Small Signs of Hope for World's Most Endangered Cat


An Iberian lynx. Photo: Programa de Conservación Ex-situ del Lince Ibérico / Wikimedia Commons.

The woodlands and pastures of southern Spain once provided fertile hunting ground for the Iberian lynx, but habitat destruction, loss of prey, and trapping diminished the population of the reclusive feline dramatically, to just 100 animals a decade ago, making it the most endangered cat in the world. Now, thanks to a combination of political action, high-tech monitoring, and improved public awareness, the lynx is making a slow, if not always steady, comeback in Andalusia.

>> WATCH SLIDESHOW: Cutest Endangered AnimalsLaunched in 2003, the Lynx Life project "has since raised the animal's population, through carefully orchestrated reintroductions, to more than 300," The Guardian reported this week. A key component of the program is the Olivilla breeding center, where 32 lynxes are housed and "monitored by more than 100 cameras dotted round the center's 20 enclosures. These images are studied by staff working in a control room that has enough TV monitors to do justice to a particle accelerator," according to the paper.

Threatened By Hunting, Habitat Loss, Food Supply Shortages
Staff at the center stock the grounds with rabbit, lynxes' favorite food, track released animals, and provide assistance to the cats if necessary. Outside Olivilla, members of the Lynx Life project are busy lobbying the Andalusian government, which has introduced laws restricting snare-laying, and educating owners of hunting estates about why they should protect the animal.

Lynxes' penchant for rabbits made them vulnerable when the smaller animals were hit hard by two major disease outbreaks in the 20th century. The loss of prey compounded the impact of habitat destruction and snares set by landowners to trap foxes. As The Guardian points out, a healthy lynx population serves as a natural check on foxes, something the Lynx Life team has worked hard to convince local residents about.

Captive-Bred Animals Being Reintroduced To Wild
Both animals bred in captivity and some of those found roaming the scrubland of the Sierra Morena, home to Spain's last relatively healthy lynx population, are being relocated to other areas in hopes that they will establish new populations. To boost their chances, Lynx Life is introducing rabbits to those areas and trying to set up conditions under which the prey will thrive:

"To create homes for rabbits, we prune trees and shrubs of their branches, lay these down to cover the ground and the rabbits start to make their homes underneath them," says Simon Miguel, the leader of Lynx Life. Pruning trees ... also improves the growth of nuts and fruits so deer and boar have more to eat, another factor that has begun to make the project popular with landowners.

Bringing an animal back from the brink of extinction doesn't come easy, of course. A couple of lynxes at one of the breeding centers died due to an outbreak of kidney disease that may still pose a threat to other animals. Lynxes that were reintroduced into the wild have been killed by traps, poison, cars, or even shootings, according to a former volunteer with a lynx conservation program who commented on the Guardian article.

The captive cats, though, continue to give birth amid hopes that their offspring will grow up in the wild. Perhaps almost as important, tourists are starting to come to the area to try to catch sight of an Iberian lynx, showing locals that protecting the cat could mean a boost in their fortunes as well.

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Tags: Animals | Cats | Conservation | Endangered Species | Spain

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