the fight to save the balkan lynx

GORICA (Albania) (AFP) – In majestic mountains overlooking the azure waters of a lake, Albanian trackers track the Balkan lynx. But they’re looking for a good reason: to try to protect an almost extinct animal.

“If we don’t increase its numbers and distribution very quickly, it will disappear forever,” warns Manuela von Arx, a scientist at the Swiss Kora Foundation that specializes in wildlife and sponsors a regional wildlife rescue program. animal.

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The “lynx lynx balkanicus” lives in the rugged mountains between Albania, North Macedonia and Kosovo and is one of the most endangered mammals in the world, a victim of deforestation and poaching.

In three Balkan countries, less than 40 of these cats remain, according to an expert report from 2021.

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has considered since 2015 that the animal is in critical danger of extinction, the last stage in its classification before extinction in the wild.

In Albania, specialists estimate that there are fewer than 10 lynx left, compared to more than 200 in the 1980s.

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For 15 years, the Albanian NGO for the Protection and Preservation of the Natural Environment in Albania (PPNEA) has been trying to save the animal locally called the “Balkan tiger” or “ghost of the forest”.

On Mali i Thatë, a mountain overlooking the stunning Lake Prespa, in southeast Albania, two NGO members carefully installed automatic cameras high up on lynx in oak trees.

– Elusive –

The hope is to get pictures of a wild animal that sleeps during the day and hunts at night.

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“It’s difficult to take a good picture,” admits Ilir Shyti, forest engineer, checking with his colleague Melitjan Nezaj the position of the device.

Last year, cameras spotted a lynx in the area from North Macedonia, a move that specialists saw as a good sign for the stability of the species. “We very much hope that he will return this year and if we are lucky, to get a photo of a new individual”, said Melitjan Nezaj, a biologist by profession.

Specialists manage to identify the animals in photographs because from one individual to another, the almond-shaped eyes, the spotted coats and the pointed ears show subtle differences.

This meticulous monitoring is an important element of protection, underlined by the cameo. “You have to observe it and understand its movements,” he told AFP. “Any documented evidence of the presence of the lynx is watched because it represents hope for survival.”

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The lynx is threatened by the destruction of their habitat and massive deforestation that makes their food source game scarce, as well as by the fragmentation of populations.

But species that should be strictly protected, whose hunting has been banned since 2014, are also victims of poaching.

According to PPNEA, at least 14 lynxes have been killed in Albania since 2006.

– Stuffed trophies –

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The latest, taken in 2020, is in a bar in Elbasan, south of Tirana, with other wild animals that look like sad stuffed animals.

Possession of poached species is punishable by seven years in prison, but “justice is completely disinterested” in the problem, denounced Gentian Rumano, PPNEA lawyer.

The NGO filed a complaint against the establishment but it was dismissed “due to lack of evidence” despite a report confirming it was a Balkan lynx, he continued. Determined to continue the fight, the NGO filed a complaint this time against the prosecution and demanded the reopening of the investigation.

In recent years, Albania, North Macedonia and Kosovo have joined forces in a Balkan Lynx Recovery Program (BLRP), with the support of foreign foundations such as Kora, Euronatur and Mava.

The three countries “create new protection areas where the lynx is present and where it can reproduce”, according to Aleksandër Trajçe, head of PPNEA.

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They also take actions to raise awareness among residents and educate hunters.

But the battle is far from won, especially since the vulnerability of the population is synonymous with the vulnerability of its genetic heritage.

“They are at risk of health problems that weigh on reproduction,” warns Blendi Hoxha.

“Small population equals inbreeding,” confirms Dime Melovski of the Macedonian Ecological Society. One way, according to him, could be to bring lynx from other populations in the Balkans.

Similar to what France did by introducing Slovenian bears to the Pyrenees.

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