In the mid-1990s, the Iberian lynx was on the verge of extinction, its population down to fewer than 100 individuals. And another two of the Iberian Peninsula’s iconic species, the Spanish imperial eagle and the cinereous vulture, were struggling to cope with severe food shortages due to declining rabbit populations and the ban on leaving animal carcasses out in the open following the crisis of mad cow disease.
It was against this grim backdrop that CBD-Hábitat came into being with the aim of saving these species and restoring their natural habitats. “The Foundation has a multidisciplinary team made up of biologists, civil engineers and other experts with a combination of research and conservation experience,” explains the foundation’s director, Nuria El Khadir Palomo. One of its main lines of action focuses on the conservation of these Mediterranean woodland species in alliance with the rural world. The organization has made it its job to perform a mediating role between private landowners and the administration, and has become a pioneer in land stewardship in Spain, acting as an advisor for the sustainable management of private estates, while demonstrating the benefits of maintaining a well conserved habitat.
“In 1999 ourselves and WWF were the first in Spain to apply the stewardship agreement model, given our interest in species found largely on private lands. So we went from door to door walking to estate managers and owners, explaining that we wanted to conserve these species. At the same time, we were raising funds, designing strategies and getting them implemented on the ground,” El Khadir relates. This methodology has since become a standard practice among many Spanish organizations.
“We started out in Sierra Morena, working with ten estates as a kind of test case. Our experience was that we learned a lot from exchanging information and advice, since they were already taking their own steps to conserve the remaining lynxes roaming their estates,” she adds. “They were initially concerned that if some threatened species was found on their land, they were going to face a string of prohibitions, but we set their minds at rest, while assuring them that they were the only ones who could help us restore them. Trust is vital in this respect. Without it, stewardship agreements cannot work.”
“Anyone who opened up their estate so we could install monitoring systems or camera traps was obviously prepared to get involved. Indeed if the few remaining individuals of a species were living there, it was because the owner was leaving them alone. Stewardship agreements have actually allowed us to learn techniques from the owners that worked better than our own. And they, in turn, have always been ready to take our advice,” El Khadir explains. This is a collaborative effort, she insists, that relies on mutual trust. And although the organization has since carried out other actions, such as the creation of protected areas, their work would not have been possible without the initial help of the estate owners.
What sets CDB-Hábitat apart from other lynx conservation campaigners is that they work towards achieving direct results in situ. “We like to define ourselves as nature’s allies on the land. Our experience has shown that actors as diverse as public authorities, conservationist organizations, firms, landowners, farmers, livestock breeders and hunters can work together, and that this mix of profiles operates to the benefit of conservation. We need to work as a team.”
The organization remains in close personal contact with all of them. “Communication is constant. We inform landowners of any incident we detect with the animals on their estates. And in the case of livestock farmers and carrion-feeding species, to persuade them to again leave carcasses outside after the mad cow crisis, we talked to each one individually explaining how they should go about implementing the new system.”
When they begin work with a species, the first thing they do is to assess its real situation, the problems it faces and the best way to tackle them. In the lynx’s case, there are currently 548 individuals under surveillance in historic ranges on the Sierra de Andújar and a further seven reintroduction and expansion areas in Jaén, Extremadura, Ciudad Real and Montes de Toledo. The foundation has participated in the reintroduction of over 160 lynxes in these areas, contributing to a population growth that has seen numbers rise from 100 to over 1,100 in the space of 21 years.
In the case of imperial eagles and cinereous vultures, initiatives like the radio tagging of 88 raptors, the rescue and recovery of 28 individuals, the inventorying of threats such as dangerous power lines, or the installation of stationary and mobile feeding middens have achieved a 30 percent population increase on estates where stewardship agreements are in place.
The resources deployed for their conservation have indirectly aided other wildlife of the Mediterranean woodlands. “We have worked with what are catalogued as umbrella species, because when we act on them we are also achieving an impact on their territory and other species that they share it with. Our actions, as such, are not just directed at the lynx, the eagle and the vulture, but at the land itself, through pruning and sowing, and in the lynx’s case, at the rabbits it feeds on,” El Khadir relates.
In the case of the European rabbit, more than 6,250 shelters have been built, with an occupancy rate of over 75 percent, along with 484 water troughs and 270 feeders. “We have designed a tube system, which is like a burrow they can shelter in, safe from predators,” says El Khadir. In early 2000 they also took the decision to lease rabbit hunting rights for a four-year period. This was an emergency measure to cope with a critical decline in the density of the lynx’s main prey. “What we did, with the support of a LIFE Project of the European Commission, was to pay landowners so that during this period they would not allow rabbit hunting on their estates, compensating them for the attendant losses.” Another of the foundation’s innovations is a supplementary feeding system for the lynx, especially so females with cubs can feed naturally when not enough rabbits are present in the area. “When we develop novel tools or good practices, we publish them and make them available to anyone who wants to use them.”
The next step is to ensure that conservation finds its place in government funding priorities. “The projects we work on need a lot of funding because they are long term. That’s why a prize like this is so important for small organizations like ours. It brings us not only recognition but a new source of finance to pursue our objectives at a time of uncertainty. A lot of public funds are being channeled to the likes of renewable energies or climate change, which are obviously important, but the fact is that nuts and bolts conservation work, which is what we do, is being left out. We occasionally look for a fit among public funding calls, but this could distract us from our purpose, which is the increasingly urgent need to conserve species and habitats.”