Conservationists warn that a big cat population in Europe is destined to collapse unless immediate efforts are made to protect the animals.
Researchers estimate there are 120 to 150 adult lynxes in France. Tests on the animals show that the cats’ genetic diversity is so low they will become locally extinct within the next 30 years unless there is urgent intervention.
Historically lynxes have ranged across the expanse of Eurasia, but the elusive animals have come under intense pressure in many countries from habitat loss, inbreeding, poaching, and traffic collisions.
In the 18th century, lynxes vanished from France entirely. After a re-introduction project in Switzerland in the 1970s some Eurasian lynxes moved across the border to France and re-established themselves in the Jura mountains. But the population failed to reach sufficient numbers to make it stable.
Scientists at the Centre Athenas, a wildlife protection centre in eastern France, collected 88 DNA samples from injured, dead, or orphaned lynxes between 2008 and 2020 and were able to analyse 78 to form a picture of the population’s genetic health. To avoid distress to the animals the team did not obtain samples from healthy wild lynxes.
The tests revealed an alarming lack of genetic diversity. Although researchers believe there are more than 120 adult lynxes in France, the population has a level of diversity equivalent to only 38 animals. “This population has lost a lot of genetic diversity since it was reintroduced in Switzerland,” said Nathen Huvier, an author on the study. “If no new genetic material is reintroduced this population will go extinct, once again, in less than 30 years.”
Writing in Frontiers in Conservation Science the researchers describe how the DNA from the lynxes reveals a devastating level of inbreeding, with two mating cats now extremely likely to be closely related.
“A lack of genetic diversity can reduce the fitness of the individuals, generate diseases and reduce the ability of the individuals to adapt to environmental changes,” Huvier said. A population that presented those characteristics “was not able to evolve” so was vulnerable to collapse, he added.
As an apex predator the lynx was a keystone species in the local ecosystem, Huvier said. One way to bolster the population’s genetic diversity was to introduce more lynxes from healthier groups, such as those in Switzerland or Germany. But such introduction projects were politically difficult, Huvier said.
Another approach could be to replace poached lynxes and exchange orphaned lynx cubs being cared for at wildlife rescue centres in various regions. At the same time the researchers want to see strict enforcement of poaching laws, and road signs warning drivers of the presence of lynxes to reduce the number killed by traffic.
“We want this work to support action for lynx conservation,” said Huvier. “Reintroduction, replacement of poached lynxes, and exchange of orphan lynxes between care centres, are the best short-term solutions for this population to remain alive, and it will give it a chance to develop and connect with other populations in Europe.”
This article by Ian Sample was first published by The Guardian on 13 February 2023. Lead Image: Young Eurasian lynx. In France the lynx population has a level of genetic diversity equivalent to only 38 animals. Photograph: Arterra Picture Library/Alamy.
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