Portugal has welcomed the first Iberian lynx cub to be born in the wild in almost 40 years. For the charismatic species, with its characteristic ear tufts and distinctive beard, it's a rare dose of good news. Could this be a new chapter in a conservation success story – a feat as elusive as the cats themselves?
The story of the Iberian lynx (Lynx pardinus) is a tragic one. Some 150 years ago, many thousands roamed parts of Spain, Portugal and southern France. Yet by 2002, the familiar threats of habitat loss and hunting had caused those numbers to dwindle to fewer than 100, prompting the IUCN to classify the species as "critically endangered".
Iberian lynx are specialist cats, in both their choice of habitat and prey. They live in the forests of the Iberian Peninsula and Mediterranean coast, and hunt at the fringes. European rabbits are by far their favourite food – the cats depend on them for over 80% of their diet.
Without the forests and the rabbits, the lynx cannot survive – so as their habitat slowly but surely gave way to roads and development, and outbreaks of disease wiped out their main food source, lynx populations began to plummet. With the species teetering on the brink of extinction, in stepped the IberLince project.
Thanks to its intensive conservation efforts, including captive breeding and reintroduction programmes, the lynx is making a slow comeback. From just a few isolated populations in southern Spain, it's thought that some 300 cats now roam the region. In June last year, the IUCN upgraded the status of the lynx to "endangered". "We're on the way to saving the species," Miguel Simon, director of the IberLince project, told the BBC at the time.
Since the start of 2016, 20 captive lynx have already been released, with scientists keeping tabs on the cats via tracking collars. In Portugal, the first successful captive-breeding attempt paved the way for the first reintroduction to the wild in late 2014 – a female named "Jacaranda".
Now, just over a year later, Jacarada has become a mom, with snapshots of her and a tiny cub emerging from the Vale do Guadiana Natural Park in southeastern Portugal. At the time of writing, both mom and cub were doing well.
For Simon, confirmation of the birth is welcome news, and a testament to his team's hard work. "This is the first birth in the wild for many years in Portugal," he says. "This cub is very important because its presence is going to ensure the establishment of the Iberian lynx we've released, and this will assure the reintroduction's success."
So what's next for one of the world's most endangered cats? The IberLince team is optimistic about their future, but there is still much work ahead, cautions Simon. Collisions with vehicles remain a major threat, and ensuring the lynx have enough to eat remains a challenge. "The rabbit haemorrhagic disease virus causes high mortality [in Portugal's rabbit populations]," he says. "This disease is now the main challenge facing the lynx."
Still, the new arrival has brought hope. Somewhere in the wilderness of Portugal, a small cub is at this moment watching and learning from its mom – adorable for now, but a fearsome predator in years to come.