The Iberian Lynx Can the World's Most Endangered Cat Still Be Saved?

Without help, the Iberian lynx could become the first cat species to go extinct since the saber-toothed tiger. A breeding program in Spain has begun a race against time.

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Boj is sitting on a cork panel, calmly consuming the rabbit that was put out for her. The female lynx licks her whiskers enthusiastically.

Everything is going according to plan. Next door, in a blue-and-white building surrounded by pine trees, scientists and keepers, using cameras, monitor every movement and every lick of the chops in the enclosure. The critical moment is approaching when Boj, sleepy after eating her meal, will lie down on the cork panel for a little snooze. The animal will have to remain there for at least 30 minutes so that the insects hidden in the cork can do their work.

The researchers are using the parasites to obtain samples of the lynx's blood. This is the only way to tell whether Boj is pregnant. They know that she has copulated with various males, because it was caught on film. But anaesthetizing the animal and removing blood with a syringe would put Boj under too much stress -- hence the trick with the blood-sucking insects.

Boj isn't the only lynx under observation. Around the clock, volunteers sit in front of the surveillance monitors at the El Acebuche breeding station in southern Spain's Coto de Doñana National Park. They keep records on 56 Iberian lynxes -- animals which copulate only rarely, occasionally fight and spend the lion's share of their time eating or sleeping. Which makes Boj's upcoming nap all the more tantalizing. The species, after all, is close to extinction -- and the only way for it to survive is for the animals in Coto de Doñana to reproduce.

Shy Predators

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has declared the Iberian lynx, sometimes referred to as the Pardel lynx, as the world's most endangered feline species. Its eyes are amber or green, and it has bushy whiskers and decorative dark tufts of hair on its ears. Only about half the size of the Eurasian lynx, it is still twice as large as the domestic cat. Its favorite meal is the wild rabbit, and it shows little interest in other types of food.

The range of the Iberian lynx.
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The range of the Iberian lynx.

At the beginning of the last century, thousands of these shy predators roamed the Iberian Peninsula. Today, the last 200 specimens are fighting for survival in two fragmented regions of Andalucia. In recent decades, epidemics have decimated the rabbit population. In addition, humans have progressively sliced up and destroyed their habitat.

The Doñana reserve on the Costa de la Luz in southwestern Spain, a vast coastal marshland with swamps, shifting sand dunes, pine and cork oak forests, where the Guadalquivir River flows into the Atlantic, is one of the last refuges for the Iberian lynx. But even this nature paradise is dissected by highways only halfheartedly protected with fences. Furthermore, it is being encroached upon by adjacent tourist developments. But agriculture poses the biggest problem. In the last few decades, protected forests have repeatedly been cleared and the land transformed into strawberry plantations.

The last time a feline species became extinct on the planet was 10,000 years ago, when the saber-toothed tiger died out. When the IUCN experts sounded the alarm in 2002 and warned that the Iberian lynx could be next, Spain embarked on a large-scale program to save the species. In addition to El Acebuche, there is a second breeding station in Andalucia, and others are planned. The European Union plans to spend several million euros in the coming years to re-establish lynx habitats.

'Don't You Think She Looks Fat?'

Boj gets up, sniffs the air and takes a few hesitant steps. Then she lies down and stretches out on the floor next to the cork panel. Astrid Vargas groans loudly: "She has to be pregnant! Don't you think she looks fat?"

Vargas, 44, the director of the breeding station, is a petite, energetic woman of Spanish and Puerto Rican heritage. She knows the life story and character of each individual lynx in her care. "Boj was eight months old and very thin when she was captured in the northeastern section of the national park," says Vargas. "They thought she was a male at first, hence the odd name."

Boj is the Spanish word for boxwood tree. The other female lynxes have melodious names like Artemisa, Brisa or Córdoba. Vargas looks at the monitor. Boj is still lying on the ground, half-comatose. "I like her a lot. She has personality."

Vargas, a trained veterinarian, has a soft spot for complicated cases. She has been fighting for the endangered big cat for more than five years. "We play a role-model function for developing countries," she says. "If we cannot manage to save an endangered species here, we can hardly expect it to be done elsewhere."

The first three lynxes were born in captivity in El Acebuch in 2005, and two of them survived. Three years later, the station already boasted 14 young animals. Prior to that, the staff had had practically no experience with breeding, and all early attempts had failed. Vargas used her international contacts to find the best specialists. They include biologist Katarina Jewgenow of the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research in Berlin, an expert on feline reproductive biology.

Enough Space in Nature

Jewgenow and her colleague, Beate Braun, are now waiting anxiously for the blood. The two scientists came to Spain to conduct a pregnancy analysis among the adult females. In the process, the Germans will help the Spanish take safety precautions during the upcoming births.

The staff is currently on high alert, because some lynx mothers kill or reject their young immediately after birth. Last spring, Boj bit one of her three kittens to death, and then rejected the second one on the same day and the third one after nine days. If scientists and conservationists hope to save the Iberian lynx, they will have to act quickly.

One good sign is that space is getting tight in the cats' enclosures. The first animals will be released into the wild next year, but only "if the habitat is ready by then," Vargas warns. All complications aside, breeding lynxes in captivity is still much easier than providing them with enough space out in nature.

But the experts are optimistic that the last, critical phase in their bid to save the Iberian lynx will succeed. "Spain has given the EU its commitment to develop protected areas in the future that will be suitable for lynxes and rabbits," says Urs Breitenmoser, director of the IUCN's Cat Specialist Group. "I have high hopes for the implementation of these plans."

At least 10 female lynxes in the two breeding stations will give birth in the coming weeks and months. Perhaps Boj will be one of them. Her pregnancy test came back positive.

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