The cork forests of Spain and Portugal, home of the endangered Iberian lynx, are under threat as a result of the increasing use of synthetic and screw-top stoppers amongst wine retailers. The falling demand for cork means that it is often more profitable to destroy the lynxes' forest homes and replace them with other less environmentally friendly forms of forestry and agriculture.
The latest figures show that there are just 150 Iberian lynx left, including just 30 breeding females. Such is the severity of the situation facing the cat that the IUCN (the World Conservation Union) has upgraded to its status to critically endangered.
"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," said Eduardo Goncalves, WWF cork oak campaigner and author of The Algarve Tiger, a book about the Iberian lynx.
The 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. In addition, Europe's entire crane population also spends its winters in Spain and Portugal's cork oak forests.
Over 80,000 people depend on the cork industry in the Mediterranean. In addition, a unique mix of agriculture, forestry, and pastoralism means that the forests support many more people indirectly. Milk is provided by sheep and goats that graze under the cork trees, honey comes from beehives in the forests, cork acorns are used for animal feed, and fruits and berries that grow in the grass and scrub go into other local produce.
"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," said Beatrix Richards, WWF forest campaigner. "Supermarkets must label their wine bottles so shoppers can chose to support the cork oak forests of the Mediterranean and protect the Iberian lynx when buying their wine."
Cork extraction is one of the most environmentally friendly harvesting processes in the world - not a single tree is cut down to get the cork. Cork cutters make precise incisions into the cork bark and then strip it off the trees - like 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 again, and then the whole process starts again. The forests are ancient with some trees living up to 400 years.
Cork stoppers are the economic backbone of the entire cork oak forest economy, with Portugal accounting for more than 60 per cent of the world trade. More than 15 billion cork stoppers are made every year to supply the international wine market, accounting for around 80 per cent of the cork harvest by value. The industry is worth almost £1 billion per annum.
The critically endangered Iberian lynx, of which there are just 150 individuals left in the wild, depends on the cork forests of Spain and Portugal.