An Iberian lynx ‘scored’

Mark Zekhuis is an ecological consultant working for a Dutch natural landscape management agency. In the Netherlands he is well known as an enthusiastic seeker of wildlife, ‘scoring’ species with a considerable amount of skill and luck.  In 2009 he went in search of the Iberian lynx, a highly threatened cat species, still occurring in small subpopulations in southern Spain. In his own words: “I find great challenge in finding rare and elusive animals. These are a great attraction to me, and….perseverance always pays off!”

Iberian lynx habitat in Coto Doñana. By Mark Zekhuis.

Although extremely rare, the Iberian lynx can be relatively easily encountered in certain areas of Spain, including  National park Coto Doñana, on the southern coast near the town of El Rocio. The landscape consists of coarse dunes covered sparingly with stone pine, maquis heathland and some shrinking water bodies. Mark visited the area on foot in July 2009, hoping catch at least a glimpse of the lynx. Rabbits and an occasional red deer were spotted, indicating a proper food base for the lynx in the area. But no luck here! Instead he met Endrique Ales, a lynx researcher performing a home range study of the lynx population. According to Ales, the park was home to only three females, two males and four juveniles; all equipped with transmitters. Ales also explained that the local lynx population had been severely decimated by feline diseases (e.g. distemper), rabbit mortality due to VHS and increasingly through mortality on busy roads. Mark was finally advised to visit the mountainous region of Andujar to achieve his mission.

Andujar. By. M. Zekhuis

Just north of Andujar, along the Rio Jandula, there is a considerable chance to spot the lynx, with an estimated 140 animals present in a hilly area sparsely covered with cork oak (dehesa woodland). This is also a good place to spot smaller carnivores like the otter and Genet, and impressive raptors like the eagle owl, cinereous vulture and Spanish imperial eagle. Iberian wolves may still or occasionally occur in the area as well, although also very rare in much of Spain. Red deer are common and the area is particularly exciting during the rut of these large herbivores. Los Pinos near La Cabeza presents a good base camp to explore the area, with a small camp site. Mark’s tactic to spot a lynx was to drive in the area in the early morning and to intermittently sit for long periods to scan valleys and hillsides with a telescope.

Otter in the Jandula River. By M. Zekhuis

On the third day of visit, travelling early from La Lancha toward Vinas de Penallana, Mark finally encounters his target: a lynx crossing the road just 20 meters in front, to rapidly disappear into the brush! Then, waiting a while in the same spot to see what happens, the lynx suddenly appears again and charges toward a group of rabbits, but is unsuccessful in catching any of them. Mark and his companion manage to see the lynx in all its splendour and features. The rest of the day is spent in excitement, topped with a splendid view of otters in the Jandula river at close range.

Mark in action and his tactic of spotting large carnivores. By N. Buvelot.

The next morning at the campsite, Mark is about to pack his tent, when he spots a fairly large cat walking at 15 meters away, with the immediate realization; it’s a young lynx! They manage to approach it at close range, sitting and calling softly in the brush and on a rocky outcrop. A few pictures are taken and then the animal disappears, leaving Mark extremely satisfied in his hunt.

Mark's prize. A young Iberian lynx, one of the rarest cat species in the world. By. M. Zekhuis

In March 2012 Mark and a small company travelled to the Romanian Carpathians to score a Eurasian lynx. Low and behold, Mark did it again, spotting a lynx with his telescope on a hillside in the snow and between the bare beech trees. Lucky Mark!

By Erwin van Maanen