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The hills are alive with the sound of big cats

The lynx was on the verge of extinction in Europe in the 19th century swissinfo.ch

A project to ensure the survival of the endangered Swiss lynx is being hailed as a success.

This content was published on December 26, 2001 - 08:22

In spring this year, under the auspices of the state-funded Luno project (Lynx Relocation North Eastern Switzerland), six of the large carnivores were moved for their own protection from the northwestern to the northeastern Alps. The group is now thriving and there have been no reports of any attacks on livestock in the area.

A threatened species

In the nineteenth century, the lynx nearly died out in southern and western Europe due to deforestation and a depletion of roe deer stock - the big cat's prey. By the early 1970s, the alpine forests were expanding and game was in abundance. Conditions were ripe for the reintroduction of a sophisticated predator to pick off the weakest game and promote the evolution of a strong deer population.

By 1985 there were 50 big cats in Switzerland. Within 15 years, the number had doubled. But population growth was concentrated in the northwestern alpine region, with a corresponding depletion of roe deer stock, which angered hunters. Sheep breeders were also alarmed by increased attacks on their livestock.

One poacher took matters into his own hands. In 1999, the head of the federal hunting office received a parcel in the mail containing four lynx paws and a card with the message, "Greetings from the Jungle of the Bernese Alps."

In the northeastern Alps, isolated groups of lynx were vulnerable and the population declined. The big cats proved to be poor colonisers. High mountain ridges and fenced highways were insurmountable barriers to the spread of the population.

It was clear that something had to be done to redress the balance between the failing population in the east and the thriving one in the west, which was the focus of such controversy.

The rescue plan

In August 2000, federal and cantonal authorities adopted the Swiss Lynx concept plan. This involved the translocation of the predators, under the LUNO project, to management compartments with few or no lynx. Six lynx were captured in cantons Bern, Fribourg and Vaud, put in quarantine for a short period, then relocated to the Toggenburg mountains in canton St. Gallen and the Toessstock game sanctuary in canton Zurich. The ultimate goal is to join the Swiss population with the one in the eastern Alps, helping the lynx to spread over the whole of the Alpine arc.

The lynx remains a protected species under Swiss hunting law, but farmers are entitled to compensation if any of their livestock is damaged. As a concession to the hunters, there are also guidelines for culling the carnivores if there is a substantial reduction of the their natural prey in any area.

Monitoring

The animals have vast home territories of between 100 and 200 square kilometres, allowing them to stage surprise attacks on their prey. Luno project leader, Andreas Ryser, says hunters need not fear a steep decline in the roe deer population - the lynx are unlikely to kill so many deer that their own prey becomes extinct. He adds that the big cats do not present a tangible danger to human beings - attacks are very rare.

The lynx are fitted with transmitters in order to monitor their movements. Ryser covers vast distances with his tracking equipment, making detailed daily notes on the location of each carnivore. He has been able to observe that the dominant male, Vino, is watching over the three females, Nura, Baya and Aura. Vino keeps the other male, Odin, at a distance.

Rocco, the third male, was last located in late August, when contact from his radio collar was lost. A search flight and intensive scanning of the lynx's known home range and adjacent areas have failed to locate the animal. Ryser believes that either his transmitter is not working or he has roamed beyond transmitting range.

The pioneering Luno research project has been funded for an initial trial period of three years, but Ryser hopes it will continue long into the future. It may even serve as a role model for international wildlife rescue packages to restore and maintain failing lynx populations in other parts of the world.

by Julie Hunt

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