It was like chas­ing a ghost in the An­dalu­cian sier­ras

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will be a chal­lenge, but should be made eas­ier by Ser­gio Gon­za­lez Asian, my nat­u­ral­ist-guide and lynx-tracker ex­tra­or­di­nary. With Ser­gio at the wheel we drive from Seville to Cor­doba and then into the Sierra Morena – the Dark Moun­tains whose 4,000ft sum­mits roll across An­dalu­cia for 280 miles (450km). Once a fa­mous haunt of ban­dits, their hid­den val­leys and wooded slopes are now a refuge for Spain’s most im­por­tant lynx pop­u­la­tion.

In liv­ing mem­ory they still roamed widely across Ibe­ria, but by 2001 only 90 an­i­mals were left. Had they be­come ex­tinct they would have been the first cat species to be lost since the sabre-toothed tiger 10,000 years ago.

But to­day, thanks to a hugely suc­cess­ful cap­tive-breed­ing pro­gramme, num­bers have risen to nearly 500, most of them con­fined to the An­du­jar Nat­u­ral Park, and that is where I am head­ing.

Our base for the next three days is Los Pi­nos, a moun­tain ho­tel with sim­ple, warm-as-toast rooms and a restaurant bristling with antlers in which I dine like a king on end­less plat­ters of air-dried ham and won­drous local spe­cial­i­ties.

Ev­ery day be­gins the same, with crisp Novem­ber dawns un­der de cloud­less skies as we set out ut on our search, driv­ing through the e de­hesa, a wild Span­ish parkland habi­tat itat of grey­beard oaks and grassy glades. Af­ter six months of drought t the grass is bis­cuit brown and the close­ness of Africa is never far away as grif­fon vul­tures cir­cle high gh in the blue on their hunt for car­rion. on.

Ev­ery now and then we stop to scan the hill­sides with binoc­u­lars. rs. Deep val­leys fan out be­low us, locked cked in an all-em­brac­ing si­lence bro­ken en only by the bel­low­ing of red stags. gs. Flocks of azure-winged mag­pies erupt from the cork oaks, and wher­ever I look there are deer – not only red deer but also fal­low bucks with wide-spread­ing antlers and mou­flon with curly am­monite horns.

Un­der the trees the hill­sides are a chaotic tum­ble of lichen-scabbed gran­ite boul­ders. In places the en­tire land­scape looks as if it has been cre­ated by some mad, drug-crazed me­galithic tomb­builder and in vain we look among the rocks and along the beds of dried-up streams that come wind­ing down from the fenced-off ganade­rias where black fight­ing bulls roam, des­per­ate to spot the phan­tom of the sier­ras.

By mid­day the tem­per­a­ture is in the low 20s. Ev­ery tree stands in a pool of shadow and Ser­gio is in de­spair. This is the first time he has come here and not found a lynx. Pere­grine fal­cons, golden ea­gles and the rare Im­pe­rial Span­ish ea­gle – all th­ese we see in the course of the day; but as for the lynx it is like chas­ing a ghost. All we find are its scats and even they are not fresh. When I tread on one it crum­bles to dust, a mass of undi­gested rab­bit fur.

Rab­bits are the key to the lynx’s sur­vival, says Ser­gio. They form at least 70 per cent of its diet and they need to catch one ev­ery day – more if there are cubs to feed. But Spain’s rab­bit pop­u­la­tion has been dec­i­mated by myx­o­mato­sis and other dis­eases, hence the demise of their most fe­ro­cious preda­tor.

In the afternoon we drive into a val­ley where poplars flare yel­low beside the river and a king­fisher draws an a electric blue bead across the wat wa­ter. Re­minders of the lynx’s pres­enc pres­ence are ev­ery­where. Its bearded face stares down from road signs (many (m lynx end up ev­ery year as roadk road­kill) and ev­ery post­card bears its im­age. imag “The Span­ish Lynx is ready to re­claim its king­dom,” de­clare de­clares a win­dow dis­play in An­duja An­du­jar. But of the an­i­mal it­self there is no trace.

Havin Hav­ing drawn a blank in the mounta moun­tains it is time to move on. We re­turn t to Seville and drive down to the Ard Ardea Pur­purea Ho­tel in Brian Jack­man’s visit was ar­ranged by The Trav­el­ling Nat­u­ral­ist (01305 267 994; nat­u­ral­ist.co.uk) with the help of Turismo An­daluz (tur­is­moan­daluz.com) and Tures­pana (tour­spain.es). A fully es­corted eight-day Ibe­rian Lynx Quest with The Trav­el­ling Nat­u­ral­ist costs £1,495 per per­son, in­clud­ing re­turn flights from Lon­don Gatwick to Seville with easy­Jet, three nights in An­du­jar and four nights in Coto Doñana with all meals. De­par­ture dates: Jan 27 and Oct 20 2018 and Jan 26 2019.

A fe­male lynx, pic­tured with her cubs

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