Iberian lynx recovery highlights importance of EU nature legislation

Posted on 02 June 2021

Conservation efforts increase population of world's most endangered feline species tenfold in twenty years
The population of the wild Iberian lynx, the world’s most endangered cat species, has increased tenfold in the last 20 years, from 94 individuals in 2002 to 1,111 lynxes in 2020 according to the Iberian lynx census results published on Friday. Of these, 239 are reproductive females (up from 27 in 2002), an important indicator of the viability of the species.

Welcoming the news, Juan Carlos del Olmo, CEO of WWF-Spain, said: “This is a great conservation success in Spain and worldwide. Few species escape from such a critical situation as the Iberian lynx faced. The news today is the result of the tireless and collective work of more than 20 administrations and organisations, as well as many individuals. However, despite the celebratory mood today, we have to remember that the Lynx is not out of danger.”

Iberian Lynx populations collapsed in the 20th century as a result of agricultural intensification and illegal hunting. Today, the lynxes, like their Eurasian cousins, are legally protected against hunting by the Birds and Habitats Directive.

Sabien Leemans, Senior Biodiversity Policy Officer at the WWF European Policy Office, said: “This success story shows just how important the EU’s Nature Directives are to protecting Europe’s biodiversity. However, the lynxes are still the victims of guns, traps and snares, particularly those set for other animals, and this should be legally prosecuted. We must continue efforts to protect this beautiful species and step up enforcement because even the strongest laws won’t be enough if they’re not being implemented and respected on the ground.”

According to WWF estimates, and assessments by several experts, Iberian lynx numbers would need to reach 3,000 - 3,500 individuals including around 750 reproductive females, to be eligible to be considered as being in a ‘favourable State of Conservation’ according to European regulations. Continued conservation efforts that address threats such as illegal killing, support the recovery of decimated rabbit populations, and help create new Lynx populations and connect existing ones, are critical to reach such a goal by 2040. 

The species’ recovery has been achieved with the support of several LIFE-funded projects carried out across Natura 2000 sites in Spain [1]. EU funding has also helped cover initial research activities and the transfer of knowledge to species conservation managers, as well as the active communication with and involvement of stakeholders like hunting associations and landowners [2]. By the end of this year, the European Commission will propose legally binding targets to restore nature, which, if implemented, will help increase the connectivity of the habitats that are critical to the survival of the European wildlife, including the lynxes. 

WWF-Spain has been working on the conservation of the Iberian lynx since its establishment over 50 years ago. At the end of the 90s, WWF began to work directly on the ground through custody agreements with hunting estates in Sierra Morena, Montes de Toledo and Doñana, home of the last lynxes at the time. WWF-Spain has also been working to raise awareness on the situation of the Iberian lynx, participating in the national census in 2002 and working with different regional and European administrations and sectors to coordinate efforts.

For further information:

Sabien Leemans
Senior Biodiversity Policy Officer
Bartosz Brzezinski
Communications Officer for Biodiversity & Agriculture
Tel. +32 484 28 15 10

Notes to editors:

The Iberian lynx (Lynx pardinus) is classified by the World Union for the Nature (IUCN) as the world’s most endangered feline species (Nowell & Jackson, 1996). It is an endemic species of the Iberian Peninsula, smaller than the Eurasian lynx and adapted to the particular conditions of the peninsula and particularly to its main prey, the wild rabbit. Once distributed all over the peninsula, during the last century its population declined due to hunting and poaching and because of a disease that affected wild rabbits that reduced its populations to less than 10%.

[1] https://ec.europa.eu/environment/nature/natura2000/awards/previous-editions/2016-edition/winners/citizens-award/index_en.htm

[2] Tucker, G, Stuart, T, Naumann, S, Stein, U, LandgrebeTrinkunaite, R and Knol, O (2019) Study on identifying the drivers of successful implementation of the Birds and Habitats Directives. Report to the European Commission, DG Environment on Contract ENV.F.1/FRA/2014/0063, Institute for European Environmental Policy, Brussels.
After decades of decline, the population of the Iberian Lynx increased from 94 individuals in 2002 to 1,111 in 2020.
© Antonio Liébana