European wildlife experts meeting in Italy say Switzerland has had the greatest success in reintroducing the lynx. Of all the Alpine nations that have tried to bring back the predator, only Switzerland has managed to establish a thriving population.
The delegates of Scalp (Status and Conservation of the Alpine Lynx Population) applauded Switzerland's success in reintroducing the once-extinct predator. Representatives from seven alpine nations agreed that the growing lynx population in the Bernese Alps meant the predator was likely to spread to neighbouring countries.
The decline of the lynx in western Europe occurred in the 19th century, when the habitat of its natural prey, the roe deer, was destroyed by farmers clearing forest for agriculture. The remaining predators were eventually hunted to extinction, after they began killing livestock for food.
In the 1970s, several countries including Switzerland tried to reintroduce lynx on an experimental basis. In Austria the attempt failed, but in Switzerland it yielded impressive results, and there are now around 150 lynx living wild, including a thriving population in the Bernese Alps.
"Switzerland has a crucial role to play," says Anja Joban, co-ordinator of Scalp. "We have the biggest lynx population and will now try a translocation project: moving lynx from western to eastern Switzerland. I think other countries will be watching this project carefully, before they try to reintroduce any lynx of their own."
The chief problem is public opposition. Hunters and sheep farmers in the Bernese Alps say lynx are killing too many deer, and are even starting to prey on sheep. Their complaints are causing concern in Switzerland's eastern cantons, where resistance to the predator is equally strong.
The authorities say they are sensitive to the farmers' concerns, but are committed to expanding the lynx's habitat to eastern Switzerland. One reason is that lynx need plenty of space. A fully-grown male typically ranges over an area of 200 square kilometres, and will drive out any lynx that tries to encroach on his territory.
"Switzerland has a big responsibility here," says Willy Geiger of the Swiss Federal Office for the Environment. "We've got the biggest lynx population, and it will almost certainly spread to other alpine countries."
Thomas Huber, a lynx specialist from Austria, agrees. He says the "Swiss Alps are not big enough to support a viable lynx population long-term". But he believes the lynx will only win acceptance in Austria if it comes across the border of its own accord.
Huber says the Austrian attempt to reintroduce the lynx failed because most of the animals were shot by poachers. Also, he doesn't think the Austrian public would accept another attempt to bring the lynx back. "It's a psychological problem. If the animal comes back naturally, people are more likely to accept it. Although Austria has the perfect habitat for lynx, I don't think we can try reintroduction again."
If Huber is right, the Swiss plan to reintroduce the lynx in eastern areas may be a first step to bringing the animal back to Austria. Although man-made barriers, such as motorways, make it difficult for lynx to move from western to eastern Switzerland, they shouldn't have any problem crossing into Austria because the Alps stretch across the border.
Paolo Molinari of the Italian lynx project believes the situation in similar in Italy. "There are just too many political problems involved in reintroduction," he says. "The Italian people are not ready for such a project."
Everyone at the Scalp conference agreed that lynx would inevitably spread out of Switzerland. The task ahead, therefore, is to co-ordinate monitoring and research, so that each country knows what the others are doing in this field. Above all, Scalp hopes to avoid the mistakes of the 1970s by mounting public information campaigns aimed at reducing people's fear of the animal.
Meanwhile, the WorldWide Fund for Nature is lending a hand. The WWF's large carnivore project aims to increase public awareness of predators so they are accepted by all sectors of society.
"We need a pragmatic approach," says the WWF's William Pratesi. "I'm glad to see that the Swiss translation project seems to be working out. These types of conservation issues are always a trade-off. Obviously you can't have lynx everywhere, but I think we can work harder at showing people that the return of the lynx is a sign of a well-balanced ecosystem. It's the natural top predator in the Alps, and if it's here, and thriving, we humans can be confident that we too are living in a healthy environment."
by Imogen Foulkes