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 Tuesday, 7 January, 2003, 16:48 GMT
Iberian lynx 'racing against time'
Lynx pardinus, SPL
The IUCN says the Iberian lynx can be saved

The world's most endangered wild cat species, the Iberian lynx, is fighting a desperate struggle for survival, a global conservation group says.

IUCN, the World Conservation Union, says the lynx can escape extinction, but it is racing against time.

If the lynx does become extinct, it will be the first cat to die out since the sabre-toothed tiger

Peter Jackson, cat specialist
There are fewer than 300 of the animals left in Spain and Portugal, in just two groups.

To help the lynx (Lynx pardinus), the IUCN says the region's rabbit population must also be restored.

There are two other lynx species - the Canadian, about the same size as its Iberian relative, and the Eurasian lynx, roughly twice the size. Neither is endangered.

'One small step'

But in 2002, the IUCN's species survival commission listed the Iberian lynx as critically endangered on the IUCN's Red List of threatened species - the first wild cat to join this risky category.

"From there to extinction requires just one small step", the IUCN says. Its cat specialist group says: "Extinction of the lynx can be averted, but it is a race against time."

It says the highest priority should go to conserving habitat and protecting the rabbit population, the cats' main prey.

It also wants an accelerated captive breeding programme, with at least 12 breeding lynx involved.

The IUCN says the two surviving populations, in Cota Donana and Adujar must be protected and expanded.

It says: "In a critically endangered species, every single lynx is important and should be protected, both in the wild and in captivity."

Private help

Peter Jackson, former chairman of the IUCN's cat specialist group, told BBC News Online: "The captive breeding programme has not managed to do anything yet.

"It had about six animals, though they've now been joined by three more females. What they need is some males.

"We don't know if they will breed successfully in captivity. The lynx has never been kept in zoos.

"Habitat loss is a major threat, including the destruction of the Mediterranean cork oak forests.

"And the rabbit population fell sharply after myxomatosis was introduced to control their numbers. It killed too many of them, and then it was followed by viral haemorrhagic fever.

"So we have to get the rabbits back. A lot of the lynx habitat is privately owned land, and several of the owners are working with the conservation plan.

"If the lynx does become extinct, it will be the first cat to die out since the sabre-toothed tiger - and the last of those died about 10,000 years ago."

See also:

30 Dec 02 | Europe
14 Nov 99 | Science/Nature
07 Oct 02 | Science/Nature
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