Nearly half of the 36 species of felids that live in the wild in the world are at threat, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature advocacy group, and the main threat they all share in common is the loss and fragmentation of their habitat. That also limits the establishment of effective conservation strategies, according to a review of 162 articles related to Lynx pardinus, the Iberian lynx.

Despite conservation efforts, it still happens that the Iberian lynx, the most endangered felid in the world, is hit by vehicles on Spanish roads. To assess the situation of the Iberian lynx and other felid species that live in the wild, a team of Brazilian and Spanish scientists has reviewed the scientific literature that exists on the main threat for these mammals: the loss and fragmentation of their habitats. 

Although many scientific studies are produced (last January, for example, 60,000 scientific articles were published), researchers could only find a total of 162 studies which evaluated threats affecting felids.

"These figures clearly indicate that in general there is a lack of knowledge on this topic, which especially affects felid conservation. Without proper scientific knowledge it is hard to set up effective conservation strategies," declares Francisco Palomares, one of the authors of the study and researcher for the department of Conservation Biology at the Doñana Biological Station (CSIC), to SINC.

According to the new study, the main reasons for the limited information on the effect of habitat loss and fragmentation for felid conservation are "the lack of both financing for research and communication between managers and researchers," highlights Palomares.

North America and Europe generate the greatest amount of research on the effect of habitat loss on felids. However, in view of the lack of research in certain countries with less economic resources, the real effect of this threat is still unknown for 16 species of felids. This is the case for the Andean mountain cat (Leopardus jacobita), the Bornean bay cat (Pardofelis badia), the flat-headed cat (Prionailurus planiceps), and the fishing cat (Prionailurus viverrinus), in danger of extinction and for whom there are very few studies and conservation measures.

Conservation of the Iberian lynx, an exemplary model

Among those on which there is little scientific information is the Iberian lynx, the most threatened felid, and which is considered critically endangered according to the Red List of Threatened Species of the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

"However, in accordance with our review of scientific literature, it is a model species and exemplary in evaluating the effect of habitat loss and fragmentation," the researcher points out, who adds that there is scientific data to help to develop successful conservation plans for the species.

As the Iberian lynx lives in the Mediterranean scrubland, its habitat needs protecting. "As well as suitable vegetation, there must be significant rabbit populations," adds Palomares.

The lynx's conservation strategy consists of connecting isolated populations through ecological corridors, but the information provided through local and regional population viability models for short and longer time periods also helps.

The team of researchers highlights the need to tackle at least the following three areas of research for the rest of the felids: differentiating habitat loss from the effects of fragmentation using theoretical scenarios; selecting priority areas for conservation, and analysing the consequences of habitat loss.

"Felid conservationists must start to design more theoretical projects and apply the new tools and methodologies available in research on landscape and wildlife," concludes the study.

Citation: Zanin, Marina; Palomares, Francisco; Brito, Daniel. "What we (don't) know about the effects of habitat loss and fragmentation on felids" Oryx 49(1): 96-106 DOI: 10.1017/S0030605313001609 January 2015