The cork oak forests of Portugal, Spain and North Africa boast one of the most diverse ecosystems found outside of the Rainforest and are home to a wide variety of animals. In fact, 60% of Portugal’s mammals make their home in cork forests. The cork oak forests provide safety, nesting and feeding grounds for many species of wildlife, including several endangered species such as the Spanish Imperial Eagle or the Iberian lynx.
Unfortunately, due to poor forest management and a change in the cork market we are seeing a loss of these unique forests. Thankfully, efforts are being made by many organisations, such as the WWF, and governments, like Portugal and Spain, to preserve these areas and the endangered species that call them home.
Why Is Cork So Biodiverse?
The cork oak forests of the Iberian Peninsula are known locally in Spanish as dehesa, or in Portuguese as montado, which means they are human-managed landscapes that serve a multifunctional purpose which includes an agrosilvopastoral system. This effectively means that the landscapes are used to utilise diverse resources, such as the cork, fruit, agriculture and animal pastures all in the same area.
Cork forests, or montados, are also characterized by high levels of endemism, which means that many species are uniquely defined to a particular location. This includes many endemic species like the Iberian Lynx or Spanish Imperial Eagle that only live in the cork oak forests of Iberia.
The biodiversity of the cork oak forests has evolved from the close co-dependency of both biological and cultural process of the montados. The continued use and management of these cork oak forests by humans will help to support and encourage the biodiversity and aid in wildlife conservation.
Which Vulnerable & Endangered Animals Make Their Home In The Cork Oak Forests?
With such a great level of biodiversity, it is unsurprising that so many different animals make their home in the cork oak forests. In fact, in Portugal, you can find 24 species of reptiles and amphibians, over 160 species of birds and 37 different species of mammals nesting, feeding and mating in the montados.
Here are 5 of the worlds endangered or vulnerable species that rely on the cork oak forests of Spain, Portugal and North Africa for survival.
1. Iberian Lynx
The Cork Oak forests of Portugal and Spain are the prefered habitats of the Iberian Lynx, the most endangered feline species in the world and the most endangered carnivore in Europe. Studies in the early 2000s found that the number of Lynx adults had severely declined, leaving only 100 surviving Iberian lynx.
A joint conservation effort from both Portugal and Spain has seen the preservation of the Iberian lynx and a steady increase in the number of mature adults. Several organisations are working to preserve the Iberian Lynx and to regain some of the lynx’s lost territory in Spain and Portugal.
The Iberian Lynx is split into two breeding groups located at Doñana and the eastern end of the Sierra Morena mountain range. Female lynxes normally only give birth to 3 kittens, with rarely more than 2 surviving long enough to leave the den. Threats to the Iberian lynx include a loss and fragmentation of habitat, poaching and illegal hunting, road accidents and the decline of their main prey, rabbits.
The lynx Program, launched in 2004 by the League for the Protection of Nature, is working to ensure the conservation and long-term management of the habitat of the Iberian lynx, which includes cork oak forests. One of the main objectives of the program was to demonstrate how the local economic activities of growing and harvesting cork can actually be compatible and aid the conservation of habitats and endangered species like the Iberian lynx.
2. Iberian Wolf
The Iberian Wolf is a subspecies of grey wolf that can be found in northern Portugal and northwestern Spain. Wolf populations across Europe have seriously declined due to human involvement, leading to their eradication across Central Europe and most of Northern Europe.
Since the 1960s, isolated populations of wolfs in Italy, Spain, Portugal, Greece and Finland have begun to recover naturally despite still facing threats such as loss of habitat, illegal hunting and loss of prey. There is now an estimated 2,000 Iberian Wolves located in Spain and Portugal distributed over 350 packs across 140,000km.
There is one isolated population that was located in the Sierra Morena mountain range in southern Spain. The Sierra Morena is one of the last habitats of the Iberian lynx and the Spanish Imperial Eagle thanks to the presence of cork oak forests.
Unfortunately, due to this populations isolation and lack of breeding opportunities the population of wolves in this area has declined, leading to inbreeding and hybridization with dogs and ultimately ending in the regional extinction of Iberian Wolves in the Sierra Morena in 2019.
3. Atlas Deer
Not all of the endangered animals that make their home in the cork oak forests live on the Iberian Peninsula. The Atlas deer, or Barbary Stag as it is also known, is the only member of the deer family that is native to Africa. The deer thrived in the forested areas of Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco before it was nearly hunted to extinction.
The Atlas deer was re-introduced to Morroco from Tunisia in the 1990s and can be found in the Tazekka National Palk. The Atlas deer are smaller than typical European red deer and have a dark brown body with white spots on its back and sides.
The Atlas deer lacks any predators, apart from poachers, and is mainly threatened by the continuing loss of habitat and isolation of populations. Urbanization, agricultural activities and fires have resulted in the destruction and fragmentation of the cork oak forests of North Africa which has a negative impact on the Atlas deer population.
It is unknown how many mature adults exist in the wild but it is estimated that the population of the Atlas deer is decreasing due to habitat loss and poaching. The IUCN gives the Atlas deer a Vulnerable rating.
4. Spanish Imperial Eagle
It’s not only mammals that thrive in the cork oak montados and the cork oak forests of the Iberian Peninsula are the ideal habitat for millions of birds such as kestrels, owls, herons and smaller birds such as robins and thrushes. In fact, the beautiful Spanish Imperial Eagle is endemic to the cork oak forests of Iberia.
The Spanish Imperial Eagle, or Iberian Imperial Eagle, is considered Vulnerable by the IUCN and is a focus of the WWF. Threats include a loss of habitat, collisions with pylons, and declining numbers in the eagle’s main prey, rabbits.
By the 1960s the Spanish Imperial Eagle had become critically endangered with only 30 breeding pairs remaining. Thankfully, conservations efforts have allowed the population to recover and there is now an estimated 485 breeding pairs of Spanish Imperial Eagles.
The species has also recolonised Portugal after being absent for over 20 years with populations in both Spain and Portugal increasing. With continued conservation efforts, the Spanish Imperial Eagle should continue to see its population grow.
5. Barbary Macaque
The Barbary macaque is a species of macaque that is unique for being the only macaque to be found outside of Asia. The Barbary macaque makes its home in the cork oak forests of the Atlas Mountains of Algeria and Morocco, as well as a small population that was introduced to Gibraltar.
The Barbary macaque is listed as endangered by the IUCN and its population is under increasing threat from logging, overgrazing and poaching and the illegal trading of these animals as pets. The remaining populations in Africa are also extremely fragmented and isolated.
The Barbary macaque makes their home in the cedar and cork oak forests of the Atlas mountains in Morroco and Algeria. However, due to increasing human presence these forests are suffering from over-exploitation from logging and overgrazing from livestock, leaving the forests fragmented and dwindling.
The Barbary macaque is also poached for live specimens to be sold as pets in an illegal pet trade and the use in tourism. Local farmers also see the species as a pest and often engage in their extermination. The preservation of the Barbary macaque depends on the continued preservation of their forest habitat in Morroco and Algeria as well as the continued effort to stop illegal poaching and use in tourism.
Why Cork is Helpful to Wildlife Conservation
The common threat to each of these vulnerable or endangered species is the continued loss of habitat. With so many endangered species making their home in the cork oak forests of Spain, Portugal and North Africa it is clearly necessary to preserve, if not increase, these cork forests to prevent the continued loss of habitat.
The cork oak forests are one of the best examples of the balance between wildlife conservation and the development of land for the benefit of humans. Not only do they support a rich biodiversity, but they also provide locals with a traditional means of earning a livelihood. In addition, cork oak forests also play a fundamental role in water retention, soil conservation, preventing forest fires and carbon sequestration.
It is essential that we continue to encourage the growth of cork oak forests across Iberia and North Africa buy choosing sustainable cork products when we have the choice. Cork is a completely natural and sustainable material and can be used to create a wide range of products from wine corks to handbags. If you are interested in learning more about how cork is harvested, visit our What Is Cork page.