Out of the Shadows, the Wildcats You've Never Seen

Elusive, obscure, and eclipsed in popularity by their larger cousins, small cats are amazing, high-performance predators.

“She’s very close,” Germán Garrote whispers, pointing to a handheld receiver picking up Helena’s signal. Somewhere in this olive grove beside a busy highway in southern Spain, the Iberian lynx and her two cubs are probably watching us. If it weren’t for her radio collar, we’d never know that one of the world’s rarest cats is crouching among the neat rows of trees. At five years old Helena has learned to meld invisibly into the human landscape, even hiding with her newborns in a vacant house during a raucous Holy Week fiesta.

“Ten years ago we couldn’t imagine the lynx would be breeding in a habitat like this,” says Garrote, a biologist with the Life+Iberlince project, a government-led group of more than 20 organizations working to bring the spotted predator back to the Iberian Peninsula. Standing in the scorching heat with traffic rushing at our backs, he tells me that the cat’s future is to live in fragmented areas. “Lynx have more ecological plasticity than we thought,” he says.

Indeed, the amber-eyed, bushy-bearded feline has finally started to land on its feet after decades of decline. When Iberlince stepped in to rescue the lynx in 2002, fewer than a hundred of the cats were scattered throughout the Mediterranean scrubland, their numbers chipped away by hunting and a virus that nearly erased the region’s European rabbits, the lynx’s staple food. The lynx population was so depleted that it was suffering from dangerously low genetic diversity, making it vulnerable to disease and birth defects.

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