Massive investment efforts might not be enough to save the world's most endangered big cat. Blame climate change: According to a new study out of the University of Copenhagen, climate change is ravaging the remaining home of the world's last 250 Iberian lynxes.
I lived for four months in Almonte, Spain, one of the last remaining natural habitats for the Iberian Lynx, the world's most endangered big cat. I worked at a school called "El Lince" and visited Donana National Park, where they live: The only people who had seen a lynx had seen them run over on the side of the road.
Along A-483, a winding road that stretches the 20 miles between Almonte and Spain's Atlantic coast, signs for the lynxes warn drivers to watch for lynxes. But they have become such a rare sight that last year, a Spanish newspaper warned that there are more lynxes that have been turned into rugs or had their heads mounted on walls than are currently living in the wild.
The lynx is one of the world's smaller big cats: As adults, they only weigh about 25 pounds and are only a couple feet tall. Until the mid 1980s, Iberian lynxes roamed through most of Andalucia and parts of southern Portugal. They even lived in a few parts of northern Spain. But decimation of its natural habitat and cuts to the rabbit population, which is preys on, have made it one of the world' most endangered felines. Development in the area, as I mentioned earlier, has led to lots of lynx being killed by cars. Over a two week period earlier this year, three lynxes were killed by cars in Andalucia.
Just last week, researchers at Donana announced the number of wild lynxes has increased from 94 to 312 due to programs dedicated to reintroducing them into the wild. Nearly 100 million euro have been spent by the Spanish government and conservation groups trying to save the animal. But those programs might not be enough, according to Miguel Araujo, of the Center for Macroecology, Evolution and Climate at the Natural History Museum of Denmark. According to a climate model there, drier climates in the south of Spain threaten to further decimate the rabbit population, which could spell the end for lynxes, at least in that area of the world.
"Our models show that the anticipated climate change will lead to a rapid and dramatic decline of the Iberian lynx and probably eradicate the species within 50 years, in spite of the present-day conservation efforts," he says. "The only two populations currently present, will not be able to spread out or adapt to the changes in time."
Doñana itself is a protected area, but for years, the lynx lived in the surrounding area, an area that Miguel Rodrigues, of Portugal's SOS Lynx, says has been decimated in recent years.
"Sadly, besides some pine woods, most of this habitat has disappeared all around the Natural park," he says. "There are some unconfirmed sightings in other areas, including Algarve e Alentejo, in Portugal. The lynx lived there until very recently and probably still roams, almost unnoticed."
The Spanish government and conservation agencies such as SOS Lynx and Life Lince have done their best to save the cat: The fine for poaching one is a 20-month prison term and a 115,000 euro fine. Last August, the Estación Biológica de Doñana announced it had sequenced the genome of the lynx in order to learn more about how they could artificially increase the species' genetic diversity.
And there is some hope: Araujo says that the lynx could potentially fare better farther north, in places such as France, where the wine industry could actually save it. Cork trees provide an ideal habitat for both lynxes and rabbits. Reintroduction efforts could soon be started there. So wine lovers, keep it up and you could potentially save one of the world's most threatened cats.