It was on the run that two Iberian lynxes left their cages behind and found freedom. In a field near Alcoutim, in the Algarve, the lynxes arrived in a cage, covered with a green cloth – with an opening large enough for the hundreds of people who watched and photographed them this Tuesday to peer out. The first lynx, the male Hall, he had a few seconds of hesitation when Minister Duarte Cordeiro opened the cage door for him. It didn’t take long before, with the grace of cats, he ran a few feet forward. When it stops, it’s already far away. She still looks for a few seconds at the horizon of her new home, while wagging her short tail, as if getting used to it. And she goes on her way, until she disappears through the bushes.
While the lynx took its first free strides, the female Cider, with the smallest spots on his fur, was still waiting in a cage in the van of the Institute for the Conservation of Nature and Forests (ICNF). Suspicious, she circled inside the cage as she was transported to the middle of the open, under a sky threatening rain. As soon as the door opened, there was no moment of waiting: her escape was much faster than hers. Hall and as he ran, dust rose under his feet. It took less than 15 seconds for it to disappear into the vegetation. who knows close to Hallwith whom he is not related.
These two lynx belong to a species threatened. By 1990, few Iberian lynx were left. That’s why a few years ago it was decided to reintroduce the species into nature and, since then, there have been 209 lynxes on the loose in Portugal. This lynx couple is the second to be released in the Algarve. Before, they only did it in Alentejo. “We want to believe that all the work that has been done will allow us to say that the lynx was saved from extinction”, comments ICNF president Nuno Banza. But it is an “unstable” process. It is necessary that the habitats are in good condition, that there is food (especially wild rabbits, the lynx’s favorite prey), that there is water, that they are not hunted or run over. And above all, “we need time,” he says.
The return of the lynxes to nature has been a “very successful program”, says the Minister of the Environment and Climate Action, Duarte Cordeiro, who inherited the ministry just over a month ago and was in Alcoutim in one of his first actions on the ground. “In the late 90s we had around 100 Iberian lynxes and now there are around 1100 between Portugal and Spain”, he says. Therefore, “they can serve as an example for other species”, and we must “continue to invest in nature conservation”.
The lynxes wear a collar with radio transmitters so that they can be monitored at a distance in the early days, which makes it possible to assess the evolution of the entire population of Iberian lynxes. The decision to release lynxes in the Algarve was taken after seeing that the lynxes themselves were starting to head towards that region, where they had found “conditions to reproduce and to run”, says Nuno Banza.
In February of this year, on the day that Russia invaded Ukraine, two other lynx had been released in the same area, some five or six kilometers away: the earthquake and the Senegal. The names beginning with the letter S are not the result of chance: they are from the same generation, whose nomenclature follows an alphabetical order.
Maria Antonieta Gonçalves, 69, is the owner of the open field in which the two Iberian lynxes have now been released, a land that is only used to have some seeds for cattle. She had never seen any lynx live, “only on television”, and she was one of those chosen to help lift the female’s cage door. Cider. He devalues the fact that this was the chosen area: “In some land it had to be”. As long as the lynxes “don’t harm the animals”, there is no problem. But it won’t be an easy promise to keep, as lynxes are carnivores and like rabbits above all. After seeing the lynx up close for the first time, Marie Antoinette is laconic: “I liked it.”
The balance with the ecosystem and with the other species it was one of the reasons for signing, before the release of the Iberian lynxes, a collaboration agreement between the ICNF and the Tourist Hunting Zone of Pereiro.
Created by humans, but far from them
Although the journey of the lynxes towards nature was short, the journey of these brown cats with “beards” and “brushes” with black fur on their ears was already long: they came on Tuesday from a center in Cáceres, Spain. As this is an Iberian lynx, coordination is carried out between the two countries. There are cubs born in Portugal that are released in Spain and cubs from Spain released in Portugal, like these two lynxes, about one year old, that came from the Centro de Cría del Lince-ibérico in Zarza de Granadilla. For lynxes, there are no real borders and genetic diversity is a “very relevant aspect in this species, because only with this variability can they consolidate as a species”, explains Nuno Banza. Thus, there are more chances of survival, with less inbreeding and less disease.
Another factor that increases the survival of this species in the wild is the almost zero contact with humans in the training centers. They are even trained to be afraid of humans, as this can pose a risk when they are on the loose (by making it easier for them to be caught, for example). In these centers, they are not offered food – the Iberian lynx are trained to hunt, in an environment similar to what they will find outdoors. They cannot associate people with food because the objective, explains the ICNF president, is the “natural reintroduction” of this species.
This is what has been done at the National Iberian Lynx Reproduction Center in Silves, about 70 kilometers from where they were released. Hall e Cider. The Iberian lynx training and recovery complex, which had an investment of around 600,000 euros, was presented this Tuesday and was also visited by Minister Duarte Cordeiro. There was a part of this center that burned down with the Monchique fire in 2018, but they managed to save the lynxes (which had to go to Spain) and some equipment.
In the premises, the lynx are only seen from afar, through surveillance cameras. We managed to catch a glimpse of them: some rest, others lick themselves, others walk around the pens, two cubs sleep intertwined while the mother is away from the kennel. There are currently 33 lynxes in this centre: 23 adults and 10 small ones.
The purpose is to ensure that they have the conditions to be released into the wild: that they are in good health, that they know how to hunt, that they have social skills with other lynxes. The journey to save the Iberian lynx has been successful, but there is still a long way to go. “It seems that they are animals that want to be extinguished”, laughs the director of the centre, Rodrigo Serra. And he explains: they only breed once a year, almost only eat rabbits that are fewer and fewer, and “fight to the death at 60 days” with their brothers. And he jokes: “If it wasn’t for us, we’d already be gone.”