Eurasian Lynx (Lynx lynx)
The third largest predator in Europe, the Eurasian lynx is the most broadly distributed felid in the world, found from Europe through to Asia. They are a fairly large cat species, with stocky bodies, long legs, spotted coats and distinctive facial features like triangular, tufted ears and facial ruffs.
In the 20th century persecution and human expansion dramatically reduced the range of the lynx, reducing their populations dramatically in central and western Europe, and completely removing them from the North of Europe. Although populations have recovered and the Eurasian lynx is currently classed as least concern by the IUCN, there are still sub-populations, like the Balkan lynx, that are endangered, and the Iberian lynx, one of the four lynx species, that has conservationists very concerned for its future.
There are four species of Lynx in the family Felidae, part of the order Carnivora:
- Lynx lynx: the Eurasian Lynx, widespread throughout Europe and Asia, although dramatically reduced in some parts of Europe.
- Lynx pardinus: the Iberian Lynx, found only in Spain and now reduced to a handful of isolated regions.
- Lynx canadensis: the Canada Lynx, found throughout the Northern United States and into Canada and Alaska.
- Lynx rufus: the bobcat, also found throughout the United States and into Canada.
The very first ancestors of the modern felids we see today first appeared in the Oligocene (a period between 33.9 to 23.03 million years ago) from the extinct family of primitive carnivores, called the Miacids. Fossil records show a lynx ancestor, called Lynx issiodorensis, in Africa around 4 million years ago, after which this species moved into Europe and diverged into the 4 species we have today.
Habitat and ecology
Today, the Eurasian lynx can be found throughout Russia, into Central Asia and central and western Europe, although it once roamed much further, but due to human pressures was driven to extinction in many areas. Today, ecologists have identified ten distinct sub-populations of Eurasian Lynx, which is especially important to be aware of when monitoring and managing numbers of this big cat species:
- Nordic population: Norway, Sweden and Finland. All Nordic countries allow some level of lynx hunting, according to quotas.
- Baltic population: Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Belarus, Poland and Ukraine. This is a very scattered population and their exact numbers have been difficult to estimate.
- Carpathian population: Czech republic, Slovakia, Poland, Hungary, Ukraine and Romania. This is the largest population of Eurasian lynx and is described as a separate subspecies.
- Bohemian-Bavarian population: Czech republic, Germany and Austria. The population here was reintroduced and is considered quite isolated from the rest of the lynx populations.
- Balkan population: Former Yugoslavia area, Albania and Greece. This population is considered critically endangered.
- Dinaric population: Solvenia and Croatia. This population was re-founded in 1973.
- Alps population: France, Switzerland, Italy, Liechtenstein, Germany, Austria and Slovenia. Considered a very scattered population.
- Jura population: France and Switzerland. 30 lynx were reintroduced in 1970s, but there may be as many as 100 now.
- Vosges Mountain population: France. Also reintroduced in the 1970s, the population size today is not known.
- Pyrenean population: France, including the French part of the Pyrenean mountains. Many are unsure if this subspecies still exists today.
They inhabit a range of forests, from deciduous, mixed through to coniferous forests, although it is considered a myth that Lynx prefer forests only, as they are also found in sparsely forested and semi-arid locations. Like many big cats, they are solitary except during the breeding season, or mothers with cubs. They hunt ungulates, particularly smaller species, such as roe or musk deer. This makes them an interesting candidate for reintroduction in many countries, including the U.K, which have particular issues with smaller species of invasive deer. They will also prey on smaller animals like rodents and birds when deer are not available. In comparison to other large carnivores, their shyer nature means they don’t prey on livestock as commonly, again giving them a real chance at reintroduction. They can also have huge positive impacts on their habitat, providing herbivore control and so preventing over-browsing.
A feline comeback? The current status of the Eurasian Lynx in Europe
Europe is known for suffering catastrophic levels of biodiversity loss over the last few centuries, with one of the major casualties being the Eurasian lynx. The rise of intensive agriculture led to hugely fragmented landscapes for carnivores with large ranges and persecution of wolves, bear and lynx among others for perceived threats to humans or their pelts and body parts, decimated populations in Europe. Historically, there was generally less interest in Lynx conservation, until the 1950’s, when their estimated numbers dropped to their lowest and the public and scientists alike suddenly became aware of their dire plight. Between the 1960s and 1970s, the species was almost entirely removed from the primeval biodiversity hotspot of the Bialowiezsa Forest in Poland.
In comparison to bears and wolves, the other two key carnivores in Europe, lynx pose very little danger to people, being secretive by nature and smaller. Across the recorded history of Lynx in Europe, there have only been a handful of cases of human injury, and this was always related to a trapped or rabid lynx. Aside from Norway which has a persistent problem, livestock losses are very low and conflict with farmers minimal, which is very often not the case, especially with wolves. Lynx tend to only hunt livestock when they are left unattended in fields close to forested areas, and in those places that have long been absent of predators.
All of these factors plus a dedicated conservation effort and a changing modern mindset towards wildlife, led to populations of lynx bouncing back to healthy numbers in the latter part of the 20th century. However, despite the generally stable populations of lynx now present, the reintroduction efforts were not without their problems. Some reintroductions were successful, and others not, and as the attempts were not correctly monitored or planned, it has been very difficult for scientists to retroactively identify what factors made it a success or a failure. In particular, conservationists today are concerned about the genetic integrity of the species, as no attention was paid to the genetic origin of any of the individuals reintroduced.
On the whole, the Eurasian lynx can thus far be considered a conservation success story, with currently stable populations across their range. They are legally protected under CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) appendix two, meaning their trade is controlled, and under the Bern Convention, an act working to protect European wildlife, and the EU habitats directive, providing legal protection for the habitats of European wildlife. Across the vast majority of their range, there is legal protection in place to prevent them from being hunted, with the exception of Norway, where strictly controlled hunting quotas are allowed. In the areas with the most issues with depredation of livestock there are financial compensation schemes in place to assist those farmers unfortunate enough to lose their animals to an attack. In many places, lynx are now considered a vital ecotourism species, providing a economic boost in rural areas, and are classed now as a keystone species, providing well maintained and balanced ecosystems.
Rewilding Europe is a rewilding initiative looking to increase biodiversity in Europe, and the project has identified lynx as one of their key species. The lynx is a breeding species in 5 of the key rewilding areas, including the Central Appenines in Italy, the Velebit Mountains in Croatia, the Southern Carpathians in Romania and Swedish Lapland and the Oder Delta region. Lynx reintroduction has even been discussed Scotland, where there is an estimated 20,000km2 of suitable habitat.
In 2019, the LIFE lynx initiative was developed aiming to hit the following targets to secure the future of the Eurasian lynx:
- Increasing the genetic diversity of populations in Croatia and Slovenia, where lack of genetic diversity has been identified as a particular concern.
- Improving the connectivity of the different lynx populations.
- Tracking a population released in May 2019 in the Risnjak National Park in Croatia with GPS collar to identify the factors that make a reintroduction a success of failure.
Despite these successes, not all populations of the Eurasian lynx are completely safe for the future. As mentioned previously, this population is listed as critically endangered by the IUCN, with only 40-70 individuals left in the wild, their numbers decimated by illegal poaching, deforestation and loss of critical habitat. As recently as July 2021, the Macedonian parliament voted to create a new national park and nature reserve in the Shar Mountains, which will hopefully provide a much-needed safe haven for the species to thrive in.
The Balkan population are not the only Lynx in trouble. The Iberian Lynx is an endangered species under a lot of conservation attention currently. They have suffered huge casualties from predator control measures in Spain, including trapping and poisoning and from road casualties as major new highways cut through their ranges. To compound this, their habitat is rapidly being turned over for intensive agriculture, removing essential corridors for lynx movement, leading to isolated and genetically reduced populations. especially concerning is the decimation of one of their primary prey species, the rabbit, as viral hameorrhagic diseases rip through the populations, leading to losses of up to 90% of this essential prey base. This reduction of prey has estimated to have been responsible for the loss of up to 62% of lynx litters due to malnutrition. These viral outbreaks are not slowing down either, as humans carry the disease into critical habitat unknowingly. Grimly, some conservationists fear that even with the intense public attention the species is receiving, they are still at massive risk of extinction. In a review of the conservation efforts aimed at the Iberian lynx, conservationists identified several failures of current measures, including; that they are not being carried out across large enough areas to have significant effects, lack of sufficient monitoring of outcomes of reintroductions and measures and a lack of long term consistent action due to frequent changes in leadership.
But no one can claim that there isn’t a real attempt to save the Iberian Lynx. In 2002, a captive breeding programme was initiated, and in 2014, a total of 5 centres have been opened, with the first captive bred individuals released in 2009 in Andalusia. As of 2019 it is estimated that there are 400 individuals in the wild. Thanks to these efforts and work in the wild to tackle illegal poaching and prevent car accidents and disease control for their rabbit prey, the IUCN downgraded the Iberian Lynx from critically endangered to endangered, although there are still not considered secure yet, with more intensive monitoring required. The WWF have a lot of work ongoing with the Iberian Lynx in the Donana and Sierra Morena National Parks, with vast regions of the parks set up with camera traps to monitor populations, and many of the released cats tagged with GPS collars to facilitate research on home ranges and lynx behaviour.
The lynx is an iconic European species brought back from the brink to roam the recovering primeval forests of Europe, and it would be a tragedy to see the species slip back towards extinction. Lets hope the lynx will continue to recover and keep Europe wild as it once was.
- Rewilding Europe: established in 2011, this is an independent, not for profit organisation looking to bring back nature and wildlife to areas in Europe that have been decimated by human activities by promoting co-existence and nature-based economies. They aim to create at least 10 rewilded areas in different regions across Europe. As well as helping lynx recovery, they also support the reintroduction and conservation of bears, wolves, beavers and white-tailed eagles, to name just a few. They also developed the European Wildlife Bank in 2013, which facilitates the restocking of natural herbivores to degraded ecosystems. You can help the initiative in a variety of ways:
- Use their hashtag #CallForAWilderEurope on social media to promote re-wilding.
- Donate or raise money for their projects.
- Visit a European rewilding area on your next holiday. You can use the European Wildlife Safari Website (https://www.europeansafaricompany.com) to locate rewilding areas and plan a trip there.
- You can volunteer with the organisation in certain areas by submitting a volunteer application to their volunteer database at https://rewildingeurope.com/volunteer-database/.
The Wolves and Humans Foundation
- This is a UK based charity dedicated to the conservation of Europe’s large carnivores including wolves, bears and lynx.
- They work with local communities to find practical ways to coexist with large carnivores providing training, education and developing ways to protect livestock from carnivore attacks and prevent human wildlife conflict.
- They have set up something called the White Dog Fund which you can donate to, providing financial support to farmers in rural regions that may suffer damages from carnivores. For example, money from the White Dog Fund allowed the charity to help a farmer who suffered loss of sheep to wolves and damage to beehives from bears by setting up electrified fencing to prevent further damage. You can read more about this initiative at https://www.wolvesandhumans.org/how_to_help_pages/white_dog_fund.html
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