EU accused of driving rare lynx to extinction

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The Independent Online

The European Union stands accused of flouting its own environmental directives by approving a dam in southern Spain that threatens to drive the endangered Iberian lynx to extinction. The charge coincides with the arrival in Spain tomorrow of the EU Environment Commissioner, Margot Wallstrom, to launch an ambitious biodiversity initiative.

The La Brena dam near Cordoba in Andalucia is to be expanded fourfold with EU funding, carving through the last important breeding ground of the elusive feline, described by naturalists as Europe's most endangered mammal.

Biologists at the World Wide Fund for Nature say fewer than 200 lynxes remain in Spain, compared with 1,000 in 1990, and their survival hangs on efforts to repopulate dwindling communities and protect remaining animals. "The lynx's situation is critical. This is our last chance to save it, that's why we're making such an effort," says Luis Suarez, a Spanish WWF activist.

Some 100 lynxes live around Andujar, roaming the wild and craggy scrubland of the Sierra Morena that spans the region. Up to 50 remain in the Coto Donaña wetlands to the south-west. Their survival depends on links between the two groups, to prevent genetic weakening through inbreeding. The dam will obstruct one of the last corridors of contact, condemning the fragmented colonies to probable extinction.

La Brena was built in the 1960s to harness the River Guadiato for farmers in a region that rarely sees rain in the summer. But, says Javier Reina, regional spokesman for Ecologists in Action, Cordoba has 15 dams and needs no more. Conservation measures and repairing water pipes could save the amount of water the expanded dam is supposed to supply.

"Water is squandered by wasteful irrigation: olive groves don't need it, and maize rots in flooded fields. Meanwhile 60 per cent of Andalucia's water is lost through leaking pipes," Mr Reina said.

Caroline Lucas, an MEP for Britain's Green Party, surveyed the hillsides of cork-oaks, almond trees and flowering rosemary, perfect lynx habitat that would be submerged by the enlarged reservoir: "This is one of the region's most beautiful and protected ecosystems, and we should be critical of the enormous ecological cost of the new dam. Funding such a project infringes EU laws and makes a mockery of its environmental legislation."

The threatened area is a special conservation area within a natural park, a bird protection area, a Unesco biosphere reserve and a site listed for the EU's Nature2000 protection scheme. Conservationists have reached agreements with local landowners to introduce rabbits - lynxes' main prey - into estates covering more than 600 square miles, and to build enclosures that protect rabbits from deer and goats but allow lynxes to come and go.

"We must negotiate, but landowners are co-operating," said Rafael Cadenas, a regional environmentalist responsible for lynx protection. "There is European awareness that the lynx should survive, but if we're to save it, it must be within four years. We can't advance if the EU funds projects that destroy its habitat."