The Iberian lynx is a beautiful and highly endangered cat species native to southwest Europe. A specialist in hunting rabbits, the Iberian lynx faced a rapid decline when two diseases decimated the rabbit population in the 20th century. Without the ability to switch to another food source, and with other pressures like habitat loss, the species looked to be on the brink of extinction. Thanks to the efforts of conservationists, a reintroduction program is bringing these cats back in the wild. Since the start of this year, 20 lynx have been released into the wild in Spain and Portugal.

According to New Scientist, "In 2002, there were fewer than 100 Iberian lynx in the wild, confined to just two regions in southern Spain. Since then, their population has grown to over 300, thanks in part to an ambitious programme called LIFE Iberlince. There are plans to release 48 lynx in total this year across seven regions, most from captive breeding centres. These will join the 124 already released since 2014 in Castilla-La Mancha, Extremadura and Andalusia in Spain, and the Guadiana Valley in Portugal."

Though the reintroduction program has been a success, there are still significant threats that cats must overcome to remain safe from extinction. Rabbit populations must remain stable and, importantly, free of the diseases that so dramatically affected the cats. Also, car strikes are a significant cause of death that must be dealt with. Two Iberian lynx were killed along a road in just one week earlier this month, one of which was a radio-collared female.

WWF reports, "The construction of high speed roads and highways, splitting up the Lynx habitat, is another of the main threats for this wild cat. 2014 was a black year: 22 animals died under the wheels of a car. A very high number, given the small population of the species. After a WWF campaign, the Spanish national and regional authorities are starting to take preventive measures on the roads."

Wildlife corridors would go a long way to help in this matter, something that has been implemented in other areas in the world with great success, and which is currently being pushed in Los Angeles as a way to protect mountain lions and other wildlife navigating across highways. Scientists estimate that it would cost around 6 million euros to "make roads safer for lynxes by clearing roadsides of brush, putting up barriers and setting up passages that allow the felines to safely cross roads," reports The Guardian. But so far, nothing has been done.

Additionally, ensuring suitable habitat is another challenge. According to Yale 360, "Only about five percent of the lynx’s natural habitat remains, the rest having been lost to agriculture, dams, highways, housing, and other development."

Meanwhile, the United Kingdom is mulling over a reintroduction program of their own for the Eurasian lynx. The cat species was eliminated in the UK by hunters around 1,300 years ago. Conservationists want the lynx back in its old habitat, and momentum is building among supporters.

“Lynx can be a saviour of the British countryside,” Paul O’Donoghue, chief scientific adviser to the Lynx UK Trust, told New Scientist. “'The British countryside is effectively dying because there’s massive overgrazing from overinflated deer numbers. Lynx will change the whole dynamics of these deer herds, which will reduce forest damage and promote regeneration.' Eurasian lynx has already been reintroduced in Germany where it has benefited ecosystems, as well as rural economies by creating opportunities for ecotourism, O’Donoghue says."

Though huge challenges remain, the outlook for the Iberian lynx (and perhaps also the Eurasian lynx within the UK) is looking much brighter now than it did even a decade ago. With continued persistent effort, perhaps this species could be safe from extinction after all. To learn how you can help in the Iberian lynx recovery effort, visit Life+IBERLINCE.

Jaymi Heimbuch ( @jaymiheimbuch ) focuses on wildlife conservation and animal news from her home base in San Francisco.

20 endangered Iberian lynx released back into the wild
This beautiful species was down to fewer than 100 individuals, but a reintroduction program is bringing them back from the brink.