In Search of the Balkan Lynx
An effort to save a critically endangered wildcat is bringing together nations once divided by ethnic conflict
The Balkan Lynx, a subspecies of the Eurasian Lynx, lives predominately in eastern Albania and western Macedonia with smaller populations in Kosovo and Montenegro. Researchers believe there are 35 to 40 individuals remaining mostly in Mavrovo National Park, Macedonia. The Balkan Lynx, classified as critically endangered, by the International Union on the Conservation of Nature, has been on the brink of extinction for almost a hundred years.
Photo by courtesy of the Balkan Lynx Recovery Project
Ethnic and religious conflicts in Kosovo, Montenegro, Macedonia, and Albania left thousands dead and millions displaced. In recent years though, with the formation of the Balkan Lynx Recovery Program, the four countries have been cooperating in attempts to ensure the lynx’s survival.
These medium-sized nocturnal wildcats are elusive and shy animals. They might be living near human habitations with people not noticing or being aware of their presence for years. They are individualistic and a territorial species, occupying large tracts of lands. The home range of an adult male lynx usually varies from 100 to 400 square kilometers. Their main prey is roe deer and occasionally chamois and hares. Lynx only move to fresh terrain if these are directly connected to their existing ones, differing from wolves, for example, who will settle into completely new areas. Unbroken stretches of country and plentiful food are preconditions for the survival of lynx.
In 2010, the first lynx was radio-tagged and named Marko. Since then, ecological and environmental agencies in the Balkans have been working together within the Balkan Lynx Recovery Program to monitor the lynx, promote sustainable hunting and game conservation, raise public awareness, and strengthen cooperation in local communities.
Last fall, I took a plane bound for the land of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes with the simple hope of possibly seeing one of these rare felines.
I arrived in Gusinje, Montenegro by a bus from Dubrovnik, Croatia. A lynx had been spotted near Gusinje in the Nacionalni Park Prokletije — a 16,630 hectare national park located in the border region between Montenegro and Albania. I found a group of local hikers that didn’t mind me following them up into the mountains on a regular basis and shared my desire to be one of the few humans to spot a lynx.
Boris (I never knew his last name) was the leader of the hikers, or at least knew the trails best. He pointed out the different animal tracks and taught me which one belonged to which animal. Together, we set up some sturdy, waterproof, trail cameras in areas where evidence of hares and deer (natural prey of the lynx) existed. Boris wasn’t officially affiliated with any government conservation group, he was just a hiker with an overwhelming desire to see a Balkan lynx.
In Montenegro’s capital city, Podgorica, I met Alexandra Aubertin of Montenegro Eco Adventures, an outfit that leads Balkan Lynx expeditions into Prokletije Park and the remote Haila Mountains. Aubertin and his team identified two specific areas where they believe the lynx would likely be present — one, a narrow corridor between Albania and Kosovo in Prokletije and the other, near the Kosovo border in the Haila Mountains. As well as placing camera traps for the lynx, their expeditions aim at building a database of fauna for the National Parks of Montenegro.
Photo Wikimedia Commons
I asked Aubertin if he thought the Balkan Lynx Recovery Program was working. One of the program’s main aims is to preserve the remaining habitats of the lynx. Another is to raise awareness among hunters and farmers and provide environmental education.
“The Balkan Lynx Recovery Program hasn’t communicated about its findings for the last few years, so I can’t answer your question on that,” Aubertin told me, “What I know is that [in my opinion] they have put very little effort in research in Montenegro compared to other countries in the Balkans.”
“The lynx hasn’t been seen very often at all in Montenegro during the past few years,” he said, “Of course, we can’t say for sure, but I’m afraid the population is not growing.”
I asked him about cooperation or efforts from local communities.
“I haven’t seen or heard about big successes in this area I am afraid,” Aubertin said, “They are still hunters. Hunting regulations in Montenegro are not well enforced and there is a lack of people and resources on the ground. But I don’t want to be pessimistic. I think we need to pursue our protection goal to save the wildlife in this area of the world.”
I took a bus from Podgorica to Skhoder, Albania. In all my memories of Skhoder, rain falls and everything is grey. I wanted to spend a couple days there before heading to Puka at the foot of the Munella Mountains.
In June of this year, the Albanian Parliament extended the countrywide hunting ban for five years, in an effort to control rampant poaching. Albania is the first country in the world to completely stop hunting. One of the main supporters of the Albanian Hunting Moratorium, is the conservation group, Protection and Preservation of Natural Environment in Albania (PPNEA). The information the PPNEA generated from the Balkan lynx project provided reliable data on the massive decline of wildlife in Albania that helped garner support for the hunting ban.
With the rediscovery of the Balkan lynx, Albania has also designated two new nature reserves in recent years: Shebenik-Jablanica National Park (in 2008) and Korab-Koritnik Nature Park (in 2011).
Aleksander Trajce (PPNEA) and other Balkan lynx researchers in Albania are collaborating with government officials to reform and modernize hunting management so that when the ban expires in 2021, hunting will be properly controlled and sustainably managed by authorities.
“What do people need to know about the Balkan Lynx Recovery Project?” I asked Trajce.
“The most important thing,” he said, “is perhaps the transnational collaboration of conservationists in a region that has been characterized by division and antagonism between countries. With the Balkan lynx project we show that when it comes to nature conservation in general and lynx conservation in particular, country borders matter very little and what is important is to ensure survival of the species on a population level. To do this conservationists from different countries have to come and work together — and for the Balkans, a region with an uneasy past and present, this is a fantastic achievement.”
Mavrovo National Park is in the North Western part of the Republic of Macedonia, at the meeting point of the nations Albania, Kosovo, and Macedonia. The park is considered by many conservationists to be the most important reproductive area of the Balkan lynx. Dime Melovski of the Macedonia Ecological Society has been part of the lynx recovery project there since the beginning. I asked him if he felt the program was working.
“That’s a good question,” he said, “The truth is that until three years ago we were quite optimistic about the whole thing. We’d just done our third intensive camera-trapping session in Mavrovo and estimated an increase in the population. After that, the relationship with the park’s authorities became strained. Long story short: we, as an NGO, complained against building hydropower plants inside the park, and the park director kicked us out. All is not lost though as we started to apply the bottom-up approach and began working with local stakeholders around the park.”
I hung around Mavrovo Park for about a week, hiking and following paw prints in the mud and snow. I sat for hours in the roots of a giant tree overlooking a valley. I imagined if I sat very still and quiet that a lynx would suddenly appear beside me or, at the very least, the ghost of my dead grandfather. One afternoon I fell asleep and dreamt there were lynx curled up next to me.
After Mavrovo, I ended up in Skopje where I met Oliver Stambolski, one of the park directors at Jasen Nature Preserve. He took me hiking in Jasen with one of the hunting guides. Lynx had been camera trapped in Jasen in 2012 and 2013 but no evidence had surfaced since then. Jasen operates under a controlled hunting code: A guide is required to hunt within the park and only a specific number of kills per species is allowed. Hunting or killing a lynx, though, is banned.
“The recovery of the lynx can only be done if local people, scientists and decision makers work together towards that goal,” Melovski of the Macedonia Ecological Society told me earlier. “There is no successful conservation strategy if one doesn’t include all this pillars of conservation! Everyone has a role and if focused correctly, we can bring back the Balkan lynx from the brink.”
Enthusiastic wildlife conservationists, both professional and amateur, emerging from the Balkan Lynx Recovery Project is indeed a very promising result. On the other hand, earnest commitments from national authorities and management units seem, at times, to be difficult to come by. The recovery of the Balkan lynx into a viable population is a long process that requires collaboration of all interest groups concerned.
I left the region without catching a glimpse of the elusive feline, but I remain hopeful that someday I might someday, that the work of people like Melovski, Trajce, Aubertin, Stambolski,, and so many others won’t be in vain.