June 22, 2009

Breeding Program Has Rare Lynx On The Rebound

In the Doñana National Park in the southernmost Spanish community of Andulia, roadside signs abound warning drivers to watch out for wild Iberian Lynxes, one of the rarest species of cats on the planet.

With less than 50 of the endangered felines roaming the park's 134 square miles of protected scrubland, forests and marshes, the chances of actually seeing one of the stealthy creatures is slim at best.

Less than a hundred years ago, there were an estimated 100,000 Iberian Lynxes inhabiting various regions of Spain and Portugal.  Today, the Doñana National Park is one of only two tiny pockets land where the Lynx is known to live in the wild.

Thanks to over-hunting, decrease in prey populations and urban development, experts have estimated that there were less than 150 of the majestic cats still living in the wild in 2002.  Some wildlife experts believe that the medium-sized, spotted Lynxes may become the first feline species in the world to go extinct since the saber-toothed tiger died out some 100,000 years ago.

But in a walled-in compound within the park, a federally sponsored breeding program has been making astonishing progress in rejuvenating the Iberian Lynx population.  Veterinarian Astrid Vargas, a Puerto Rican-American, has been directing the captive breeding program since its inception in December 2003.

The program, which also includes a partner breeding center in La Olivilla, started with four females and one male.  Last month alone, a total of 17 cubs were born, bringing the total of captive lynxes at the two facilities to 77.

Vargas, who also has a PhD in conservation biology, explained that the program has now reached its stated goal of rearing the 30 adult males and 30 adult females needed to begin reintroducing the rare cats back into the wild.

"We are now two years ahead of schedule of the growth projections for the captive breeding program. The next big challenge is to prepare the captive-born animals for their survival in the wild," she said.

Vargas and her colleagues plan to start reintroducing a few of the animals into the wild next year, back into the original areas where they once thrived.  In a separate but connected program, another group of lynxes will be set free into new regions of the country later on in the year.

"The idea is to form a sort of rosary of sites where the animals have corridors that allow exchanges between populations," explained Vargas.

An additional two breeding centers are also in the works according to Vargas.  The two new compounds will be located in southern Portugal and western Spain and will take some of the growing number of lynxes from the increasingly cramped living quarters at the Doñana complex.  Currently, the captive cats inhabit 20 separately fenced-in enclosures where Vargas' team monitors them 24 hours a day through 57 closed-circuit cameras.

Dr. Vargas has developed a special relationship with the cats during her five years at Doñana, though she says that she and her associates try to keep the lynxes' environment as similar to the wild as possible.

"We try to intervene as little as possible, except when they fight," she said, mentioning that one of the cubs of the first surviving litter was killed in a fight with a sibling in 2005.

Vargas and her associates have named every cat at the facility, with the first letters of each name corresponding to the year in which they were born"”Adela and Aliaga belong to the first clutch in 2004, while Fresno and Fernandina were born just this year.

The staff also keeps detailed records of the different behavioral tendencies of each cat, whether aggressive, docile, playful, etc.

Dr. Vargas describes the work as "satisfying and very terribly tiring."  And she's hardly a novice in the field of animal conservation.  She has also worked to save populations of black-footed ferrets and the Mexican wolves in the United States as well as the Siberian tiger in Russia.

"When you are responsible for a lot of live animals that are critically endangered you never disconnect. It's day and night."

The long-term goal of the captive breeding program is to help bring the Iberian Lynx out of the "critically endangered" status bestowed on it by the International Union for Conservation of Nature "” a process that is likely to take at least another 16 years.

And according to Vargas, even this is just one small section of an even larger project.

"Our ultimate very important goal is that we are not working on one single species, we are working on the protection of an endangered habitat, which is the Mediterranean forest and scrubland, and we are using the lynx as the ambassador," she explained.

"[W]e are investing in one animal for the well-being of a whole very important ecosystem that has been hammered for 20 years. It's what is called an umbrella species, because by protecting one species we are protecting a whole area."

Vargas added that it will likely be years before people will again start spotting the lynxes again in the wild, but meanwhile, the public can watch streaming video of the cats at http://icts.ebd.csic.es.

Image Courtesy Wikipedia