Macedonia’s Emblematic Wildcat

by Sarolta Pápai, Hungary

One of the rarest and most elusive animals that dwell in Macedonia is the Balkan Lynx, a member of the wildcat family. Although no more than 40 of this rare species live in the remote mountains in Western Macedonia, they have acquired a mythic status. As fantastic characters in winter-inspired cartoons, lurking above the deep snow and bare trees, they have already populated the imagination of Macedonian children.

The lynx really became well-known after 1993. At that time, the Macedonian government took a moderate stance, unlike the other countries of war-torn former Yugoslavia. It chose to feature symbols of its cultural and natural heritage, rather than military heroes and poets, on its new currency and postage. Not everyone agreed.Strong debates in the Parliament ensued and there were many murmurings among Macedonian patriots who worried about the ability of the country to declare its independence with “dogs, fish and cats,” instead of great historic figures. At that time it seems that the myth-lovers were ignorant of the fact that the name of an ancient Macedonian tribe, the Lynkestis, means “Land of the Lynx.”

The popularity of the unusual animal was a benefit for this rare species. The Balkan Lynx, which lives on the ridges of Mavrovo, Korab, Shar Planina and other high and uninhabited areas, belongs to a subspecies of the Eurasian Lynx. Throughout Europe, this animal has been driven to the brink of extinction and countries throughout Europe are implementing programs aimed at preservation and reintroduction of the animal into its natural habitat. But the experts are unanimous in acknowledging that popular awareness is the crucial factor in saving the lynx from extinction.

Largest and most elusive cat

The Balkan lynx is considered Europe’s largest cat. It has a reddish brown to light grey fur and can grow up to a meter in length, 65 centimeters in height and weigh 25 kilos. It has a short tail, thick neck, long legs and tufts of hair in both ears. Because of its short tail it largely relies on ear movements for communication. The lynx lives a solitary life. The males are not aggressive and they prefer to avoid one another. They need a huge area for hunting, and usually do not overlap their territory with other lynx. When hunting they can travel a distance of 10 to 20 kilometers. They regularly patrol their hunting range, leavingscentmarks to assert their presence to other animals. They are very silent animals. They have been observed to mew, hiss, growl and purr like domestic cats. They even “chatter” when their prey is close. The silence is only broken in the breeding season, when both the males and the females make much louder mating calls. They usually mate from January to April and produce one to four kittens.The lynx lives a reclusive life and mainly hunts at night.It preys on smallerwild animals like rabbits, hares, mice, rodents, and wild goats.In winter, when food supply is limited,they may attack larger prey. They donot hesitate to feed on carrion, but rarely attack livestock. The lynx usually hunts by stalking, sneaking and jumping on prey. When possible they like to ambush their quarry. They use both sight and hearing when hunting and can often climb onto high rocks or fallen trees to scan the surrounding area.

Local villagers, shepherds and hunters say it is very hard to spot a lynx. They are very stealthy and move in the trees like shadows. During the day, they mainly sleep in dense thickets or other safe places and leave only traces of their footprints in the snow In winter, following their prey they come to the lowlands, avoiding the deep snow. They avoid wolves as it is reported that the wolves tend to attack them.

Action to protect the lynx from extinction

In Macedonia hunting of the lynx is prohibited by law. There are also several international conventions that protect this wildcat. But NGO activists consider the legal framework insufficient to save the lynx from extinction. In the past ten years, many scientists and wildlife conservationist have started action to improve the critical status of this endangered species. They are cooperating regionally as the Balkan lynx is also threatened in Albania, Kosovo and Montenegro.

In cooperation with Euronatur from Germany, Swiss-based NGO KORA and the Norwegian Institute for Nature Research, a detailed strategy for preservation has been developed.

Their initiativesare directed towards expansionand improvement of the protected areas where the lynx dwell. The destruction of thenatural habitat fromwoodcutting, hunting and other human activities degrades the quality of the pristine environment the lynx needs to survive.

Increased public awareness and the involvement of the local population is an important measure. Hunters should avoid catching not only the lynx, but the animals on which they prey for survival.

The Macedonian ecologic society has carried out research using camera traps and surveys of local inhabitants to estimate the lynx population. In the Mavrovo National park Mavrovo, at least seven lynx have been recorded.