How do you save a species that is almost impossible to track?
Until a decade ago the Balkan Lynx (a subspecies of the Eurasian Lynx) was virtually unknown to the local population and its sightings were almost mythical. This is not surprising: the subspecies’ current population is estimated at 19 to 36 adult individuals.
In November last year, the IUCN published the Balkan Lynx on its Red List of Threatened Species as Critically Endangered. There are no Balkan Lynx in captivity, so if its designation is uplisted from Critically Endangered, it will mean complete extinction. The lynx’s only confirmed breeding grounds are in the Mavrovo National Park in Macedonia and the Munela Mountains in Albania.
The Mavrovo National Park is one of the Balkan Lynx's only known breeding grounds. Photo: MES
This sad confirmation about the population’s status is not news for the Balkan Lynx Recovery Programme (BLRP) team, which is hard at work to mitigate the main threats for the Balkan Lynx – illegal killing and taking, prey depletion and habitat destruction.
In 2006, the Balkan Lynx Recovery Program was initiated by EuroNatur from Germany and KORA from Switzerland, who were encouraged by the fact that the international community of scientists was willing to assist in collecting data for conservation and that technology was advanced enough to enable new tracking possibilities.
It took the team of field biologists almost four years of tracking, camera trapping and interviews with locals to see a Balkan Lynx for the first time. “One of the most exciting days in my entire life has to be the day we saw the first photo of a lynx from the camera traps. Can you imagine how it felt… to finally have confirmation that the lynx does live in Macedonia?” said Aleksandar Stojanov, a member of the BLRP team in MES (BirdLife in Macedonia), during a recent radio interview.
It took four years of tracking for experts to get their first sighting of the species. Photo: Marko Selce/MES
The programme is now implemented by several civil society organizations, scientists and volunteers from the region (MES in Macedonia, PPNEA in Albania, ERA and Finch in Kosovo and CZIP – the BirdLife Partner in Montenegro) with support from EuroNatur, KORA and NINA from Norway.
“Our cooperation with many stakeholders – especially hunters – opened the doors to more detailed research and conservation attempts for this cat and its prey. Our next step will be to downlist the Balkan Lynx to the category of Endangered; this means raising the population from the current 19-37 individuals to more than 50,” said Dime Melovski, another member of the MES BLRP team.
Thanks to its existence there is now an amazing amount of data on this virtually unknown subspecies. “While this is an amazing scientific achievement for us, we have no time to celebrate, the Balkan Lynx needs even more visibility and dedicated support. However, we are encouraged because the IUCN Red List provides ‘political’ recognition and global publicity,” Melovski added.
Satellite and photo tracking of the Balkan Lynx has led to lots data on the species that can be used for its conservation. Photo: MES
It’s not just an enormous amount of data that we have gotten out of the programme. Albania and Kosovo have since established new national parks in an attempt to protect the habitat of the Balkan Lynx. Unfortunately, Macedonia has not followed suit. MES is working hard on raising awareness and lobbying for the establishment of protected areas in Macedonia as well as looking for local supporters and volunteers because without local support and willingness there will be no programme or positive results.
“Our team still faces challenges and we still need all the support we can receive from the global family of conservationists and nature lovers,” said Gjorgje Ivanov of the MES BLRP team.