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LISBON (Reuters Life!) - Two furry Iberian lynx kittens were born on Easter Sunday in Portugal, raising hopes of a resurrection of the species in the country, where it has been extinct for about a decade.
The Iberian lynx is one of the world's most endangered cats. They measure about 1 meter in length, have distinctive leopard-like spots and four sets of whiskers -- two on the ears and two on the chin.
"This is the first time Iberian lynx are born in captivity here. It's a happy coincidence that the two animals were born on Easter," Environment Minister Dulce Alvaro Passaro told Reuters on Tuesday.
"It's very important because the species had ceased to exist in Portugal years ago. It is another step toward the planned reintroduction of the Iberian lynx in their natural habitat."
The lynx were born in the National Center for Iberian Lynx Reproduction in southern Portugal, which only opened last May, from a couple brought from Spain, where the lynx still roam in the wild and are also bred in three reproduction centers.
The mother, 5-year-old Azahar, had previously failed to conceive and scientists from the center were relieved with the healthy pregnancy and delivery.
"The two creatures are strong and quite active. The female Azahar shows all the adequate maternal instincts, being around the kittens permanently and giving them all the maternal care with dedication and calm," the ministry, which oversees the project, said in a note.
The center, which cost around 2 million euros, was built by water utility Aguas do Algarve as a compensation for installing a dam in the southern Algarve region. It works in close cooperation with the centers in Spain.
The species had disappeared in Portugal because of habitat loss due to rural and urban development as well as a declining population of its main prey -- rabbits and hare -- due to diseases.
Alvaro Passaro said the ministry was working with local authorities and hunting associations in several areas where the lynx used to live to prepare ground for its reintroduction into the wild.
"Creating the proper natural conditions in these areas is not a problem. With the hunters, the key is to convince them that the lynx will not destroy all the rabbits, that the ecosystem will accommodate the lynx, and we are getting a good response from them now," she said.
"As for local authorities, the idea of having this emblematic, beautiful animal being reintroduced on their territory sounds quite appealing to them ... We hope that in a few years, quite few, we will have the Iberian lynx roaming in the wild here again."
Editing by Paul Casciato