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Will big cats bounce back?

October 9, 2005 By Michael Hopkin This article courtesy of Nature News.

Lynx study fuels debate over conservation strategy for top predators

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Conservationists are calling for the reintroduction of lynx to northern Britain, after discovering that humans were responsible for their demise in medieval times. Their evidence has sparked a debate over whether humans have a duty to return large predators to areas where they used to live if we are implicated in their previous downfall.

The Eurasian lynx (Lynx lynx) was thought to have disappeared from the British Isles several thousand years ago, when natural climate shifts turned most of its forest habitat into boggy peatlands. But carbon dating of bones found in caves in Yorkshire, in northern England, suggests that the species was still here 1,500 years ago... and that humans therefore wiped it out.

When you decide to do a reintroduction, you need very good preparation, a lot of money, and a lot of time.
Gerald Dick
World Wildlife Fund
This puts a different spin on their conservation status, argue David Hetherington of the University of Aberdeen and his colleagues, who publish their discovery in the Journal of Quaternary Science1. The European Union habitats directive calls for member countries to consider reintroducing species that have been exterminated by humans, as long as conditions are right for them to return.

That is the case in northern Britain, particularly Scotland, says Hetherington. "Lynx could be a real ally to foresters," he points out. "They prey on pests such as foxes, and could be a real cash cow for the wildlife tourism industry."

Weak lynx

Hetherington and his team believe that the lynx, which is widespread in Siberia but dwindling in Europe, was pushed out of Britain in early medieval times as humans cut down the remaining forests. This hit numbers of roe deer, the lynx's favoured prey, and also left them nowhere to live and hunt.

"The lynx is an ambush hunter, it needs cover," he points out.

Wide-scale forestry in Scotland, combined with improved attitudes to species conservation, might have set the stage for a return, Hetherington hopes. The 20-kilogram cats are shy and secretive, and would not pose a threat to humans or livestock, he says.

The past 35 years has seen several efforts to boost lynx numbers in Europe, and other species have been successfully reintroduced on the continent. More than ten years ago, a small group of brown bears (Ursus arctos) was introduced to the Austrian Alps. They are making encouraging progress. And birds such as the bearded vulture (Gypaetus barbatus) and red kite (Milvus milvus) have also been successfully restored to their former habitats.

Hairy subject

But there may be more pressing problems in conservation, says Gerald Dick, who works for the WWF, formerly the World Wildlife Fund, in Vienna. He argues that monitoring endangered populations should take priority.

A Europe-wide wildlife-monitoring network, planned for 2007, should help with this, he adds. One species in the spotlight will be the Eurasian lynx's sister species, the Iberian lynx, which is perilously close to dying out (see ' Look sharp to save lynx').

Any reintroductions need to be carefully thought through, Dick warns. "When you decide to do it, you need very good preparation. You have to make sure it makes sense scientifically to go ahead, and you need a lot of money, and a lot of time."

Still, a well judged reintroduction can give species a hand in reclaiming their former territory, says Andrew McMullin, a spokesman for the IUCN, a global conservation organization that has published a set of guidelines for such projects.

"You can get animals established in places it would take them hundreds of years to get back to otherwise," says McMullin.


  1. Hetherington D. A., Lord T. C. & Jacobi R. M. J. Quat Sci. , doi:10.1002/jqs.960 (2005).


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