Lynx in France is in danger of extinction with a population of up to 150 adults

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Conservationists warn that a large cat population in Europe is destined to collapse unless immediate action is taken to protect the animals.

Researchers estimate that there are 120 to 150 adult lynx in France. Tests on the animals show that the genetic diversity of the cats is so low that they will become locally extinct within the next 30 years unless urgent action is taken.

Historically, lynxes have spread across the vastness of Eurasia, but the elusive animals have come under great pressure in many countries due to habitat loss, inbreeding, poaching, and traffic accidents.

In the 18th century, the lynx completely disappeared from France. After a reintroduction project in Switzerland in the 1970s, some Eurasian lynx crossed the border into France and resettled in the Jura Mountains. But the population did not reach enough numbers to make it stable.

Related: Rewilding: should we return the lynx to Britain?

Scientists at the Center Athenas, a conservation center in eastern France, collected 88 DNA samples from injured, dead or orphaned lynxes between 2008 and 2020 and were able to analyze 78 of them to form a picture of the population’s genetic health. To avoid fear in the animals, the team did not take samples from healthy wild lynx.

The tests revealed an alarming lack of genetic diversity. Although researchers believe there are more than 120 adult lynx in France, the population has a diversity level equivalent to only 38 animals. “This population has lost a lot of genetic diversity since being reintroduced to Switzerland,” said Nathen Huvier, an author of the study. “If no new genetic material is reintroduced, this population will go extinct again within 30 years.”

In Frontiers in Conservation Science, the researchers describe how the lynx’s DNA reveals a devastating level of inbreeding, with two mating cats now very likely to be closely related.

“A lack of genetic diversity can reduce individuals’ fitness, cause disease and reduce individuals’ ability to adapt to environmental changes,” Huvier said. A population that showed these characteristics “was unable to evolve” and was thus vulnerable to collapse, he added.

As an apex predator, the lynx was a keystone species in the local ecosystem, Huvier said. One way to boost the genetic diversity of the population 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 cared for in wildlife sanctuaries in different regions. At the same time, the researchers want strict enforcement of poaching laws and road signs warning drivers of the presence of lynxes to reduce road deaths.

“We want this work to support lynx conservation action,” Huvier said. “Re-introduction, replacement of poached lynxes and exchange of orphaned lynxes between care centers are the best short-term solutions for this population to stay alive, and it will give it a chance to develop and interact with other populations in Europe.”

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