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Captive breeding helps endangered Iberian lynx population hit record

MADRID (Reuters) - The number of endangered Iberian lynx in the wild in Spain and Portugal reached 1,668 in 2022, Spain's environment ministry said on Friday - a new record since a conservation push began 20 years ago to save a population that had dwindled to below 100.

In 2002, the species was on the brink of extinction due to poaching, road accidents and encroachment on their habitat by farming and industrial development. Only 94 specimens were registered in Spain and none in Portugal at that time.

Known for its pointy ears, long legs and leopard-like spotted fur, the Iberian lynx is a species distinct from the more common Eurasian lynx found from France to the Himalayas.

According to the annual population survey by the ministry, 563 kits were born last year to 326 she-cats, continuing the strong growth trend seen since 2015, when the International Union for Conservation of Nature downgraded the threat level to "endangered" from "critically endangered".

There are now 15 core habitats spread across the Iberian Peninsula, with more than four fifths of the wild cats located throughout central and southern Spain and the rest in Portugal, where 261 lynxes have been counted.

The ministry's report partly attributed the demographic boom to the success of a captive breeding and reintroduction programme launched in 2011. Since then, 338 lynx born in captivity have been released into the wild.

"This positive demographic evolution allows us to be optimistic about the reduction of the risk of extinction," the ministry said.

However, it added that it was necessary to continue ongoing conservation efforts, given that the species remains classified as endangered.

(Reporting by David Latona; Editing by Aislinn Laing and Alison Williams)