London, Dec. 28: New Year drinkers have been urged to choose wine and champagne in bottles stopped with cork to help save the world’s rarest big cat.
The cork forests of Spain and Portugal, home of the endangered Iberian lynx, are under threat because of the increasing use of plastic stoppers and screw tops among wine producers.
Falling demand for cork means that it is often more profitable to destroy the cork oak forests and replace them with other less environmentally-friendly forms of forestry and agriculture.
The latest figures, published by WWF, show that there are only 150 Iberian lynx left, with just 30 breeding females.
The decline of the lynx is so severe that the IUCN (the World Conservation Union) has upgraded its status to “critically endangered”.
Eduardo Gonzales, WWF cork oak campaigner and author of The Algarve Tiger, a book about the Iberian lynx, said: “Something radical must happen to save the lynx or it will be gone within the decade, making it the first feline species extinction since the sabre-tooth tiger in prehistoric times.”
Cork forests are home to a rich variety of endangered wildlife, including the Iberian imperial eagle in Spain and Portugal and the Barbary deer in Tunisia.
Europe’s crane population over-winters in Spanish and Portuguese cork oak forests. More than 80,000 people depend on the cork industry in the Mediterranean, which helps support a unique mix of agriculture and forestry, according to WWF.
Milk comes from sheep and goats that graze under the cork trees. Honey comes from hives in the forests and the acorns are used for animal feed. Fruits and berries that grow in the grass and scrub go into the other local produce.
Beatrix Richards, WWF forests campaigner, said: “Clever propaganda by the manufacturers of screw tops and plastic corks has led many people to think that cork stoppers are bad for the environment when exactly the opposite is true.
“Supermarkets must label their wine bottles so that shoppers can choose to support the cork oak forests of the Mediterranean and protect the Iberian lynx when buying their wine.”
She said cork extraction was one of the most environmentally-friendly harvesting processes in the world. Cork cutters make precise incisions into the cork bark and then strip it off the trees, in much the same way as peeling a skin away from a banana.
After harvest, each tree is painted with a big white number to indicate when it was last stripped. The trees are left for nine years to allow the cork bark to grow back and then the whole process starts again.