Setting the Stage for an Iberian Lynx Comeback with Eduardo Basto e Santos
I have followed the conservation history of the Iberian lynx (Lynx pardinus) closely for several years. This species is the most threatened feline in the world, living only in Spain, and in Portugal, where I am from. Recently, reintroductions have taken place in Spain and, just shortly before last Christmas, two Iberian lynx were reintroduced for the first time in the South of Portugal. I’ve had the pleasure of speaking to Eduardo Basto e Santos, who has been working on lynx conservation for several years and was the Project Coordinator for the LIFE-Nature Project ‘Enhancing Habitat for the Iberian Lynx and Black Vulture in the Southeast of Portugal’ from 2010 to 2014.
Could you describe the project you have been involved with?
This was a Life-Nature project, which means it was funded by the European Union, and directed at species and habitats that are threatened, in this case the Iberian Lynx and the Black Vulture (Aegypius monachus). This project was conducted alongside a larger programme that the LPN (League for the protection of Nature, a Portuguese NGO) has been working on for 10 years, namely the Lynx Programme, in partnership with Fauna & Flora International (see Paul Hotham’s story from FFI). It is the second of this kind and we are now drafting the final reports.
The Lynx Programme, started in 2004, has the goal of promoting the management of favorable habitats for the conservation of the Iberian Lynx. In that sense, and having focused from the start in the Southeast area of the country, we verified that most of the land was privately owned or being managed by private entities and that we would, therefore, need to work with the landowners and obtain their cooperation and approval. We started by drafting cooperation agreements that establish the measures and actions we intended to implement on their land and the way in which they would be implemented. The agreements also make explicit the relationship between the LPN and the landowners or managers.
These agreements are voluntary, and usually there is no renumeration. There was an exception during this project, which had to do with the creation of ecological corridors for the Iberian Lynx in the Moura district. It is an area with hills, and the best habitat for lynx are the top of the hills that still retain natural vegetation, as opposed to the rest of the area which is extensively planted with olive trees.
To enhance the connectivity between the hill tops and also increase the functional habitat for the lynx and its prey, certain areas were chosen where olive tree plantation was discontinued and natural vegetation allowed to regenerate. In this case, because there was a direct loss of income, the landowners were paid for that.
Could you give some examples of the measures implemented?
As mentioned previously, the establishment of the ecological corridors was one the implemented measures. Other measures were related to the availability of prey, in this case the rabbit, which is the single most important food source for lynx and is also important for Black Vultures. We try to improve grazing areas for rabbits, sometimes constructing protective fences to exclude other predators from an area, and installing food and water suppliers for the rabbits. In this project we also built artificial lynx shelters and for the Black vulture, we built some feeding stations and installed artificial nests in favourable areas.
Did you meet with resistance to the return of the Iberian Lynx to the area?
People sometimes have the perception that having the lynx on their land will bring certain restrictions and obligations to the way in which they manage their land and how it might affect the activities going on there. We have found this sometimes but not to the point that it made it impossible for us to do our job. Most people had a very welcoming attitude towards the project.
Our agreements are drawn up in cooperation with each specific landowner and we always try to make sure that it does not become something negative or that poses difficulties to the way in which they manage their property. It makes it easier for people to stick to a plan if it is simple and not against their own interests.
Now that the project is over, what comes next?
These agreements last 5 years and some will be in place until 2018. The LPN will keep up the work and cooperation with the people who have signed these agreements, even though the Life Project is over. In the end, these projects are a tool for us to have a better logistic and financial standing to develop the necessary conservation measures. Our commitment, however, and the LPN Lynx programme, extends beyond the Life Project and we hope to continue to contribute to the conservation of the Iberian lynx and, as we started doing in this last project, the Black Vulture.
What do you think of the recent lynx reintroduction in Mértola?
It is an important benchmark in the conservation of the species. I hope that the work LPN has been doing has contributed to the improvement of the environmental conditions these lynx will find in the area. Reintroductions are a tool in the conservation toolkit, but they are not an end in themselves. The objective is not fulfilled with the reintroduction; rather it is fulfilled when there are several viable, healthy populations of the species in the country. And for the objective to be fully met, the problems that led to the extinction of the lynx in the first place have to be solved or mitigated. I look at this reintroduction with a lot of expectation but without any illusion that we can just rest now.
What would be your advice to young people wanting to follow a career in conservation in Portugal? Do you think it is especially difficult now, because of the economic difficulties of the country?
It has always been difficult, it isn´t just now. I suppose now it may be even harder because of the economic situation of the country, but there was never a lot of work to begin with. I believe there are two things people need to reflect on if they want to work in conservation. The first is that most of the work involves dealing with people and rarely with the animals. It is much more about managing partnerships, managing and solving problems, and so forth. The second is that this is the sort of career that gets built slowly, and we are not always doing what we would like to be doing. People can feel unrewarded with the job as the years go by, but the thing is, results are not usually measured in months or years in conservation, but rather in decades. There must be patience; people must realize that conservation is a marathon, not a sprint.