The most endangered cat species in the world, the Iberian Lynx, is slowly clawing its way back from the brink of extinction. One hundred years ago, there were about 100,000 of these cats in the wilds of Spain and Portugal. By 2002, the population had dropped to barely 150. If it were to become extinct, it would be the first feline species since the sabre-tooth tiger to do so.
The Iberian Lynx is a striking cat, with distinctive leopard-like spots. They can grow to about three feet long and 33 pounds. The lynx has four sets of whiskers: two groups on the ears and two on the chin that it uses to sense its prey.
Its decline has been attributed to habitat destruction, hunting, and a precipitous decline in the population of wild rabbits, the Lynxs primary source of food. A male requires one rabbit per day; nursing females need three.
The recent success in building its numbers is due to efforts at a captive breeding program in Doana National Park in southern Spain.
Dr Astrid Vargas has been running the program since December 2003. She started with four females and one male. There are now 77 of the lynxes in captivity.
Dr Vargas is no stranger to saving endangered species. She has worked on programs to save the black-footed ferret and the Mexican wolf in the United States and the Siberian tiger in Russia. She says that her work is “satisfying and very terribly tiring”.
“When you are responsible for a lot of live animals that are critically endangered you never disconnect. It’s day and night.”
Earlier this summer, a record 17 surviving cubs were born in captivity in Doana and in another breeding center in La Olivilla.
Captive breeding presents unique challenges with this species. Siblings become violent toward one another between 30 and 60 days of age, with the peak at about 45 days. Cubs frequently kill their littermates, though no one knows exactly why. One of Dr Vargas first surviving sets of cubs was killed in such a fight in 2005.
Vargas says that she has now reached her goal of the 30 adult males and 30 adult females necessary to begin reintroducing the species to the wild.
“We are now two years ahead of schedule of the growth projections for the captive breeding progam. The next big challenge is to prepare the captive-born animals for their survival in the wild,” she said. There are plans to add two more breeding centers to accommodate their growing numbers.
Introduction of the captive-bred cats into the wild will begin next year.
You can see Iberian Lynxes up close and purrsonal on their webcams. Click here to view.
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