The Iberian lynx is the world’s most threatened cat, with recent counts estimating only 250 individuals surviving in the wild. Recent declines of Iberian lynx have been associated with sharp regional reductions in the abundance of its main prey, the European rabbit, caused mainly by myxomatosis virus and rabbit haemorrhagic disease. At present, only two Iberian lynx populations persist in the wild compared with nine in the 1990s.
Over €90 million has been spent since 1994 to mitigate the extinction risk of this charismatic animal, mainly through habitat management, reduction of human-caused mortality and, more recently, translocation. Although lynx abundance might have increased in the last ten years in response to intensive management, a new study published in Nature Climate Change warns that the ongoing conservation strategies could buy just a few decades before the species goes extinct.
The study led by Damien Fordham from The Environment Institute (The University of Adelaide) and Miguel Araújo from the Integrative Biogeography and Global Change Group (Spanish Research Council) shows that climate change could lead to a rapid and severe decrease in lynx abundance in coming decades, and probably result in its extinction in the wild within 50 years. Current management efforts could be futile if they do not take into account the combined effects of climate change, land use and prey abundance on population dynamics of the Iberian Lynx.
This study is the first to model explicitly the trophic interactions of species, such as predators and their prey, in a climate-change setting. Models used to investigate how climate change will affect biodiversity have so far been unable to capture the dynamic and complex feedbacks of species interactions, but by developing new forecasting methods, the researchers have managed, for the first time, to simulate demographic responses of lynx to spatial patterns of rabbit abundance conditioned by disease, climate change, and land-use modification.
The results of the models are both startling and of concern. Habitat in the south west of the Iberian Peninsula, where the two extant populations of lynx persist, is most likely to be inhospitable to lynx by the middle of this century. Current reintroduction plans are targeting the south of Spain and Portugal, but survival of the species in the long term will require reintroductions to ecological refuges at higher latitudes or altitudes within the Iberian Peninsula.
That the numbers of Iberian lynx are currently increasing suggests that relocations and intensive management of habitat and rabbit populations have worked as effective short-term conservation strategies. However, the study concludes that these conservation efforts are likely to be wasted if the effects of climate change are not considered in reintroduction strategies.