Graham Keeley in Barcelona
Last Updated: 12:24am GMT 11/03/2007
Fluffy-tailed bunny rabbits are about to become the cute, but unsuspecting, victims of the fight to save one of the world's most endangered species.
Scientists in Spain hope a food supplement - in the form of domestic rabbits - may be the key to rescuing the Iberian lynx from the brink of extinction. Most of the 200 remaining lynx live in the Doñana Natural Park in Andalusia, southern Spain, where their main diet is wild rabbit. But a decline in wild rabbit numbers has forced the animal to stray from the park - and into the path of passing motorists - in its search for fresh game. Despite calls to close the number of roads near the national park, wardens said that many of the cats were being run over by cars.
Now Francisco Palomares, head of the lynx project at the Doñana Biological Station, is to release domestic rabbits into the wild as a dietary substitute, in the hope the lynx will take the bait.
"They will not eat dead meat, so there is no point in putting out slaughtered rabbit. We will use domestic rabbits and release them into the wild," he said. "If there are few rabbits, females cannot eat right nor feed their cubs properly."
If lynx numbers fall at current rates, scientists fear the planet's rarest wild cat will be extinct in 10 years. Scientists estimate as many as 35 per cent of the remaining population have now left the Doñana National Park in search of more plentiful food.
The project will evaluate the effects of the supplements on the lynx population growth. However, as sightings of the extremely timid animal are so rare, the only way scientists can be sure the number of these wild cats is rising is by painstakingly counting their droppings.
The Iberian lynx was once found throughout Spain, Portugal and parts of southern France, with a population at the turn of the 20th century estimated at 100,000. But years of over-hunting and the loss of natural habitat to make way for agriculture caused the population to drop dramatically to just a few thousand by the 1980s.
The lynx's scarcity has become a political tool in Spain. Last year, ecologists were accused of faking sightings of lynx droppings near the path of a planned motorway near Madrid in order to stop the bulldozers from moving in.
Environmental groups claim the Iberian lynx will become the "first big cat to die out since the sabre toothed tiger".
They have urged the Spanish government to do more to ensure the lynx is not lost.