March 9, 2005

Rare European Cat in Danger of Extinction

LISBON (AFP) -- The Iberian lynx, a big cat found only in Spain and Portugal, remains "critically endangered" and is at risk of becoming the first large feline to become extinct since pre-historic times, a conservation group warned in a new study.

There are as few as 100 to 120 of the leopard-spotted cats in the wild, including around a dozen breeding-age females, from about 100,000 at the beginning of the 20th century, the report by SOS Lynx found.

Hunting, road deaths, and most of all a sharp drop due to disease in wild rabbits, the lynx's main prey, has led to disappearance of the cat, it said.

"It is not in Africa, Latin America or Asia where the first big cat extinction in modern times is likely to occur, but within the borders of the rich, supposedly 'developed' and environmentally-friendly European Union," wrote the report's author, British conservation consultant Dan Ward.

The nocturnal cat, which can grow to about one meter (three feet) long and weigh about 13 kilograms (29 pounds) -- about the size of a domestic dog -- lives in scrub forest in southern Portugal and southwestern Spain, near some of Europe's most popular tourist resorts.

Viable breeding populations however only exist now in two locations in Spain, and the up to 40 cats found in one of them, in Donana National Park, could dissapear in the next few years, Ward said.

"Only 4-8 cubs were born there this year and the population is not being well managed, is still declining and is already too small, fragmented and isolated to be recovered in the future without drastic intervention," he wrote.

The other breeding population found at a park in Andujar is more stable, with around 80 mature individuals, but this group is under threat from plans to build two motorways in the aera as well as from increased urbanisation, the report said.

Measures proposed by the report include legislating to protect the animal's habitat from intensive agriculture and urbanisation, decreasing speed limits around the two existing breeding grounds, and restoring the wild rabbit population.

An expansion of the fledgling captive lynx breeding program is also needed, according to the study.

There are currently 12 lynxes in captivity -- including four females -- spread over several centres in Spain and the goal is to increase this number to 70 by 2010 when reintroductions into the wild could begin.

Conservationists are optimistic that the first lynx bred in captivity may be born this spring, the report said.

The Iberian Lynx is classified as critically endangered -- the highest category of endangerment for an animal still found in the wild -- by the World Conservation Union.