Traffic campaign to save Hongo's compatriots
The programme of re-wilding Spain and Portugal with the rare cat, the Iberian lynx, has had a serious stumble, caused by road traffic.
The mini pumas, with their distinctive tufted ears, are being struck by vehicles as they cross roads in search of their principal prey, wild rabbits.
These attractive felines are facing major problems simultaneously: they are forced to make long pioneering journeys in search of food, because rabbit numbers in their 'home' territories have been plummeting due to an outbreak of a debilitating disease.
The world's most endangered spotted cat is dicing with death as it travels through the borderlands of the two countries, straying into the paths of truck convoys and fast motorway traffic. It is estimated that 33pc of lynx deaths have been traffic-related, in a population of little more than 300 animals.
The species re-wilding began with the release of a few animals bred in captivity in 2005. A lynx needs at least one rabbit a day to survive and without enough food breeding tapers off and recovery programmes such as the EU-funded 'Life Interlince' will not progress.
A World Wide Fund for Nature source has expressed fears that 10 years' work will be seriously compromised. The 'Life' programmes have managed to triple the animal population supported by a €35m budget over five years.
The vulnerability of the released animals was highlighted last week with the discovery of a dead male lynx on a roadside near Santarem in northern Portugal. Named 'Hongo', and monitored by a VHF collar, this lynx had travelled an epic journey of hundreds of kilometres from Andalusia in southern Spain without finding a territory in which to settle.
Portugal's Institute for Forest and Nature Conservation said 'Hongo' was "an important specimen as he proved the enormous capacity of the species to overcome barriers and use less favourable habitats between lynx territories in Portugal and Spain."
The animal also "symbolized the good recognition" the species has had with the general public and especially hunters of wild game. Unfortunately, 'Hongo' crossed a highway at the wrong moment. There are no details as to what vehicle may have struck him.
The IFNC states that the principal causes of lynx deaths are road collisions and it has embarked on a national awareness-raising campaign for drivers. This includes mapping and highlighting vulnerable highway stretches and erecting warning signage.
'Life Interlince', which involves 19 groups working for the lynx programme, says it is essential to have a national plan to put a check to the record numbers of animals ending up as road kills. The WWFN says "cars are the greatest threat to the future of the lynx" - 22 were killed on the roads last year, up from two five years earlier.
But what of the rabbits? The Andalusians are to bring back fencing in an effort to repopulate areas where the animals have died because of two strains of a viral disease. There are meetings with animal health specialists. A solution must be found quickly in order to keep 'Hongo's' compatriots, in their food search, from straying onto the motorways that traverse this peninsula - and certain death.