The Iberian lynx is smaller than other species of lynx living in northern Europe, but it has the same pointy, tufted ears, large paws and glowing eyes. “We like to say beauty isn’t everything, but it does count and — let’s be frank — the lynx sells extremely well,” Mr. Salsi said.
As a counterexample, he cited another European project to protect a freshwater mussel from pollution. “People don’t really care about what’s at the bottom of the river,” he said.
Because rabbits are often considered pests, the lynx has also been welcomed back by farmers, in contrast to the tensions incited by the return of brown bears and wolves in many parts of Europe, where they can also threaten the livestock.
Iberian farmers have allowed environmentalists to build artificial rabbit burrows on their land to help feed the lynxes.
In southern Spain, landowners and tourism operators are also combining to take visitors on day-trips, in search of this elusive feline. Agustín Navarro, a rancher, said he has a couple of lynxes living near a pond on his farmland, but “it’s been more about feeling their presence than ever seeing them properly,” he said.
Even if the Iberian lynx is no longer facing extinction, its future continues to depend upon that of the rabbit, whose population first decreased significantly because of myxomatosis, a highly infectious disease, which was introduced as a control agent worldwide in the 1950s. More recently, rabbits have been killed by a viral hemorrhagic virus.
Without enough rabbits in a territory, the famished lynx will be driven to cross more dangerous roads in search of its staple diet, while females will have smaller litters.
To address the prey question, the Spanish program released 50,000 rabbits into lynx-populated areas over the past five years.
“It’s paradoxical that each rabbit is costing us €10, where there’s a plague of them in some other places,” said Montserrat Fernández San Miguel, an official from the state agency that runs Spain’s national parks. “It’s actually a fight involving two very complicated species, in which nature can raise new and unexpected obstacles every day.”