“We are losing the Balkan lynx” / Balkans / Regions / Home
The results of the latest surveys on the Balkan lynx, the lynx subspecies found only in the mountains of North Macedonia, Albania and Kosovo, do not bode well for the future of one of Europe’s most endangered mammals
“Devastating results”. So the report of Balkan lynx recovery program the international Balkan lynx conservation team, describes how the last camera trap survey took place in 2021.
In four months, the network of 151 devices scattered throughout the region captured just one specimen in Kosovo, four in two separate regions of Albania and just five in Mavrovo National Park, North Macedonia. The latter is of particular concern, as the area is considered critical to the feline’s survival. Three years ago, the number of specimens photographed was double.
The Balkan lynx is a subspecies of the Eurasian lynx. Compared to its European neighbours, it has clearer spots and a genetic heritage of its own which has been consolidated over a history of at least 45,000 years. It has been listed on the IUCN Red List of Critically Endangered Animals since 2015 and is protected by all major international wildlife conventions.
It was once widespread throughout the peninsula, but today it lives exclusively in the steep mountains that separate North Macedonia, Albania and Kosovo. According to experts, there are less than fifty living specimens, more likely only around thirty.
So far, however, monitoring has described a very slight but steady recovery in the population. How can this sudden drop be explained? “That’s what we’re still trying to figure out,” says Dime Melovski, a biologist at the Macedonian Ecological Society. Missing persons are not necessarily dead. Some, young or newly arrived, may simply have traveled different routes than the usual ones in which there are camera traps.
For this reason, the team decided to continue the surveys indefinitely at seven observation stations. But the results were even more disappointing, admits the biologist, who is preparing in these days for yet another expedition, in the middle of winter, on the trail of the feline.
Between deforestation and poaching
Although the species has been protected for decades, some homes and restaurants of Albanian and Macedonian mountaineers still proudly display a stuffed specimen. At least fourteen have been killed since 2006: a number that is far from negligible compared to the very small total population.
However, according to experts, poaching is not the only cause of the impasse in which the lynx seems to have found itself.
The animal’s survival depends on that of its prey, especially roe deer and chamois. Their hunting is legal, but the collection is often planned with unscientific criteria, and especially with little control. Apparently, however, there is no shortage of prey in the area. Another factor, much more political, weighs much more: the inexorable degradation of habitats throughout the region.
The forests of these countries, says the latest Recovery Program report, are being managed in a way that is anything but sustainable. Between 2000 and 2012, Albania and North Macedonia lost 6.78 and 4.88% of their forests respectively. Sometimes the harvesting of wood, often but not always illegal, is accompanied by acts of poaching and burning, even in areas crucial for the reproduction of the animal.
It is not only a question of extension, but of the quality of the undergrowth and of fragmentation: because of roads, ski slopes, and other infrastructures built without adequate planning, lynx are often forced to abandon certain areas. , eventually dividing into ever larger groups. . small and far from each other.
The population being reduced to a few dozen specimens, cases of mating between parents have multiplied. The resulting poor genetic renewal risks exposing future generations to hereditary diseases, making the situation even more critical.
Today, the reproduction rate of the Balkan lynx is so low that probably, even if it were no longer disturbed, it would still be doomed to extinction within a few generations. The only solution, explains Melovski, could be a form of “genetic rescue”, i.e. encouraging mating with males from neighboring populations such as those in the Carpathians or the Caucasus. But this is a complicated and expensive possibility, which would also partially reduce the specificity of the animal. But at this stage, all means must be considered.
In fifteen years of activity, the Balkan Lynx Recovery Program has become one of the most profitable international projects in the region, straddling science and concrete conservation actions.
The team, made up of organizations and volunteers from North Macedonia, Kosovo and Albania, the German Euronatur and the Swiss foundations Kora and Mava, is dedicated to both research on the biology of animal and concrete actions for its possible conservation, including raising awareness -breeding.
While initiatives continue in the mountains to consolidate a relationship with breeders, rangers, tour operators, hunters and all those who live or work in the woods frequented by the lynx, the cities are betting on education. The Museum of Natural Sciences in Tirana has set up an educational space dedicated to children, teachers and families which has met with some success.
Last December, a group of volunteers supported by the Albanian community who emigrated to Germany and Austria carried out reforestation in the mountains of Munella, the most important breeding area of the big cat in Albania. The organizers hope to limit the effects of a cold shower that has recently arrived from high political spheres: the government has reneged on its promise to create a national park in Munella, opting for a much softer form of protection and less than half of the area of 50,000 hectares promised.
But beyond the formal support, it is not only the Albanian institutions which behave in a contradictory way.
North Macedonia, for example, has for years shown a certain aversion to protected areas, tempered only by the last government that took office just over a year ago.
Between 2012 and 2017, the Recovery Program team was even repeatedly expelled from Mavrovo Park, the most important breeding area. The subject of the dispute was the hydroelectric power stations that the government planned to build in the heart of the park, dealing a fatal blow to the habitat of the feline.
A “flag species”
In Mavrovo, it was the presence of an emblematic animal like the lynx that convinced investors, mainly from Western Europe, to abandon the dam project for good.
The Balkan lynx is indeed a typical “flag species”: elusive and fascinating, it is able to strike the common imagination, triggering a virtuous circle of protection both of the forests in which it lives and of its prey.
Animal symbol of North Macedonia (where it is represented on the 5 dinar coin), it is loved by the population of all the countries concerned, in particular thanks to the fact that, unlike wolves and bears, it does not attack never to livestock.
But the lynx is also a fundamental calling card for the sustainable development of some of the wildest mountains in Europe, such as Bjeshket and Nemuna between Albania and Kosovo, the Sharr massif – once the cradle of Yugoslav skiing and today today in the midst of a crisis. of identity, the imposing Mavrovo. The area lies within the Balkan stretch of the European Green Belt, the ideal corridor of green spaces with high naturalistic value that follows the route of the former Iron Curtain and other once “hot” borders of Eastern Europe. ballast.
A troubled century
Intensive hunting and habitat destruction are centuries-old phenomena. At the beginning of the 20th century, however, there were isolated populations in areas far removed from the current range such as Slovenia and Bulgaria.
In the short century, however, things changed very quickly and by the start of World War II the feline was already one step away from extinction, with an estimated number of between fifteen and twenty adult individuals.
After the war, things changed: Yugoslavia banned hunting in 1949 and created special nature reserves for its conservation. Twenty years later, Albania also declared it protected. The population was thus able to grow again until the 1980s, reaching nearly three hundred specimens, a number that specialists consider to be completely harmless for the survival of the animal.
But with the turbulent 90s, the situation worsened. Between the dissolution of Yugoslavia, the war in Kosovo and the collapse of the Albanian state, uncontrolled logging and poaching flourished undisturbed. A new phase of decline has begun for the lynx, from which it has not yet recovered.
The fate of one of the emblematic animals of the Balkans is not yet sealed, if everyone does their part – academics, politicians, stakeholders and civil society. But the time to write another ending, denounces the latest Recovery Program report, is running out.
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