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Lynx population spreads to the east

A captive lynx in Goldau zoo in central Switzerland


The government and cantons have settled a long-running dispute over the reintroduction of the lynx, or wild mountain cat, in parts of the country.

Cantons in eastern Switzerland have agreed to welcome the lynx on to their territory, in return for being allowed to shoot the predators under certain conditions.

Previously, the federal authorities had insisted that they should retain the right to decide whether an animal could be hunted. They have now agreed to let the cantons make that decision, according to guidelines laid down by the government. One of the main criteria is the number of livestock attacked or killed by a lynx.

The lynx died out in Switzerland at the beginning of the 20th century. Farmers hated the wild mountain cats, because they killed domestic livestock when they couldn't find their normal diet of smaller wild mammals. And although the lynx was cautiously reintroduced in western Switzerland 30 years ago, controversy over the animal still rages.

"They were seen as a threat to livestock a century ago and were hunted by farmers," said Urs Breitenmoser, coordinator of Switzerland's lynx research and management project. "In areas where people still live from livestock that image continues."

In fact, Breitenmoser believes that the lynx died out not just because it was aggressively hunted by farmers, but because its natural habitat was being destroyed.

"In the middle of the 19th century Switzerland was close to ecological collapse," he said. "Deforestation was taking place on a massive scale, so the lynx had nowhere to live, and neither did the smaller animals which the lynx naturally hunted."

Because of this, Breitenmoser and a colleague, Simon Capt from the University of Neuchatel's centre of animal research, believe that the return of large carnivores to the Alps is a cause for celebration.

"It's a natural consequence of the better conditions for animals," said Capt. "One hundred years ago things were much worse. Now we are caring for the environment more and regenerating our forests, so the animals are coming back too."

Capt is also monitoring the return of an uninvited large carnivore to Switzerland; the wolf. He accepts that the arrival of the wolf is a cause of serious worry to farming communities, but says simply shooting the animals when they get out of hand, as was recently agreed in the case of a wolf in canton Valais, is not a solution.

"It will be a big problem to gain acceptance," he agreed, "but shooting is not the answer, except perhaps in individual cases. We need to find a longterm solution: we need to make sure these animals don't spread out of control, and we need to address the fears of farmers, but we must also allow wolves and lynx to live. It's a big challenge for us."

Urs Breitenmoser has an answer for those who question what Switzerland can actually gain by allowing the reintroduction of animals which have caused so many problems in the past.

"You have to see that allowing a species to die out, such as the lynx, is a sign of an imbalance in nature," he said. "If the lynx is coming back it's a good sign. Switzerland won't gain economically by having these animals back, it's more a question of how we value nature. As a Swiss citizen I want them to return, it's a great thing to have all these animals back when they have been absent for so long."

by Imogen Foulkes


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