July 22, 2013, by Tim Radford
Both the numbers and the range of the lynx have plummeted: It needs urgent help
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE Only human intervention can avert the threat that climate change will drive the Iberian lynx to extinction in the wild within about 50 years, scientists say. LONDON, 22 July – Climate change could be about to extinguish the world’s most endangered cat. As rabbit populations dwindle in the wilder parts of the Iberian peninsula, so do the chances of survival for their predator, the Iberian lynx. Most of the world’s wild felines are in trouble, but Lynx pardinus earned its unwelcome distinction in 2008 when – despite decades of conservation effort – its population fell to about 160 animals, in two locations, when only a decade before there had been at least nine surviving populations. Miguel Araújo of the National Museum of Natural Sciences in Madrid, Spain and colleagues report in Nature Climate Change that they took a model of predator-prey numbers specially designed for the lynx and ran it through a series of climate model simulations to see how the creature fared. The answer is it fared badly. Eighty per cent of the lynx’s natural diet is rabbit, and although rabbits are widely considered to be prolific pests in many parts of Europe, the combination of overhunting, introduced and natural infection has left the rabbit population in the peninsula impoverished. The researchers then factored in management intervention as a component of the research – because across Africa, Asia and the Americas, big cat survival now depends on human intervention, including captive breeding, capture and relocation to protected reserves.
“The message is: don’t think about conservation without also thinking about climate change”
They found that “anticipated climate change will rapidly and severely decrease lynx abundance and probably lead to its extinction in the wild within 50 years, even with strong global efforts to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions.” That is because climate change will outpace the cat’s ability to find new and more suitable hunting grounds That is the bad news. The good news is that the same models told them that a carefully planned programme of reintroductions to the wild from captivity could avert extinction of the lynx this century provided that conservators took into account the availability of prey, and climate change, and the interaction of these two factors. The message is: don’t think about conservation without also thinking about climate change. The lynx once roamed over more than 40,000 square kilometres of Spain and Portugal. By 2005, its range was down to 1,200 sq kms. Recent reports suggest numbers have edged up from the all-time low of 160 to 250, but this is a small return for the estimated 94 million Euros so far spent on conservation. The researchers have identified 40 discrete areas of habitat suitable for potential colonisation by lynxes in 2050; but without human help the cats are unlikely to reach these safety zones. In which case, as researchers warned in 2008, without human help the Iberian lynx is likely to become the first cat to go extinct since the sabre-toothed tiger 10,000 years ago. – Climate News Network
Tim Radford, a founding editor of Climate News Network, worked for The Guardian for 32 years, for most of that time as science editor. He has been covering climate change since 1988.