Conservationists can ensure the world’s rarest wild cat escapes extinction by doing one simple thing, say researchers — but they need to do it soon.
What’s the secret? Start factoring in the effects of climate change when deciding how to save endangered species, says a new study. For the Iberian lynx, the most endangered wild feline of all, conservationists had better hurry. There are only 300 or so left in the wild.
The Iberian lynx lives now only in two small areas of Spain’s Andalusian region. At one time it was plentiful throughout Spain, Portugal and southern France. Years of habitat loss, poaching and a diminished food supply have decimated its numbers. Should it become extinct, the Iberian lynx will be the first wild cat to do so in 2,000 years.
Despite aggressive conservation efforts, including a captive breeding program, today the Iberian lynx is just barely holding on. The good news is that lynx population numbers are up from 94 two decades ago to 312 today, thanks to years of dedicated effort.
The bad news is that if conservationists don’t adjust their current management plans – which this study says fail to account for the effects of climate change – this wild cat may be lost forever.
Anticipated climate change impacts “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,” the study, published in July in the journal Nature Climate Change, concluded.
How Exactly Do We Factor in the Effects of Climate Change?
Here’s the key: Don’t focus on the lynxes, focus on the rabbits. According to researchers, the Iberian lynx depends on the European rabbit as a primary food source. In fact, 90 percent of the lynx’s diet is rabbit. Adults need to eat a rabbit a day. A female feeding cubs needs three rabbits a day.
Unfortunately, the effects of climate change are destroying the rabbits’ habitat in southern Spain, pushing them to move farther north in search of food and more favorable conditions. This study concludes that there won’t be enough rabbits to support any substantial growth in the lynx population in the Andalusian region.
Over $123 million have been spent to date trying to repopulate the Iberian lynx and reintroduce it into this area, which is its original range. That’s the problem, according to the study. Researchers say the lynxes need to be introduced to locations targeted by their food source to give the species any real chance of survival.
“If you do what you’re currently doing, you’d end up with an extinct animal in the wild by the end of the century,” Miguel Bustos Araujo, co-author of the study, told LiveScience. “If you take climate change into account, the population increases from 300 to 800 by the end of the century.”
If conservationists must pay attention to where the rabbits are likely to relocate, how do they determine where that’s going to be? The researchers behind this study think they know how to do it.
Eco Modeling Suggests the Best Location
The research team figured out where the rabbits will be going by using ecological models. Employing a technique called “coupled niche-population models,” they integrated Iberian lynx range dynamics with that of the European rabbit.
Incorporating variables like rainfall, mean temperature, behavior data and habitat mapping, the researchers determined that the northern half of the Iberian Peninsula presents the likeliest location for successful reintroduction of the lynx.
Rabbits will be more abundant in this area because the habitat will be better. The area is likewise highly suitable for the lynx in other ways. It’s a perfect fit for both species.
The challenge now is to incorporate these findings into the existing management plan for the Iberian lynx so its numbers can truly rebound. The lynx conservation work done to date has been nothing short of exemplary. It has brought the species back from the very edge of extinction and tripled the population in 20 years.
The effort can’t stop there, according to this study. The researchers say they have demonstrated for the first time “why considering prey availability, climate change and their interaction in models is important when designing policies to prevent future biodiversity loss.”
Including climate change considerations as another factor in this effort could make the difference between saving the Iberian Lynx or watching the species disappear into history.
Photo Credit: http://www.lynxexsitu.es / via Wikimedia Commons