It was like chasing a ghost in the Andalucian sierras
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