were 300 living in the wild and 96 at breeding centers in 2011.

This increases the chances of recovering the distribution the Iberian lynx used to have"

Garzón and his team interviewed farmers, ranchers, hunters and shepherds; they located lynx tracks and feces, and they went out at night to listen to the animals between December and February, when they are in heat. “The presence of the species in these spots greatly increases the possibilities of recovering the distribution the Iberian lynx used to have before populations started to decline,” indicates Garzón.

But this means taking measures such as preserving the pastures, controlling the use of herbicides on crops, forbidding rabbit hunting and ensuring that new infrastructure is less harmful to the species.

“Besides that, the current wood-clearing would have to come to a stop. They bring in the machines and destroy everything. It would be enough to just allow these areas to recover naturally for the lynx population to increase,” adds natural history expert Ramón Grande del Brío, who has been studying the species in this territory for over 30 years. According to his research, there are four or five small lynx populations in Salamanca.

Sources at the environment department of the regional government of Castilla y León indicated that there may be a floating population in El Rebollar, a county that encompasses parts of Ávila, Salamanca, Cáceres and the Malcata sierra in Portugal. Still, no animal has been captured on film yet “despite the monitoring work being carried out.”

“In 2004 we found excrement that came out positive in DNA tests, but there’s been nothing else since then,” said a regional government spokesperson.

The lynx has also been sighted fleetingly in the Madrid region. In 2006 excrement was found that tested positive and caused a sensation. The regional government questioned the find, but after two more analyses, it was concluded that the feces did, in fact, belong to a lynx. But the trail has since been lost.

Ignacio Doadrio, a researcher from the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC) in charge of the genetic testing, explains that new feces had been tested up to a year ago but they all proved negative.

“It is true that excrements deteriorate very quickly and that they are occasionally in a bad state, which makes analysis difficult,” he says.

A spokesman for the Madrid regional government says that there is currently no monitoring system in place because there is no evidence of the existence of lynxes in the area. But natural history expert Juan Luis Reguilón says he found tracks belonging to several individuals in the Madrid sierra, although this has not been officially confirmed.

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