This story originally ran in bioGraphic, an online magazine about nature and sustainability powered by the California Academy of Sciences.

Story by April Reese

When Salão and Sidra step out of their carrying crates, the first ground the two Iberian lynx feel beneath their paws is warm, tilled earth. It’s a bright day in early May, and a crowd of about 75 people, including government officials, schoolchildren and TV crews, watch from the corner of the fallow farm field as Salão trots by at a languid pace. Sidra follows soon after, at a faster clip. The two young lynx—honey-hued with black spots, ear tufts, and short, ink-dipped tails—disappear into a dense thicket of gum rock rose.

A lot rides on Salão and Sidra’s fate in the mosaic of agricultural lands, hunting estates, and scrublands that make up this part of the Guadiana Valley, in the northeastern stretch of the Algarve region in southern Portugal. For decades, conservationists considered the Iberian lynx (Lynx pardinus) one of the most endangered wild cats in the world. Biologists worried it would become the first wild feline to go extinct in Europe in millennia. The cat once thrived across much of the Iberian Peninsula and parts of southern France, but by the mid-2000s, only a few scattered populations remained, all in southern Spain. Today, though, nearly eight years into a wildly popular reintroduction campaign in Portugal that brought Salão and Sidra to their new home, and a parallel effort in Spain, the Iberian lynx is bounding toward recovery.

An Iberian lynx is released as part of an ongoing captive breeding program that has brought the species back from the brink. Photograph by Daniel Santos
An Iberian lynx, released moments earlier, darts toward safety in the surrounding shrublands. Photograph by Daniel Santos

The pair—among the first lynx to be released in the Algarve region—were born in captive breeding facilities in Spain about a year ago. Biologists, along with the conservation groups and wildlife officials involved in this collaborative reintroduction program, hope the cats will contribute their precious genes to the growing population they have established in this valley. A 2021 count found 70 new lynx cubs born to 31 breeding females here. And at least 1,400 lynx now roam the whole peninsula. While the diminutive cat remains listed as Endangered on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species, the organization now notes its population trend as “increasing.”

This surprising triumph, while not yet complete, offers real hope not just for lynx but also for the ecosystems that they and many other now-rare species rely on. After years of building relationships and goodwill with landowners and hunters to bring lynx back, biologists now have a better shot at recovering creatures like the black vulture (Aegypius monachus) and Iberian imperial eagle (Aquila adalberti)—among the rarest birds of prey in the world. The tale of how this snowballing conservation achievement came to be is ultimately one of the importance of interconnection—among wild creatures, among people, and between people and wild creatures. And at the heart of it all is another animal entirely, one that can be seen hopping over heathlands, through olive groves, and across roads all over this rural region: rabbits.

An old stone building reveals the history of this region of southern Portugal. Photograph by Andoni Canela
The plight of European rabbits in Spain and Portugal has been a major driver of the decline of Iberian lynx. Photograph by Andoni Canela

As recently as four decades ago, few people in Portugal knew the Iberian lynx existed.

In the late 1970s, a college student named Luis Palma set out to study lynx and its habitat on Malcata Mountain in central Portugal, near the Spanish border. His surveys suggested that paper plantations of eucalyptus and Douglas fir were crowding out the Mediterranean oak forest and scrubland that populations of lynx, Iberian frog and other species there needed to survive. Palma’s attempts to negotiate with the paper company to spare habitat failed, but he found a sympathetic ear in fellow student Jorge Palmeirim, who had recently begun working for a conservation group called Liga para a Protecção da Natureza, or League for the Protection of Nature. Together, they convinced the league to launch a campaign to support the creation of a reserve in the area.

A historic poster from early efforts to conserve the Iberian lynx. Photograph courtesy of the Liga para a Protecção da Natureza

Palmeirim, now a biologist with the University of Lisbon, says that when the campaign began, the activists found little recognition of this native cat outside the few rural places where locals had spotted it. At the time, the nation was a young democracy grappling with the aftermath of a dictatorial regime that had discouraged education—especially in rural areas—and kept illiteracy rates high. “Information did not circulate like it does today,” Palmeirim recalls.

Still, the campaign succeeded: Flooded with signatures supporting the protection effort, local authorities set aside 63 square miles of lynx habitat as the Malcata Mountain Natural Reserve in 1981. “This was a historical moment for conservation in Portugal,” Palmeirim says. “It was the first time that a conservation issue was brought to the general public.” But lynx continued to struggle. New farms, eucalyptus plantations, illegal hunting, growing cities, and vehicle collisions all took their toll. Between 1985 and 2001, the lynx’s range declined by 87 percent. In 2002, fewer than 200 remained in the wild.

Particularly alarming, biologists soon realized, was the lack of prey. Iberian lynx evolved to hunt European rabbits (Oryctolagus cuniculus), which make up at least 75 percent of their diet, but that species had suffered major declines of its own. In the early 1950s, European rabbits succumbed en masse to the disease myxomatosis. Then, viral hemorrhagic disease reached Iberia in 1988, further decimating rabbit populations in Spain and Portugal. Without their primary prey, Iberian lynx were starving to death.

“There are places where [rabbits] do not exist anymore,” says Rita Martins, a biologist with the League for the Protection of Nature who has worked for years to recover lynx and their prey. “It’s really sad and dramatic to see that these populations have come to this point.” That’s not just because of the impacts on the rabbits and the lynx; rabbits are also enormously popular with hunters, she adds.

The remote swath of Portugal that encompasses the northeastern Algarve and the eastern part of an adjacent region called Alentejo is one of the most popular areas in the country to hunt rabbits. There, farmers partner with hunting organizations, which manage habitat on their property in exchange for access. When the rabbit population plummeted, so did hunting opportunities.

Most land in Portugal is privately owned, so when conservationists and government biologists set out to reintroduce lynx in the 2000s, they quickly realized the effort would depend on people’s willingness to welcome the cats back onto their property. The stretch of the Guadiana Valley that snakes through eastern Alentejo was a natural place to start, says Pedro Sarmento, a biologist with the Institute for Nature Conservation and Forests, the federal agency in Portugal charged with recovering imperiled species and managing forests and protected areas. Remnants of the habitat that supports both rabbits and lynx still existed there. It’s also where some of Portugal’s last few wild lynx had been spotted.

The picturesque region is imbued with history and tradition. Farm fields, Holm oak groves, olive trees, shrublands, sheep pastures and the occasional vineyard rise and fall on luminous hills all the way to the horizon. Small villages of white-washed stone, paved with patterned black-and-white cobblestones called calçadas, appear here and there, some fortified with tall stone walls from the centuries when Portugal fended off invaders from the east and south. “Even though it is a very rich area in biodiversity, it is a cultural landscape,” says Martins.

Farmers have developed much of Portugal’s forests for agricultural use making them key stakeholders in the effort to save the Iberian lynx. Photograph by Andoni Canela
Two Iberian lynx peer over rocky outcrops. Photograph by Andoni Canela
Large olive tree plantations have replaced much of Portugal’s forestlands. Photograph by Andoni Canela

Martins grew up on a farm—she still lives on her grandmother’s old homestead on the weekends, tending to a few sheep, pigs, and chickens with her parents—and knows working lands better than most. Soft-spoken and focused, she’s as adept at wielding a sickle as she is at parsing population data. Even so, when she and her colleagues started making phone calls and traveling the countryside hoping to win farmers’ support for improving habitat for lynx and rabbits, she felt apprehensive. Some of the properties they intended to visit had been under the care of the same families for centuries; she wanted to be careful not to imply they’d mismanaged their land. Martins would also need to persuade hunters, some of whom worried that the return of lynx would bring new government restrictions, such as prohibiting the use of dogs to hunt wild boar, a popular game species.

One conversation at a time, Martins and other lynx advocates explained the benefits of having the cats around. They would, for example, control populations of red fox, which could help boost rabbit numbers for hunters and protect farmers’ lambs and chickens. Lynx have little appetite for livestock and aren’t a threat to people. And crucially, maintaining a patchwork of open fields and shrubs like gum rock rose for lynx would also help rabbits, since they share the same habitats, further boosting hunting opportunities. On the other side of the border, landowners in Spain were living alongside lynx without incident. So biologists in Portugal arranged a tour for Alentejo landowners, who came home more amenable to the cats.

With a critical mass of local people supporting the lynx’s return, biologists were closing in on their goal of reintroducing the animal. They already had cats: Wildlife officials established a captive-breeding program, begun in Spain in the 2003, which had produced nearly 200 lynx for reintroduction. Now, they just needed to find landscapes with rabbits—and ways to boost their numbers.

A pig forages in a misty forest in Portugal. Photograph by Andoni Canela
A European rabbit den offers a glimmer of hope for the beleaguered species in the Guadiana Valley. Photograph by Daniel Santos

Rabbits, it turns out, play an outsized role in the mosaic of Mediterranean forest and shrubland habitats that lynx favor. Their burrows provide shelter and nest sites for animals like the natterjack toad (Epidalea calamita) and little owl (Athene noctua), and their feces spread the seeds of native plants. Besides lynx, dozens of other species rely on them as food, including the Iberian imperial eagle. In a 2008 study, one group of scientists suggested that the European rabbit is so important to parts of the Iberian Peninsula—a global biodiversity hotspot—that it should be called “the rabbit’s ecosystem.” Or perhaps better yet, rabbitat.

Fortunately for the whole system, the rabbits have proved highly adaptable. In recent years, they’ve developed some resistance to the viruses that decimated their numbers. Meanwhile, League and government biologists struck agreements with landowners to reintroduce lynx on farms and hunting estates that had good remnant populations of wild rabbits, and ensured that more than 364 hectares of rabbit-friendly crops were sown to improve wild rabbit habitat. They also built more than 1,200 artificial rabbit warrens—dirt mounds and underground cavities accessible through a hole at the top— across southeastern Portugal between 2012 and 2018. By 2012, rabbit populations had stabilized at a density of about 4 individuals per hectare—the threshold that lynx populations need to successfully reproduce.

For reintroduced Iberian lynx to have any hope of surviving, European rabbits must also return to the landscape. Photograph by Daniel Santos

With this foundation in place, biologists prepared to introduce the first captive-bred Iberian Lynx onto Portuguese soil. In 2015, on a hunting estate near the village of Sao João de Caldeireiros, government biologist Sarmento and his team built a large acclimation pen with a 2.5-meter-high chain-link fence. There, they released Jacarandá, a female, and Katmandú, a male, to adjust to their new surroundings. A few weeks later, the biologists set the pair free. More releases followed in other parts of Alentejo, typically a few per year, and the cats began to reproduce in the wild—another sign that rabbits were on the rebound.

João Madeira, a sixth-generation farmer of sheep and cows, was among those who welcomed the cats back to his land under an agreement with biologists. The motivation was both emotional and utilitarian, he says. “The lynx was the most endangered feline in the world, so we decided that we would be a part of the effort to resolve the problem. But we also have a huge need to control foxes and mongoose,” which have a voracious appetite for lamb, he says. “In the years that we don’t manage to control that predation, our mortality rates double. We had hope that lynx would control them.”

Some reintroduced lynx in other areas have taken an occasional fallow deer or chicken. But unlike with other imperiled predators, such as Mexican wolves in the Southwestern United States, in most cases the government here doesn’t kill Iberian lynx that attack livestock; instead, it puts them in what Sarmento calls “lynx jail”—the same fenced enclosure used to acclimate the first reintroduced lynxes back in 2015. For his part, Madeira has had no problems with the four lynx that were released on his lands. He does worry that lynx might eventually attack his lambs, but that’s a risk worth taking, he says. “If I have a predator that sometimes can eat a lamb, compared to the damage the foxes represent, perhaps it will not be such a big deal.” Last year, he found a dead fox near a sheep; government biologists confirmed that a lynx had killed it. And for years, there were either too many rabbits or too few on his lands, “but now it’s balanced,” he says—progress he credits to the return of lynx.

Iberian lynx play a surprisingly important role in protecting cattle by keeping red fox populations in check. Photograph by Daniel Santos
A red fox bounds through a plantation. Photograph by Daniel Santos

Still, maintaining the rabbit densities necessary to achieve the kind of success that Madeira has seen on his patch of lynx habitat is difficult, says Martins. “You need to make a lot of pastures—you need not only good management of the property but also investment and lots of luck.” Further down the valley, a hunting and conservation property owned by the city of Moura called Herdade da Contenda shows both the challenges and the rewards of that work. Over the years, the estate’s managers have created two wild rabbit pens complete with artificial burrows, grasses and shrubs for food, above-ground shelter, water stations, and protective fencing to keep predators out. As in so many other places, disease had largely wiped out the local rabbit population. Manager Pedro Rocha needed more, and in 2020, he found a surprisingly convenient source.

Down the road at the Amareleja solar power plant, rabbits were digging burrows in the soft dirt beneath utility boxes and chewing through wires. Two years later, on a May day perfect for both photovoltaics and rabbit wrangling, Rocha, Martins, League veterinarian David Delgado, and a small team of rabbit catchers gather around a rabbit warren in the shade beneath one of the plant’s massive solar panels. Two workers spread a net over the hole and the surrounding area. Another reaches into a small wooden box, lifts out a ferret by the scruff of the neck and slips it into the hole. A ferret’s natural inclination is to kill rabbits, but this one has been trained instead to scare them out of the burrow.

After about 15 minutes, the first rabbit bolts into the net. A worker carefully disentangles her and hands her to Martins, who places her in a burlap bag. From there, Martins and Delgado walk her over to a makeshift vet station on the tailgate of their white pickup truck. “It’s very important to know the gender and the age, and whether they came from the same family,” because the population needs to be at least 60 percent female to match the ratio in natural populations, and families should be moved together, Martins explains as she hands the rabbit to Delgado for examination. He checks the animal for ferret wounds or signs of disease or other maladies, then loads her into a compartment in a multi-chambered carrier.

In all, the team catches 12 rabbits over several hours—six males and six females— repeating the process with each. It’s stressful business for both the rabbits and their wranglers. There’s a narrow window of time to move them; in a few weeks it will be too hot. European rabbits also breed year-round, so it’s hard to know exactly how many individuals are in the burrow.

A man releases a ferret into a rabbit den to chase them out for reintroduction elsewhere. Photograph by April Reese
David Delgado (left) and Rita Martins treat a rabbit before stowing it away to be brought to a reintroduction site. Photograph by April Reese
Rita Martins (left) and David Delgado place a treated rabbit into a carrier. Photograph by April Reese

Fortunately, the operation is nearly over: When the truck is loaded, the team heads to Herdade da Contenda. One at a time, Delgado and the others gently open each green plastic compartment cover, lift out a wriggling rabbit and set it free on the ground in one of the pens, where it darts into the tall grass and out of sight. If all goes well with this round of rabbits and future additions planned in a few months, they hope to finally have the right conditions to release lynx on Contenda—one of the largest properties in the area. Rocha and previous managers here have already welcomed back Eurasian black vultures, which share the lynx’s taste for rabbits (though they consume carcasses, not live rabbits).

Delgado’s next stop is a bigger pen, for a much larger animal: the black vulture. Delgado steers the truck along the estate’s twisting, guardrail-less dirt roads to another open-topped enclosure, this one on a rise shaded by holm oaks and stone pines. There, he stops, grabs a bag from the back of the truck, and quickly changes his clothes. As strange as it may seem, the practice is required for all who visit this chain-link pen to prevent the potential spread of avian tuberculosis. A 2002 European Union sanitation rule aimed at containing another disease, Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy, better known as mad cow disease, is part of the reason the scavenger is struggling: It required farmers to remove carcasses — a prime food source for several types of vultures — from their fields. To give Herdade da Contenda’s black vultures a helping hand, Delgado and other members of the team leave carrion at a feeding station within the pen. The birds have also taken up residence on new nesting platforms that League and government biologists have constructed here at Contenda and around the region.

These imposing creatures—one of the world’s largest birds of prey, with a wingspan of almost three meters—suffered steep losses in recent decades, in part due to ingesting heavy metals such as cadmium and lead, as well as veterinary antibiotics and other harmful substances, when feeding on carrion. Considered extinct in Portugal by 1980, with no known breeding pairs, the birds are now starting to circle Portuguese skies once again, thanks in part to the lynx’s return.

Building on the successful reintroduction of the cats, and the relationships forged with landowners and hunting groups, League and government biologists were able to win additional European Commission funding to help other species that rely on the same landscape, including the black vulture. In 2019, the Portuguese government unveiled a conservation plan for the bird and other vulture species. The influx of funds supports halting habitat loss, installing new feeding stations and artificial nests and other activities. “If we succeed in lynx conservation, then we’ve succeeded in securing their habitat, which they share with a countless number of other species—including other threatened species, some of which are less charismatic and known and for which it is more difficult to catch attention and funding,” Martins says.

Without the participation of landowners, none of these conservation wins could have happened, she adds. “It’s important to create this community of practice with local communities and landowners and other stakeholders in the region, so that in the long term we can get this to be self-sufficient, through the recovery of ecosystems and getting more sustainable practices in the landscape.”

An Iberian lynx sits in a grassland in Portugal. Photograph by Andoni Canela

At the lone cafe in the tiny village of Sao João de Caldeireiros, near the very first lynx release site, a waitress greets Sarmento, the government biologist, like an old friend. Taking a seat on the patio, Sarmento and his guests are allowed to order lunch, even though a sign says seating there is for drinks only. Sarmento has been a frequent visitor since 2014, when he first came to the Herdade das Romeiras hunting estate to ready it for the release of Jacarandá and Katmandú. Today, the two cats’ descendants roam far beyond the estate grounds, and a stone observation deck with lynx reintroduction information placards overlooks the Romeiras release site from the village’s church parking lot high on a hill. It was Jacarandá’s daughter crossing south into the Algarve district from here in Alentejo—likely among the first lynx to colonize Algarve, in one of the region’s best remaining areas for rabbits—that led to the release of Sidra and Salão there this May.

Sarmento’s team released five lynx in 2022, bringing the total to 59 reintroduced to Portugal since the program began in 2014. When the current funding runs out, the EU has already committed to sending more, Sarmento says. Today, after years of habitat restoration work, the montado mosaic landscape that rabbits and lynx prefer in the 21st century—open pasture mixed with shrubs and patches of forest—is more prevalent across Alentejo, and now Algarve landowners are beginning to warm to restoration and lynx reintroduction as well.

Less than a decade after biologists worried that the Iberian lynx would be forever lost, the cats are reproducing on their own so successfully that in some areas, further releases are no longer needed to boost the population, though they’ll likely continue to increase genetic diversity. Today, the focus is on connecting these rebounding populations. And crucially, the Iberian lynx’s favorite prey, European rabbits, are becoming more plentiful on farms and hunting estates around southeastern Portugal.

An Iberian lynx strolls along with her cub, a hopeful sign that reintroduction efforts are working. Photograph by Andoni Canela

The cats have also proved more adaptable than anyone expected; a 2016 study of lynx in Spain’s Andújar-Cardeña region found that they will colonize olive tree plantations and other human-dominated landscapes. Lynx have become a symbol of conservation success and civic pride touted in political campaigns, a popular subject for Portuguese artists (a giant lynx made of recycled trash now guards the Lisbon waterfront), and a tourist attraction.

During lunch, the game keeper at the Romeiras property, Carlos Alberto Simaó, stops by Sarmento’s table. “I’m very proud of the [estate’s] contribution to lynx conservation,” he says. And he values the partnership with the government and the other stakeholders. He didn’t expect the lynx’s taste for prey other than the property’s abundant rabbits, but he says that doesn’t change his or the estate owner’s support for lynx conservation.

The paradox of lynx recovery is that, as the population grows amid this human-dominated landscape, new challenges arise. The cats also now face the triple threat of a prolonged, punishing drought, wildfires, and record-breaking heatwaves. Even so, as of mid-December, Portugal had exceeded its lynx population target of 30 breeding females; The latest census, for 2022: 32 — a number that, just a few years ago, Sarmento didn’t think the cats would reach until 2035. Martins is also optimistic about the future of the Iberian lynx — and the rabbits they rely on. “Both populations are healthy,” she says, and will only get healthier, since lynx prey on sick rabbits, which helps control the disease that wiped out rabbits in the past. In one hopeful sign, as of September, all 12 rabbits relocated to Herdade da Contenda in May were still alive. The last epidemic to hit European rabbits in Portugal was in 2014, delaying lynx reintroduction by a year. “Perhaps the decline wouldn’t have been so severe if the Iberian lynx and other top predators were present in their natural habitat,” Martins says. “Happy populations of Iberian lynx, happy populations of wild rabbit.”

Two Iberian lynx silhouetted at twilight. Photograph by Andoni Canela