Wildlife conservation and cork: the endangered animals that live in cork oak forests.
The Natural Biodiversity of the Cork Oak Forests
Cork oak forests or woodlands are known as dehesa (in Spain) and montado (in Portugal) and are home to a wealth of natural biodiversity that includes a wide variety of species of animals and plants, forming a complex food chain. A dehesa (or montado) is a multipurpose system that has been managed by humans for centuries. The area is carefully managed to balance the landscape so that a range of resources can be utilized. This can include harvesting the bark from the cork oak, grazing livestock and growing fruit, all in the same area.
The high levels of biodiversity in cork forests have formed thanks to the co-evolution of the biological and cultural processes of these dehesa.
The continued use and management of cork forests will encourage the biodiversity of these areas and aid in wildlife conservation via habitat growth and protection. Among the countless species that thrive in the cork oak forests, many are endemic; uniquely defined to a particular location such as the Iberian Peninsula or the Atlas Mountains. All of the vulnerable or endangered species that live in cork oak forests are found nowhere else on earth.
THE IBERIAN LYNX
In Portugal alone, 37 different species of mammals can be found in cork oak forests, including the Iberian lynx, the most threatened feline in the world.
Surveys conducted in the early 2000s showed the population of Iberian lynx adults had severely declined to around 100 Lynx, split between two breeding groups. Thankfully, conservation efforts have prevented the Iberian lynx’s extinction and the population is continuing to increase slowly. However, the threat of extinction arose from a number of threats and the species' future is not yet secure.
The main threats to the Iberian lynx are habitat loss and a declining food base. Rabbits are the preferred prey of the Iberian lynx and various epidemics and habitat loss have caused the rabbit population to decline which has, in turn, affected the Iberian lynx population.
Similarly, habitat loss from infrastructure creation has created barriers between lynx populations. The expanding road network has also caused an increase in car collisions with 22 lynx dying from car hits in 2014. Finally, illegal hunting and poaching still threaten the Iberian lynx despite them being protected since the 1970s. Some lynx are victims of traps and snares that are left for other animals.
The WWF has been working towards the conservation of the Iberian lynx for the last ten years and manages a captive breeding programme as well as lobbying for the protection of the lynx’s habitat. The Spanish and Portuguese governments have also made great efforts to maintain the species population.
The Lynx Program was launched in 2004 by a group of conservation organizations with the aim of ensuring the conservation and long-term management of the Iberian lynx’s habitat, such as the cork oak forests. The ambitious aim of the programme was to show how local economic activities, such as the harvesting of cork, could be compatible with the conservation of endangered species and their habitat.
THE BARBARY MACAQUE
Not all of the vulnerable and endangered animals that make their home in cork oak forests live on the Iberian Peninsula. Cork oaks also grow across North Africa and can be found in Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia. The endangered Barbary Macaque makes its home in the cork oak forests of the Atlas Mountains in Algeria and Morocco.
The Barbary Macaque is unique in that it is the only species of macaque outside of Asia and the only primate, apart from humans, living north of the Sahara in Africa. Barbary Macaques are listed as endangered by the IUCN Red List and the Macaques population continues to decline thanks to a number of threats such as habitat loss, poaching, overgrazing and the illegal pet trade. In addition, the remaining population of Macaques in the Atlas Mountains are extremely isolated and fragmented.
The poaching and smuggling of Barbary Macaques as part of the illegal exotic pet trade and for use in tourism is having a major impact on the population’s sustainability. Barbary Macaques have long been sought after as pets and skeletal remains of macaques have been discovered in archaeological digs in Egypt, Pompeii and even in a Bronze Age Irish burial site. An estimated 300 infant macaques are taken out of Morocco each year, crippling the population growth and recovery.
Loss of habitat from illegal logging and charcoal production is also having a devastating impact on the Barbary Macaque who make their homes in the Cedar, Oak and Cork Oak forests of the Atlas Mountains. Illegal logging has left some areas completely devoid of trees, creating fragmented patches of forests that isolate populations of macaques and compromises their chances of survival.
The increased number of livestock in the area has led to stronger competition over resources between the macaques and humans. Overgrazing prevents the regeneration of vegetation which in turn reduces the diversity of plant species and limits the macaque’s food source. In addition, shepherd dogs often attack Barbary Macaques and many farmers see them as pests to be destroyed.
Saving the Barbary Macaque is linked to saving the forests of the Atlas Mountains. These forests are a wealth of biodiversity and support a wide range of rare plant and animal species. The macaques support the forests by spreading seeds, keeping insect populations in check and promoting ecotourism. Barbary Macaques are a great indicator of the health and quality of forests in the Atlas Mountains.
The population of Barbary Macaques in the wild in the Atlas Mountains is reaching a critical level and several organisations are making efforts to protect and support the species. It will take continued conservation measures and increased enforcement of wildlife trafficking laws to help save the Barbary Macaque.
THE SPANISH IMPERIAL EAGLE
It isn’t just mammals that make their home in cork forests. The cork oak forests of the Iberian Peninsula are the ideal habitat for over 160 different species of birds. The majestic Spanish Imperial Eagle is also endemic to the cork oak forests of the Iberian Peninsula.
The Spanish Imperial Eagle, or Iberian Imperial Eagle, is considered vulnerable by the IUCN Red List and is also a focus of the WWF. The Spanish Imperial Eagle is one of the rarest raptors in the world and in the 1970s there were only 50 breeding pairs left. Thankfully, conservation efforts have allowed the population to recover to an estimated 485 breeding pairs.
Similar to the Iberian lynx, the Eagle has a taste for rabbits and has also been affected by the decline in rabbit populations across the Iberian Peninsula. The continued loss of woodlands that both predator and prey species rely on, including cork oak dehesa, is putting additional pressure on the Spanish Imperial Eagle population.
Another serious threat to this species is the risk of electrocution from power lines. In 2008, 33 eagles were found dead from electrocution in Spain. Intentional illegal poisoning is also a common cause of death, with 15 cases of death by poison reported from 2015 to 2016.
The species has been reintroduced to Portugal after being absent for over 20 years. Both the Portuguese and Spanish populations are increasing thanks to continued conservation efforts. Since 2016 efforts have also been made to reintroduce the species to Morocco, where it has been extinct since the first half of the 20th Century.
Across Spain and Portugal efforts are being made to make power lines safer for birds. Between 1991 and 1999 over 14,000 pylons were modified, reducing the number of deaths from electrocution for Eagles. However, the risk of electrocution is still strong in Morocco and is having a serious effect on the Eagles chances of recolonising the area.
A supplementary feeding programme was also introduced in 2008 to help mitigate the effect of the decreasing rabbit population and increase breeding success. Nest monitoring and habitat protection operations are also underway with both the Portuguese and Spanish governments working with a number of conservation organisations, including the WWF.
BUYING CORK PRODUCTS
You might be confused as to why we are advocating the purchasing and use of cork products if habitat loss is such a vital issue. However, unlike other wood products, cork products don’t require the cutting down of the cork oak tree. Instead, cork bark is harvested from the tree by hand every 9 years in a process that doesn’t harm the tree.
This is why we are so crazy about cork. It is a sustainable and natural product with a range of great properties which gives it an abundance of uses that can replace less sustainable materials. The more popular cork products become, the more cork oak forests will be grown to meet the demand which in turn provides larger habitats for the vulnerable and endangered animals that call those forests home.
About the author: Dan Baker is a Content Writer that works with. SPD UK, a family run cork supplier based in the UK.