Breakthrough in efforts to save Europe's last big cat

Elizabeth Nash
Friday 28 March 2008 01:00

An Iberian lynx has produced her fourth consecutive litter in captivity, confirming the success of Spain's captive breeding programme in its attempt to save Europe's most endangered mammal from extinction.

But the latest birth presents a new problem, that of inbreeding that could weaken the gene pool, and the fate of Europe's last big cat still hangs by a thread. One scientist recently rated the lynx's chances of long-term survival in Spain's southern wetlands at no more than 5 per cent.

Saliega, the lynx taken from the wild in 2004 to inaugurate the captive breeding programme near Huelva in Andalucia, produced three cubs at the weekend. They followed the arrival last Thursday of two produced by Saliega's daughter, Brisa.

One of Saliega's cubs subsequently died. Of Brisa's two cubs, one was born dead and the other, rejected by the mother, is being bottle-fed and said to be critical. Both Saliega and Brisa are expected to conceive again.

Born in Andalucia's Sierra Morena in 2002, Saliega was the weak third of the litter. In 75 per cent of Iberian lynx births, only two members of the litter survive. A month later, Saliega was brought to the captive breeding centre in the Coto Doñana wetlands. But Saliega's reproductive success carries a potential danger: about 200 wild Iberian lynxes inhabit the Andalucian wetlands, so an eventual influx of Saliega's children and grandchildren could produce inbreeding.

Organisers of the project, now renamed the Ex-Situ Conservation Programme, plan to take measures to limit the danger of consanguinity. "One of our main objectives is to maximise the genetic representation of the species in the captive population," to prevent weakening of the gene pool by inbreeding, said Astrid Vargas, the project's director. Cubs from different females will be introduced to prevent Saliega's fertility from posing any danger, said Ms Vargas. "That way, the genetic representation of the founders of the captive colony will balance out in the long term."

Luis Suarez, a spokesman for Spain's wildlife protection organisation WWF/Adena, said: "The effects of consanguinity take time to become obvious, but can be easily sorted out. It's not difficult to reverse the process by simply introducing a male from outside."

The more serious long-term problem is to protect the lynxes' natural habitat so that eventually they can be safely reintroduced into the wild. "It seems to contradict common sense that thanks to the Ex-Situ breeding programme we are increasing the numbers of lynxes to recolonise new habitats, but we are unable to prevent the disappearance of the lynx population in their native Doñana," said Mr Suarez.

Scientists plan to bring in lynxes from the smaller colony further east, near Cordoba, to refresh the gene pool. When 60 lynxes of reproductive age have been produced in captivity, the plan is to release them gradually into the wild, after 2010. But their long-term survival depends on whether the habitat has been protected from feline leukaemia, forest fires, road accidents, hunting, intensive farming and the encroachment of tourism. "There is a 95 per cent probability that the Iberian lynx will disappear from the Doñana national park, and become extinct within 32 years," said Francisco Palomares, a scientist at the Doñana Biological Station last November.

Saliega, though, will never be free, and will enjoy her retirement behind the breeding programme protective wire fence: "She's too vulnerable, and would certainly die in the wild," admitted Mr Suarez.

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