Iberian lynx cubs watch attentively in the surroundings of the Doñana National Park, in Aznalcazar, Spain.

Iberian lynx cubs watch attentively in the surroundings of the Doñana National Park, in Aznalcazar, Spain. Antonio Pizarro/Associated Press, file

When conservationists began efforts to save the Iberian lynx, a wildcat that had long been considered a symbol of the Iberian Peninsula, they felt the lynx would be extinct in roughly five years if their efforts failed. That was in 2002, when there were only about 60 adult Iberian lynx in Portugal and Spain, and the species – which has bright yellow fur with dark spots and wide eyes you can get lost in – was labeled “critically endangered.”

But five years later, employees at the LIFE Lynx-Connect project – a lynx conservation agency partially funded by the European Union – became confident the cat would survive, said Guillermo López Zamora, a veterinarian with the project.

Conservationists made efforts to preserve the Iberian lynx’s habitat and prey, but they also got local hunters and farmers on board, including through newspaper and social media campaigns. Over a few years, the Iberian lynx’s population increased.

“Every year, we were more and more optimistic about the future,” López told The Washington Post.

Now, the Iberian lynx is no longer classed as endangered, although it is still listed as a “vulnerable” species, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, a conservation organization based in Switzerland. There are more than 2,000 young and adult Iberian lynx on the Iberian Peninsula, the IUCN announced Thursday.

Francisco Javier Salcedo Ortiz, the coordinator of the LIFE Lynx-Connect project in Andalusia, Spain, said in a statement that the efforts have resulted in the “greatest recovery of a cat species ever achieved through conservation.”


While Iberian lynx cubs look similar to domestic cats, a few features distinguish them. They have pointed ears that include black tufts of hair at the top, which scientists theorize the cats use to detect movement above their heads or enhance their hearing, according to the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance. As they mature, Iberian lynx grow hair under their face, which looks like a beard. They mark their territories with scratch marks and urine.

After researchers found the Iberian lynx’s population to be declining in 2001, the IUCN declared the species critically endangered the next year, López said. Conservationists, whom López said were “very afraid” of losing the Iberian lynx, took action to preserve the cat species.

To do so, they needed to protect the species that Iberian lynx prey upon, the European rabbit, which is experiencing declining populations due to habitat loss, diseases, hunting and pollution, according to the IUCN. Conservationists protected the rabbits’ homes in scrublands, forests and grasslands and relocated some to the Iberian Peninsula, López said.

Efforts were also made to preserve the Iberian lynx’s habitats in Mediterranean scrublands and their hunting areas in forests. Conservationists aimed to limit threats from humans, including hunting trapping and road casualties, by sharing news of the Iberian lynx’s extinction risks to local hunting groups, in newspapers and later, on social media, López said. To dissuade farmers from trapping the cats, they were compensated if Iberian lynx killed their livestock, Craig Hilton-Taylor, who oversees IUCN’s endangered species list, told the Associated Press.

The Iberian lynx’s population size surged from about 60 adults in 2002 to 156 in 2012, according to the IUCN. Starting in 2010, hundreds of Iberian lynx were relocated to their natural habitats in Portugal and Spain, the IUCN said. In 2015, the IUCN improved the Iberian lynx’s status to “endangered,” López said.

By 2022, there were 648 adult Iberian lynx on the Iberian Peninsula, the IUCN reported, and that number has grown. The species occupies about 1,282 square miles in Portugal and Spain, a significant increase from when the cats lived in about 173 square miles in 2005, the IUCN said.

While multiple factors have resulted in dozens of species becoming endangered in the past few decades – climate change, habitat loss, invasive species, hunting, pollution and diseases, among them – the Iberian lynx is one of a handful to make a comeback in recent years, joining tigers, humpback whales and mountain gorillas.

Still, López said the Iberian lynx population could decline again if people hunt them more often, or if the European rabbit’s population dimini

shes. However he hopes that the lynx continue to become more prominent throughout the Iberian Peninsula, and that “in 10 years, we could be speaking that the Iberian lynx is out of any threat.”

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