The return of the lynx

Is it possible for these wild cats, not seen in West Pomerania region of Poland for generations, to return?
12.07.2021 | Paulina Król

Is it possible for these wild cats, not seen in West Pomerania region of Poland for generations, to return?

West Pomerania is covered with a thick grid of roads, some of which never cease to emit noise. The terrain is varied but mostly sandy. The forests that cover 35,7% of its territory are mostly meager pine forests.

Who would dare to introduce Eurasian lynx into such an environment? Should everything we knew about this species be considered spurious?
It was thought that it prefers terrain with dense undergrowth, lots of deadwood and is afraid of all roads, even forest ones. But this secretive feline
has not yet let itself be truly known.

The Mirosławiec Forest Inspectorate has taken up the gauntlet thrown by the West Pomeranian Nature Society, which by the way takes care of one of only six free-living herds of European bison in Poland.

"We decided that, since we have bison, we might as well have lynxes" – jokes Paweł Olszacki, Mirosławiec Forest Manager. Lynxes are a valuable and intriguing species, and when they acclimatize to our conditions and start breeding, this will be considered a success on a world scale.

So far, the attempts to re-introduce lynx in Europe usually ended in failure. Will the West Pomeranian project end in success, only time will tell.

Project “The return of the lynx in North-West Poland.”

The main purpose of the project is to rebuild the lynx population and securing proper conditions for its development in West Pomerania. The project is run by the West Pomeranian Nature Society, in conjunction with the Biology of Mammals Institute of Polish Academy of Science in Białowieża, and the Culture Centre in Mirosławiec.

The cost-free cooperation with State Forests includes providing optimal conditions for deer, mainly roe deer, it being the basic food for lynxes, and providing terrain for the enclosure. An important part of the project is the education of the local community, to let them know what the lynx reintroduction means for them. This is to prevent potential conflict between the predators and livestock. Though the lynx prefers wild game, in case it is hungry, or just being lazy, it can be tempted by poultry, especially if the chicken coop is not properly secured.

The project is co-financed with money from the Cohesion Fund in the Operational Programme of Infrastructure and Environment.

The two brothers

The tenth of May 2019 is the day in which for the first time in 200 years lynxes appeared in Mirosławiec forests. Two two-year males were brought from a German Zoo – Bayerwald Tierpark. They were first put in a special enclosure, where they were fed natural food, inter alia, deer. Lynxes stay there for a maximum of a year to get accustomed to their surroundings, then they move out.

Since 2019 successive lynxes are being released. Only last year they were 36 (out of which 16 in Mirosławiec forest district), and a dozen more are in the plans. These numbers are amazing since according to Polish Central Statistical Office in 2018 in Poland there were only 427 lynxes, and some sources state that in reality, it's only half that number.

These animals migrate and occupy enormous territories. In Poland, it's around 250 km2, and male territories are much larger than those of females. Tomcats fight tooth and nail to defend their territory from competitors and sometimes it's a fight to death.

Contrary to what we knew so far

Due to its secretive lifestyle, we do not have a lot of knowledge about lynx.
According to scientists, about 50% of the young ones die before reaching adulthood, mainly on the roads. West Pomeranian Natural Society believes however that this wild cat is slowly adapting itself to the new reality.

"The death rate of the young lynxes released in our project is 25%. We can prove it", says Maciej Tracz, the society's vice-president. "Each of our lynxes has a telemetric collar, so we know where they migrate".

The data thus acquired is rather surprising. It turns out the lynx is not as choosy and capricious as we thought. As shown by the example of a male called Pako, even the highway is not an insurmountable barrier. He traveled for a year, from the Ińsk lake district, around Gdańsk, Bydgoszcz, and Poznań until he arrived in Germany. He even swam across the river Warta! Other lynxes, though their travels are not as spectacular, also prove that roads are not insurmountable barriers. It is also a myth that lynxes can't swim. Probably they will not become passionate swimmers, but when forced by the need of travel or procreation, they can get their feet wet.

In nature, lynxes pair up for very short periods, and the female raises her young alone. All lynxes in the project are subject to genetic testing, to check the level of kinship and avoid the risk of inbreeding. We can also be sure it is not of the Carpathian variety, which prevails in the mountain regions of Southern Poland.

Both, the forest inspector and Michał Dubiał, Nature Conservation specialist in Mirosławiec Forestry, are full of optimism. Dubiał says, that the creation of a breeding subpopulation of lynx in Poland seems a real possibility. West Pomeranian Nature Society reports many cubs that "their" female lynxes gave birth to in the wild. The latest are three cubs of the female called Nelly. The young ones are not given telemetric collars, but we hope their mother will raise them well, and that we will have in our forests the first generation of lynxes fully raised in the wild.

Reintroducing the lynx in Poland

Every lynx has its character, some would even say temper. Getting to know the lynxes and their behavior is an added incentive for the people working on the project. The "training" consists of getting the lynxes accustomed to eating wild game, and to… lose their trust in humans. Obviously, the animals transported from zoos in Germany or Austria are not afraid of people. For their reintroduction in the natural environment to be a success, they need to be wild, secretive and avoid humans.

"We want to reintroduce the lynx to Poland" – says Marcin Grzegorek, the Society specialist, preparing the enclosure lynxes to a life in nature. We will be satisfied when we achieve a stable, breeding population, and lynx will be considered a common species.

So far, such plans may be met with an indulgent smile, since despite becoming a protected species in 1995, the lynx population is not growing, and even a decline in numbers has been observed. It is however worth trying, and every observation made in the attempt has its weight in gold.