At a nature reserve in southern Spain, four baby Iberian lynxes sleep peacefully beside their mother, part of a captive breeding program that has brought the species back from the brink of extinction.
The El Acebuche breeding center at the Donana National Park, home to one of Europe’s largest wetlands, is one of five breeding sites set up in the 2000s to boost their numbers in the wild. Four are in Spain and one in Portugal.
Slightly larger than a red fox, the Iberian lynx is distinguished by a white-and-black beard and black ear tufts.
There were around 100,000 of them in the two nations at the start of the 20th century, but urban development, hunting and road kill all took their toll.
Most damaging of all however was a dramatic decline in the numbers of wild rabbits, their main prey, due to disease. By 2002, the wild cat’s numbers had plummeted to fewer than 100.
That prompted warnings from the WWF that the Iberian lynx – found only in Spain and Portugal – risked becoming the first big cat to fall into extinction since the saber-tooth tiger died out 10,000 years ago.
The authorities and conservation groups have managed to reverse the trend by fighting poaching, reintroducing rabbits into the wild, and—most important of all—through the breeding program.
By the end of last year, there were just over 1,100 Iberian lynxes living in the two countries, most of them in Spain’s southern region of Andalusia.
Eighty-five percent of Iberian lynxes born in captivity are released into the wild.
About 70 percent of them survive and each female lynx has up to six kittens per year.
Despite these encouraging results however, the International Union for Conservation of Nature still lists the animal as “endangered.”
The WWF estimates the species will be out of danger only when its population surpasses 3,000, including 750 breeding females.