The lynx of Southern Europe is in trouble, and those trying to save them are missing the boat, say researchers who predict climate change will finish what the drop in the lynx’s food supply started, unless there’s a new plan.

The lynx, to Americans, is a kind of bobcat. Iberian lynx numbers have been in freefall largely because humans have been over hunting their primary food, which is rabbits.

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But that might not be what pushes the Iberian lynx to extinction, said Miguel Araújo of the National Museum of Natural Sciences in Madrid, Spain. Climate change could be the death knell for the lynx in the second half of this century. If so, the current conservation efforts will not help them, but only slow their demise.

A new plan is needed to help the rare cats overcome the food scarcity, as well as anticipated climate changes to their habitat in southern Europe, the researchers say.

Araújo and his colleagues used ecological models that included anticipated climate change to investigate the combined effects on prey and conservation efforts for the survival of the Iberian lynx.

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“We show that anticipated climate change will rapidly and severely decrease lynx abundance and probably lead to its extinction in the wild within 50 years, even with strong global efforts to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions,” wrote Araújo and his colleagues in the July 21 edition of the journal Nature Climate Change.

They found that climate change will exceed the cats’ ability to adapt or to reach other areas with a more suitable climate and more prey. They also found that this will be the case whether or not efforts succeed to lower greenhouse gas emissions. It’s not a pretty picture.

But that’s not to say there is no hope.

“In stark contrast, we also show that a carefully planned reintroduction program, accounting for the effects of climate change, prey abundance and habitat connectivity, could avert extinction of the lynx this century,” the researchers concluded, essentially challenging lynx advocates and land managers to consider a new approach.

Photo: The Iberian lynx, with two small and isolated populations and only about 300 individuals left, is considered the most endangered cat in the world. Credit: CSIC Andalusia Audiovisual Bank/ Héctor Garrido