Fred Hood goes in search of the world’s most elusive feline in remote southern Spain… Most big cat adventures involve the continent of Africa. Tourists flock to the famous game parks for a glimpse of lions and cheetahs, and if they are lucky, leopards. India ranks second, with its famous tiger parks, where an abundance of nature tours centre around the striped felines. But what about the other 32 species of wild cat? Most are so secretive that the chances of seeing one in the wild range from slim to none. Against all odds, my brother Charles and I decided to try our luck searching for one of the most elusive felines on the planet. Our destination is not Africa or India, but southern Spain. Our odds of success: slim.
Why Spain? Of the 36 members of the cat family, the most endangered resides here. The Iberian lynx, or Lynx pardinus, was once found throughout Spain and Portugal, but a variety of factors ranging from loss of habitat to poisoning of their prey led to a downward spiral that landed the species an official designation of critically endangered. Thankfully, Spanish and Portuguese authorities have crafted a recovery plan and are now successfully breeding lynx for reintroduction. But these breeding centres are strictly off-limits and no Iberian lynx is on display at any zoo in the world. If we wanted to catch a glimpse of this rarest of felines, we would have to try our luck at one of their two remaining holdouts. Donana National Park, on the coast, has a population of approximately 50 lynx, while the Sierra Morena Mountains, further inland, have a population of around 150, spread over a larger area.
Charles and I go with the numbers and head to Sierra de Andujar, the southern and most accessible part of the Sierra Morena. While planning our adventure, I receive what I take to be a good sign. I open my mailbox to find a large book entitled Iberian Lynx Ex Situ Conservation: An Interdisciplinary Approach. I have not ordered it; it is a gift from the IUCN Cat Specialist Group, a conservation organization that I support. I then receive what I take as a second good sign. I get a reply email from an American biologist I know who is living in the area working on the Iberian lynx project. He promises to help us out, possibly setting us up with a radio tracking team. He will even try, though it is a long shot, to get us into the breeding centre. Two months before the trip, however, he ceases communication. If we are going to see one of the last remaining lynx, Charles and I will be on our own. (Some time after the trip, I received an email from my biologist friend explaining that he had returned to the US).
Charles is an experienced wildlife watcher, with a US bird count of 700 and a world mammal count approaching 500 at the time of the trip. Seeing a lynx will put him that much closer. I, on the other hand, am an avid zoo-goer and a wild cat fanatic, but I take my cat encounters the easy way – in captivity. This is how I racked up photographs of 28 of the world’s cat species. Sure, I enjoy the occasional day hike and thrill at seeing any animal in the wild. Unlike my brother, however, I have neither the means nor the desire to hop all over the world looking for animals I may or may not find once I get there. With my primary interest being elusive felines, most searches would end in futility. But this trip has me intrigued. Since I have zero chance of photographing this species in a zoo, I decide to give it a go.
How does one prepare to search for the world’s rarest cat? We start with the internet, which is truly one of the greatest inventions in human history. A couple of blogs on the site mammalwatching.com give us the details we need – namely where to stay and where to look. The place to stay for lynx watching, it turns out, is Los Piños Hotel in the very small village of Las Viñas de Peñallana. These charming bungalows are located in the foothills above the city of Andujar. To book a room, I manage to find the email address and arrange everything with my basic knowledge of Spanish. There is no online reservation system and no credit card payments; I will simply pay them in euros at checkout.
Thanks to a detailed online description and map from Briton Lee Dingain, a recent visitor to the area, we know where to look. But with a small population of a secretive cat spread over a huge area, it is a long shot. Mr. Dingain and his companions did manage two sightings, but their team put in several hours a day over a five day period. We will be there two and a half days and will not have the stamina to go out for middle-of-the-night drives or sit on a hillside for several hours, as they did. Are we crazy to even try this?
A visitor center just down the hill from the hotel has a nice display of area wildlife, including a taxidermied lynx. This, of course, is the only lynx most visitors to the area ever see. One animal that is easy to see in its living form is the red deer, which are everywhere. Fallow deer, which keep their spots as adults, are also present in smaller numbers. One other area ungulate, which is much more elusive, is the mouflon. These large wild sheep have a body and horn shape similar to America’s bighorn. This would add another species to my brother’s world mammal list, as would European otter, a frequently seen local. The one large mammal we have zero chance of seeing is the Iberian wolf. A sub-species of the widely distributed gray wolf, these striking canids have a grizzled brown coat with a chocolate brown face that makes them perhaps the most beautiful of the wolf sub-species. I know because I will photograph a captive specimen a week later at England’s Port Lympne Animal Park. In the Sierra Morena, however, they restrict themselves to the highest peaks far removed from people.
According to Lee Dingain’s map, there are two roads on which to go lynx watching. The first and more promising follows a stream into Sierra de Andujar National Park, ending at a dam with a popular fishing lake behind it. The second winds through cattle ranches over undulating terrain. As we find out, the second road also appears not to have been paved for decades, with potholes every fifteen or twenty seconds. But this is the road where mouflon are seen, so we will give it a go as well.
Arriving at the hotel on Friday afternoon, we drive out to the stream by the dam to try our luck, stopping for half an hour at an overview on the way. We see and hear groups of red deer in autumn rut, their loud calls echoing across the canyon. At first we think it is the sound of cattle, until my brother identifies the true source. But we see little else beyond the ubiquitous black and white magpies and a handful of other birds. Towards dusk we head up the rutted farm road where I get a nice look at a pair of fallow deer, including a buck with impressive antlers. At the end of day one, however, our lynx count is zero.
Knowing that cats are active at night and dawn, we rise early on Saturday and head out before sunrise. We drive slowly along the streamside road, scanning the sides with a powerful flashlight. We see the eyeshine of deer, but no predators. The road turns left at the dam, going away from the stream and ending at the lake above the dam. We turn around and decide to drive slowly back to the bottom of the dam, where we will get out and search the hill and streamside. A narrow bridge (closed to vehicles) provides pedestrian access to the far side of the stream.
As we near the bridge, I am driving at a crawl preparing to stop and park. Suddenly Charles exclaims, “There it is – grab your camera!” In an unbelievable stroke of luck, an adult lynx is walking across the bridge towards us just as we pull up. Charles has a very bright flashlight on it through the passenger side window, which does not seem to bother the strolling cat a bit. I quickly pop the lens cap off my SLR and try to fire – but nothing happens. It is too dark for the autofocus to lock on anything. So I move the switch on the lens barrel to manual focus and fire a series of four shots as the cat strolls by. In the low light I can hear the shutter drag, in spite of having the ISO cranked up to 3200.
As the lynx walks past the car we jump out, quickly losing it in the pre-dawn darkness. We lock the car and stay out on foot for a couple hours. As daylight fills the river valley, we make additional discoveries. On a nearby rock outcropping are several piles of old lynx scat. As Charles is downstream, I spy a pair of European rabbits (aka lynx food) above the road. He manages to find a lone otter through his binoculars, which he later spots from the bridge for me to photograph.
Our lynx, however, does not return. Later that day, after lunch and a rest at the hotel, we try the ranch road. Though no lynx appear, my eagle-eyed brother spots a mouflon ram on a distant ridge – a very distant ridge. Even when I snap a 2X teleconverter on my 300mm lens to make it 600mm, the mouflon is still a small spot on the horizon. If it weren’t for the fact that he is sitting on a rock sporting a large curl of horns, he would be indiscernible.
On Sunday morning – our last – we try the dam again. Immediately after we park, a pair of headlights come up from behind and a car drives illegally across the bridge, presumably to get a prime fishing spot at the far side of the lake. If our cat was going to cross again this morning, surely they scared him off. Although we make no additional lynx sightings, we count ourselves extremely blessed. On the two hour drive back to Sevilla, our point of departure from Spain, we recount our luck. On a vast mountain range, with a small remnant population, we were within a few feet of the rarest cat species on earth. Although my panned photos show motion blur from the slow shutter, I consider the trip a success. In a way, these photos represent the cat better than a crisp daylight shot would. They show the lynx for what it is: a ghostlike predator slipping quietly through the darkness. Fred Hood