Tue, Mar 22, 2011 - Page 16 News List

Face to face with the missing lynx

Ten years ago, there were barely 100 Iberian lynx left. But now, thanks to an innovative conservation program and generous funding, this beautiful creature has been rescued from the edge of extinction

By Robin McKie  /  The Observer, London

A female lynx and her cubs are pictured at the captive breeding center at the Donana National Park, southern Spain.

Photo: AFP

It took a very short time for Dactil the Iberian lynx to prepare his dinner. The four-year-old male clamped his jaws on a rabbit’s throat, there were a few twitches of his prey’s legs and it was all over. Within minutes, the rabbit had been consumed. Then Dactil wandered off to rejoin his mate, Castanuela, inside their enclosure at the Olivilla breeding center, near Santa Elena in Andalucia.

Such behavior is difficult to observe in the wild. For a start, Lynx pardinus is a reclusive hunter that leads its life as far as possible from humans. The lynx, with its distinctive large, tufted ears and woolly side whiskers that grow thicker with age, is also extremely rare. Its territory across Spain and Portugal had already started shrinking in the 19th century, before numbers plunged drastically in the 20th. Habitat destruction, loss of prey and indiscriminate trapping by landowners brought this beautiful predator to the brink of extinction. Ten years ago, there were only around a 100 of them, making the Iberian lynx the world’s most endangered species of cat.

But at Olivilla, an ambitious attempt is being made to transform the animal’s fortunes. Here 32 lynxes — a substantial percentage of their total population — are provided with shelter with each cat’s behavior being 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. “We can see everything they do, which is crucial when the lynx reaches its breeding season in March,” says Olivilla’s director, Maria Jose Perez. “We can help if a mother gets into trouble, for example.”

The high-tech surveillance and assiduous zoological care performed at Olivilla are critical to the work of the Lynx Life project, which was launched in 2003 and has since raised the animal’s population, through carefully orchestrated reintroductions, to more than 300. Zoologists are even talking of moving Lynx pardinus from its category as a “critically endangered” species to “endangered” under the rules of the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

The story of the Iberian lynx project is therefore a modestly happy one — so far, at least — although we should be cautious. The Iberian lynx is a distinctive, beautiful creature and an iconic animal for Andalucia. Yet it has required a monumental effort by dozens of dedicated young ecologists, vets and others staff to pull it back from the brink of oblivion. Dressed in their distinctive dark fatigues, Lynx Life workers zigzag the region in jeeps, replenishing stocks of rabbits for lynxes to eat, tracking released animals and generally maintaining the animal’s wellbeing.

Saving the lynx has also required political action: the introduction of laws in Andalucia to halt indiscriminate snare-laying by landowners; an intense PR campaign aimed at persuading owners of hunting estates to love the lynx; and the expenditure of US$42.5 million — most of it provided by the government of Andalucia — to fund conservation. A further US$70.8 million has been committed for work to reintroduce the lynx to other areas of Spain and Portugal, with the bulk of this coming from the EU.

If the story of the Iberian lynx tells us one thing, it is that saving an endangered mammalian predator from extinction is an extraordinarily difficult, expensive business.

Comments will be moderated. Keep comments relevant to the article. Remarks containing abusive and obscene language, personal attacks of any kind or promotion will be removed and the user banned. Final decision will be at the discretion of the Taipei Times.

TOP top