GALICICA MOUNTAIN, Macedonia (AFP) — The camera sits hidden in a field ready to track every move of the Balkan lynx, a wild cat both revered as an icon and reviled as a pest that has teetered on extinction for nearly a century.
“The lynx has no natural enemy except man,” said Georgi Ivanov, an ecologist working on a project to monitor lynx numbers in western Macedonia’s Galicica National Park, where 30 such cameras have been set up.
Poaching is one of the biggest threats to the survival of this Balkan subspecies of the European lynx, the largest wild cat found on the continent.
Though its overall numbers are uncertain, they seem to hover dangerously around the 100 scientists say are needed for their population to remain stable.
In Albania and Macedonia, foreign experts put their number at less than 80 though local counterparts say there are fewer than 40. The estimates in neighbouring Kosovo, Montenegro and Serbia are even worse.
Lynx are killed by villagers in the impoverished region mainly for their prized fur, a spotted golden-brown. But dwindling forests and a lack of prey are also factors in their decline, experts say.
“The main cause of the extinction threat is illegal hunting, as well as environmental destruction and, above all, uncontrolled forest cutting,” said biologist Dime Melovski of the Macedonian Ecological Society.
The monitoring scheme is also underway in Mavrovo National Park, also in western Macedonia, and in Albania in cooperation with the Swiss-based research group KORA, Germany’s Euronatur and the Norwegian Institute for Nature Research (NINA).
Adeptly maneuvering his jeep along Mount Galicica’s winding roads, Zoran Celakovski said members of the Ohrid Hunting Society, which he heads, are also doing their part to protect the Balkan lynx.
“We have information that there are some lynx here so we help the ecologists in their work, patrols and file-keeping,” he said.
In addition to determining the cats’ status, via camera date, research and interviews, the project aims to establish protected areas for the animal and help local authorities develop a conservation strategy. It is due to wind up at the end of 2009, Melovski said.
Long seen as an unofficial national symbol in Macedonia, the Balkan lynx — whose scientific denomination is “lynx lynx martinoi” — features on both a postal stamp and a coin. With a short tail, long legs, and thick neck, its defining characteristic may be the striking tufts of hair on both ears. They grow to an average one metre (three feet) in length and 65 centimetres (two feet) in height and can weigh up to 25 kilograms (55 pounds).
The wild cat prey mainly on roe deer, the mountain goat-like chamois and hares, but never attack its greatest threat — human beings.
Although hunting lynx is punishable by prison terms of up to eight years, poachers continue to pursue the animal with impunity, knowing that no one has ever been prosecuted for doing so.
Lynx-advocates like Macedonian ecologist Aleksandar Stojanov have been pushing to have areas where the cat roams proclaimed as national parks, to “reduce threats and increase the number of protected mountainous areas”.
Raising awareness among villagers is also needed, he said. Local lore holds that lynx are “pests that kill livestock and that is why they do not like it.”
“But our data has shown that in only four cases has the animal actually caused any damage, and it was minimal,” said Stojanov.
Experiments in other parts of Europe have been encouraging. Conservationists reintroduced wild lynx to Switzerland after its eradication there at the end of the 19th century, raising the population to 140 in the last two decades.
Similar action has seen the lynx population recover in the Baltics, in the Carpathian mountains that run from Slovakia to Romania, and in Scandinavia.
Some experts involved in the Balkans project, like John Linnell of NINA, warn this success might be difficult to repeat here because “poaching is obviously a factor that is limiting their ability to recover.”
Another, Manuela von Arx of KORA, stressed that improving law enforcement and stepping up efforts to educate locals about the animal was the key to the Balkan lynx’ survival.
“Legal protection is meaningless if violations are not persecuted,” she said in a statement.
“In the long run co-existence between large carnivores and people can only be achieved and secured if the local people and land users are willing to tolerate animals such as the Balkan lynx in their vicinity.”