​Chasing the world’s most elusive cat

Luke Massey’s fascination for this rare feline species dates back to when he was just eight years old. Now a renowned wildlife photographer, it is one species he can’t keep away from.

by Nikhil Sreekandan

© Luke Massey

Leaving his assistant Katie to keep an eye out by the river, he headed uphill; the valley solemnly silent around him. Two months had passed without any success. Yet, he kept coming back to this specific spot. He had seen them here before and it was very close to a water source, a natural magnet for both predators and prey.

On this particular morning, when he reached the marking spot what awaited him was something out of “every naturalist’s dream – a steaming pile of lynx poo”.

That meant a lynx had literally just been there or was still around. He quickly scanned the surrounding area, but nothing materialised. Lynx are the masters of camouflage and he’d already been losing this game of hide and seek for quite some time now.

After a while, he thought he’d go down and tell Katie about his discovery, and as he passed a bush he heard a familiar meow. He stopped and he heard it again. Heart in his mouth, he slowly turned to his right and literally four feet away, in the bush was the animal he had been searching for – an Iberian lynx.

Over the next few hours, the bush didn’t make way for one lynx but two. It seemed to possibly be a young female with her mother, and for the rest of the day, Luke photographed them resting and moving from bush to bush.

© Luke Massey

Luke Massey is a wildlife photographer with a passion to show people what is on their doorstep or further afield; to show them something new or educate them about a species in decline. He believes that if by the end of his career he can help save one species he will be happy, but for the moment, he intends to try and help save as many as possible through his work.

Luke’s first lynx sighting happened very early. “I can still remember seeing my first lynx when I was 8 years old, in Canada, it was an incredibly distant sighting but we pulled the car over and I can still picture the scene as it walked along the tree line and vanished inside,” he said.

He tried to see the European lynx in Estonia but only ended up hearing them, finding fresh scat and prints but the actual cat remained elusive. At the top of his list had always been the Iberian lynx, the world’s rarest cat, and in 2015, on his visit to Sierra de Andújar National Park in Spain, he incredibly managed to spot five of them.

© Luke Massey

According to Luke, the hardest part of finding a lynx is their elusiveness. If they don’t want to be seen, they won’t be. At other times, they’ll be bold and sit right out in the open, unfazed by humans.

“The most amazing thing about lynx is just how easily they melt into their surroundings; a grey ghost. You can know exactly where a lynx sat but take your eyes off it for a second and it will disappear into its surroundings, completely camouflaged,” Luke said.

“They manage to blend in effortlessly. You think you’re going to predict where they will appear after a brief glimpse but then nothing, five minutes later you’ll spot them again, 1,000 metres from where you last saw them and nowhere near where you expected them to be.”

© Luke Massey

When he returned to Spain the next year to get more images, he had his second encounter with this elusive cat. The lynx were breeding again and one particular area was providing some great sightings. It had got to the end of a long day and he’d just had a great sighting of a lynx patrolling its territory and even stopping to call.

“The sun had set and it was time to head back up the dirt track to our base. [But], as we rounded a bend on the twisting mountain road I spotted two shadowy figures right on the edge of our beam, as we approached, they materialised to be two lynx walking side by side.”

“Then suddenly they stopped, un-spooked by our lights and the next thing we know began to mate right in front of us, in the middle of the track. It must be one of my most amazing wildlife encounters to date, the rarest cat in the world creating the next generation (I hoped) right in front of us.”

© Luke Massey

Seeing these cats in the flesh has only made Luke even more passionate about these rare species. Upon realising that little photographic work had been done on them despite their distinctive characteristics, he decided to make it his priority to get them some much-needed PR.

Owing to the efforts of many like Luke, the world’s most endangered feline species is slowly recovering. In 2001, there were less than 100 Iberian lynx left in the wild but conservation measures mean that in 2016 over 400 are living wild in Spain and Portugal.

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