ILLUMINATION
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ILLUMINATION

The Tale of the Wild Rabbit and the Iberian Lynx

How the Iberian Lynx is clawing its way back from the brink of extinction.

Iberian Lynx. Photo by Davidosta on Pixabay.

In 1984, there was an outbreak of a new infectious disease among domestic rabbits in the Jiangsu Province of China. It was something never seen before; infected animals succumbed in the span of three days of the onset of fever with liver failure and internal bleeding. The disease was both extremely lethal and highly contagious, and within a year it had killed over 140 million rabbits in China alone.

In two years, the novel disease now named Rabbit Hemorrhagic Disease (RHD) had reached Europe. First reported in Italy, it soon spread across the continent to the Iberian Peninsula where it found indigenous populations of the European Rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus), with Spain reporting its first case in 1988, followed by Portugal in 1989.

When the RHD Virus arrived in the Peninsula, the European Rabbit, colloquially known as wild rabbit, was struggling to adapt to another viral disease — Myxomatosis, an illness indigenous to South America, which provoked skin lesions and respiratory distress in these animals. This disease had been intentionally introduced in Europe by French farmers in 1953, to control rabbit populations in their fields.

Over time, rabbits grew more resilient to Myxomatosis infections, and the Myxoma Virus behind it became less lethal — a textbook example of co-evolution between species. However, the rabbits had not fully recovered by the 80s and the combination of both diseases (compounded with overhunting and habitat loss) decimated their populations, reducing their numbers to less than 10% of those recorded in the beginning of the 20th century.

Meanwhile, government action was hindered by the conflict of interest between farmers — who saw rabbits as harmful to their crops, and environmental and hunting groups — who sought to protect them.

European Rabbit. Photo by J. J. Harrison, Wikimedia Commons.

The decrease in the number of European Rabbits made clear that they are a key species in their ecosystem and that many predators rely on them for prey.

The Iberian Lynx (Lynx pardinus) was particularly vulnerable to the disappearance of rabbits in their habitat. Weighting between ten and thirteen kilograms, and standing short of a meter tall, these large cats are specialists in hunting rabbits through the Mediterranean shrubland and rely on them for 90% of their diet, so inevitably their numbers suffered with each outbreak of Myxomatosis and RHD.

Combined with the lack of prey and adjacent habitat loss, lynxes were also aggressively hunted in the middle of the 20th century — with the support of the Spanish government, which considered them pests. These practices continued in the form of poaching long after the species had become officially protected in the 60s by the CITES Treaty.

As a consequence, while in the past the Iberian Lynx was easily found across Portugal, Spain and Southern France, in 2002 the species was confined to two isolated subpopulations in the Doñana and Andújar regions of Andalusia (Southern Spain), with less than one hundred animals between them.

Realizing the dire situation in which the Iberian Lynx — at the moment, one of the most endangered wild cats in the world — had been placed, the Spanish government began a tremendous effort of recovering the species. They started to breed lynxes in captivity to release them in the wild, but also tackled the loss of habitat and prey, partly by extending natural protected areas. These conservation projects, largely supported by the European Union’s LIFE Programme, have been extremely successful and allowed for the reintroduction of the species in territories which had been historically lost.

Today, the Iberian Lynx can be found in the Guadalmellato and Guarrizas regions of Andalusia, the Matachel Valley in Extremadura and in the mountain ranges Sierra Morena and Montes de Toledo. It has also been reintroduced in the Guadiana Valley of Portugal in 2015, returning to the country after more than a decade of near extinction.

In total, there are currently over 1100 lynxes in the Iberian Peninsula, according to the 2020 Census, and the species has been downgraded from Critically Endangered to Endangered by International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). However, there is still a long way before the Iberian Lynx can be considered safe.

Iberian Lynx. Photo by Manedwolf on Wikimedia Commons.

As it stands, breeding programs are required to ensure that wild populations continue to grow, while road kills and poaching are two of the main causes of death in radio-tagged specimens. Furthermore, European rabbit populations remain fragile, specially following the emergence of a new strain of the RHD Virus (RHDV2) in 2010, which can kill animals that have been vaccinated against the previous strain.

Surprisingly enough, the two species are so connected that the presence of a lynx in a given area actually increases its rabbit population by keeping the number of medium-sized predators like foxes and Egyptian Mongooses down — predators which can put prey species under a lot of pressure.

These challenges are none-the-less part of the recovery process of the Iberian Lynx. A process whose success results from the commitment of the five breeding centers in the Iberian Peninsula, the role of local hunting communities (in preserving the natural habitat) and the cooperation between Portuguese and Spanish regional governments.

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Gil Pires

Gil Pires

Junior Consultant | MSc in Biotechnology