Predator claws back from brink of extinction in 'greatest ever' recovery

The Iberian lynx is no longer endangered thanks to a mammoth conservation project.

A road sign warning Iberian lynx are crossing.
Iberian lynx numbers plummeted to 62 mature individuals in 2021. And car strikes remain a major threat. Source: Getty

A predatory species has clawed its way back from the brink of extinction after its total population dropped to just 62 mature individuals. The surge in numbers has been described as the “greatest ever” recovery of a big cat through conservation.

It was only 23 years ago the world’s population of wild Iberian lynx hit that dangerously low number. And in 2014 the once widespread cat that had roamed parts of Europe for at least 1 million years was listed as endangered.

During the twentieth century, the mid-sized wild cat was wiped out across much of the continent because of a belief it killed livestock. In recent years it was frequently being killed by cars, starving because of loss of prey species, and losing its home range to development.

While the future of the Iberian lynx had looked bleak, on Thursday the IUCN announced an update of its Red List of threatened species. It confirmed the population had rebounded because of a remarkable conservation effort.

The count of Iberian lynx in 2022 found numbers had grown to 648 mature individuals. The population is now believed to total 2000.

The surge in numbers is the direct result of protecting and restoring Iberian lynx habitat, and breeding up its primary prey species, the European rabbit. This coincided with a sustained breeding program and translocations of individuals to ensure populations did not become inbred. As a result, the Iberian lynx's conservation status was officially upgraded from endangered to vulnerable to extinction.

Francisco Javier Salcedo Ortiz, who led the recovery effort said it was the “greatest recovery of a cat species ever achieved through conservation”.

“There is still a lot of work to do to ensure that Iberian lynx populations survive and the species recovers throughout its indigenous range. Looking ahead, there are plans to reintroduce the Iberian lynx to new sites in central and northern Spain,” the LIFE Lynx-Connect project coordinator said.

An Iberian lynx in its rocky habitat.
An Iberian lynx has recovered from endangered to vulnerable. Source: Getty

Ongoing threats to Iberian lynx include cars, poachers, diseases from domestic cats and fluctuations in rabbit populations. Although the species’ numbers remain depleted, experts believe enough suitable habitat remains that it could fully recover in 100 years.

Sarah Durant from the Zoological Society of London said the lynx’s recovery proves “most” threatened species can be recovered. “[It] provides hope for those working to protect wildlife across the globe,” she said.

Love Australia's weird and wonderful environment? Get our new newsletter showcasing the week’s best stories.