Lynx lineage lies with good breeding

I was a little surprised during my first experience of Iberian lynx flirting. There could be no denying it; she had shown him her genitals. The male looked unsure of himself and the circumstances he had encountered, but he slowly raised his nose to the fence that separated them, and took a few short sniffs. Perhaps the equivalent of eyes meeting across a crowded room.

Then, her seduction apparently complete, the female turned away. She had decided that to continue with her own solitary business was more important than flirting with her future mate. Yet this was all undoubtedly a good sign.

“She’s a breeder,” my boss remarked.

Espero,” I replied. I hope.

The tale of the Iberian lynx is a familiar one of woe, with perhaps more than their fair share of bad luck. Their numbers decreased with a loss of habitat and agricultural change in Spain and Portugal after the 1950s, but in truth their specialisation has been the cause of their catastrophic decline. Lynx are picky eaters and choose to dine almost exclusively on rabbit. Their exclusive diet was a successful tactic when the rabbit population was thriving. But two successive viral disease outbreaks left rabbit numbers vastly depleted – the lynx starved.

But they are clawing their way back from the void. Or to put it more accurately, they are breeding their way back, with our help. Due to their low numbers, a group was taken into captivity for the security of the species and in an attempt to increase population.

After success in Spain, the captive programme expanded to Portugal in 2009, whilst Fauna & Flora International (FFI) is assisting with habitat restoration in future release sites. Yet a reproduction programme with the aim of reintroduction is notoriously tricky business. Every step must be carefully controlled which makes it slow and costly.

This is where my work as a ‘video vigilante’ came into the picture. Although the Portuguese term makes the job sound like some kind of CCTV Batman, it really entails constant behavioural surveillance of the cats. With numbers still extremely low, each individual is incredibly valuable for the survival of the species.

Therefore 24/7 surveillance is crucial to observe possible fights, injuries and illness, whilst it also gives scientists the chance to increase our understanding of this incredible creature. But the work really comes into its own in the breeding season when it is essential that individuals are paired at the correct time and that newborn kittens and their mothers can be monitored in a non-invasive way.

For me, it was an incredible opportunity to get an intimate knowledge of such a charismatic but rare species, and the painstaking work to save it.

Can rabbit numbers remain higher than they’ve been for the past fifty years? Will hunters look to shoot with a camera rather than a rifle? Can captive-bred lynx express their natural behaviour when reintroduced?

Risks are certain with this species. But they must be faced, not avoided, if lynx are to flirt in the wilds of Portugal once more.

Want to know what happened next? Take a look at the follow-up blogs: The dynamic love life of the Iberian lynx by Sarah Havery and A record-breaking season at the Iberian lynx breeding centre by Maike Demski and Tom Smith.