After several decades of low numbers, the return of the lynx to the European forests is slow but steady.
The Eurasian lynx was once quite common in most of Europe. Nevertheless, most original populations became extinct, or their abundance has been dramatically reduced in the last two centuries due to hunting, landscape changes, and habitat fragmentation that hinder migration. Protecting large carnivores like lynx and their habitats is a key element of WWF’s New Deal for Nature and People, and its goal to halt and reverse biodiversity and habitat loss by 2030.
Successful reintroduction into their appropriate habitats strongly depends on acceptance by the general public. International Lynx Day, first introduced in 2017, is a collaborative initiative of the transboundary 3Lynx Project to increase awareness and promote peaceful co-existence between lynx and local residents.
In many areas, lynx were intentionally eradicated by humans. However, starting from the 1970s, lynx were ensured legal protection and reintroduction programmes began. Lynx currently number around 9000 in Europe, of which 2300-2400 are found in the Carpathian Mountains. These promising numbers foster nature conservationists’ belief that the beautiful and shy felines will find their rightful place back to the heart of Europe’s forests. The return of the lynx but remains a heated topic of debate, but fortunately it is backed by strict protection and many conservation projects.
The lynx disappeared from Hungary around the time of WWI, but clues to their reappearance began to be found (scat, tracks, hair) again in the 1980s. Camera traps in the Börzsöny, Bükk, Tarna Hills, Aggtelek Karst and Zemplén have recorded increasingly more evidence of their permanent settlement in Hungary. This elusive big cat has been highly protected since 1993.
WWF-Ukraine launched the “Save the Lynx Programme” in 2019 to engage the public and improve effective conservation efforts at both the regional and national levels. According to the latest estimates, there are 563 lynx in Ukraine, of which 435 are in the Carpathians and the rest in Polissya. WWF-Ukraine recently completed a lynx distribution map for the country. Even though lynx enjoy protected status in Ukraine, the organisation will not make the map public since the animals will be better protected if poachers do not know their locations.
Last year, there were 2860 reports of poaching, out of which 56 were charged and only 2 prosecuted. WWF-Ukraine is continuing to develop appropriate monitoring and research strategies, establish current threats and to ensure proper habitat conservation and management. Camera traps recorded their first success in February when a lynx was seen in the Chernobyl Biosphere Reserve.
Approximately 1200-1500 lynx are living within a 6000 km2 area of Romania. According to the experts, the Romanian lynx population is quite healthy and occupies a broad variety of landscapes in the Carpathian Mountains. The biggest threats to the population are habitat disturbance and fragmentation, degradation of forest habitats, lack of a science-based population management, reduction of prey availability due to the over hunting and poaching, and diseases and parasites spread by stray cats and dogs. WWF-Romania currently operates two projects dedicated to large carnivores – including the lynx. Projects such as Open Borders for Wildlife in the Carpathians focus on improving the ecological connectivity of their habitats, and advancing human-large carnivore coexistence.
The largest lynx population in the Western Carpathians is found in Central and Eastern Slovakia, consisting of 300-350 individuals. These lynx are a source of natural population dispersion to surrounding countries. According to 5 years of systematic research, the core population is in good shape. However, despite strict protection, the high rate of poaching and fragmentation of habitats has meant that the numbers are stagnating.
Two different species of lynx exist in Europe. The more abundant Eurasian lynx (Lynx lynx) is also the largest lynx in the world. Its smaller relative, the Iberian lynx (Lynx pardinus) is only found on the Iberian Peninsula.
The Eurasian lynx is a highly endangered species, protected under national laws and the EU Habitat Directive. Adult lynx weigh between 20-35 kg, and measure 70 cm in height at the withers. The lynx usually starts its day at dusk, but during the mating season it may travel during daytime. Otherwise, they tend to spend their days resting in the shelter of a rock break, cave entrance, or under an old tree. Its menu consists mainly of forest mice, deer, fox, and sometimes unprotected calves.
Lynx are territorial animals that roam areas of up to 400 square kilometres, meaning that lynx regularly cross borders and their home territories often overlap several countries. Therefore, lynx require coherent forests to survive. One of the reasons for its rarity is that the lynx insists on undisturbed, dense old forests for its habitat, a condition that is becoming more and more difficult to fulfil in Europe. In order to effectively protect the lynx, a European approach at a scientific, political and public level is absolutely essential. Linking Central European populations with each other is the key for the long-term survival of the species.
The Danube-Carpathian Region – also known as the Green Heart of Europe – is home to some two-thirds of Europe’s populations of large carnivores, including brown bears, wolves and lynx. Bears and other large carnivores suffer from illegal hunting. But arguably a greater, longer-term threat lies in the fragmentation and degradation of their habitats e.g. from infrastructure construction. Conflicts between people and large carnivores are also growing, mostly due to inappropriate behaviour by people.
WWF is addressing these problems by focusing its efforts on securing critical corridors and conservation areas, e.g. in the southwest Carpathians (the Lugoj-Deva motorway construction) and in Maramures. We also promote public awareness regarding large carnivores to increase the appreciation and understanding of these magnificent animals and their vital role in managing ecosystems, as well as to help people avoid unnecessary conflicts with them. Current projects include Open Borders for Wildlife, ConnectGREEN and the LIFE project.
The challenge is to integrate lynx monitoring, conservation, and management of conflicts between stakeholders. With the right incentives, things can change.