Conservationists are celebrating after sighting a young mountain lion they did not know existed amid a tiny, threatened population of the animals in the hills around Los Angeles.
Wildlife experts were amazed both that they had not previously spotted the animal and that it was alive at all. The kitten survived a spate of recent deaths that killed its four siblings.
On Friday, the National Park Service (NPS) released video footage of the mountain lion kitten in the wild, mewing and approaching the carcass of a deer killed by the its mother.
The kitten’s siblings, from a litter born earlier this year, came to a grisly end, two being cannibalized by an adult male and the other two apparently killed by unspecified predators, the Los Angeles Times reported.
But conservationists followed the mother and discovered her surviving offspring just days ago, having set up motion-activated cameras.
The small community of mountain lions, also known as cougars or pumas, in the Santa Monica mountains is essentially trapped on a fragment of preserved wild land bounded by freeways, including the 10-lane Interstate 101.
The population was believed to be only around 15 strong. But as of Saturday, it is understood to be at least 16.
“It’s a cause for celebration because there is one more to count in that struggling population,” Beth Pratt-Bergstrom of the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) told the Guardian on Saturday.
Pratt-Bergstrom works on a conservation project to save the lions and is running a campaign to try to fund the biggest “wildlife bridge” in the world, which will allow the animals to cross the 10-lane freeway that currently stops them seeking the territory they instinctively need to thrive.
The group is threatened by inbreeding, highway deaths and rat poison, Pratt-Bergstrom said, adding that the lack of sufficient territory leads to incest and males killing offspring, further weakening the gene pool.
“This happens among mountain lions, but much more so in this group,” she said. “The mountain lion population in California in general is OK, but this group of lions is not OK.”
It has not yet been established whether the newly sighted kitten is male or female. Experts will now attempt to capture the youngster briefly, so it can be injected with a tracking chip and released.
A video posted to Facebook by the Santa Monica Mountains national recreation area (click for playback). Contains some grisly images of a deer.
Fatal clashes between the mountain lions and humans are rare. Three people have been killed by mountain lions in California in the last 30 years – Pratt-Bergstrom pointed out that 700 people die every year in traffic accidents, just in LA County.
The NWF, NPS and an agency called the Santa Monica Mountain Conservancy are working with the state transportation authority and numerous other partners to try to raise the $50m that will be needed to construct the wildlife bridge.
Pratt-Bergstrom hopes the Santa Monica mountain lion group will survive to see it come to fruition, ideally within five years. The group has an estimated three adult males.
“Without this corridor, the population could collapse and we are watching closely to see if it can survive long enough, without losing more individuals, especially the males,” she said.
Pratt-Bergstrom said she hoped the kitten might be a male, to add to the gene pool.
This article was first published by The Guardian on 20 Dec 2015.