Looking for lynx in the Swiss Alps

Posted on 24 October 2006

The lynx, like its fellow European predators the brown bear and wolf, was wiped out of Switzerland's alpine landscape by the end of the 19th century as a result of human activity and persecution. One hundred years later and the pointy-eared feline has found its way back to the mountains, but just barely. Find out more about human-wildlife conflict in the Swiss Alps.

By Mark Schulman*

Here kitty kitty, here kitty kitty.

If you think looking for your cat in some remote corner of your house is a daily challenge, try finding its more elusive distant cousin in a forest.

With only 100 believed to be found in the entire Swiss Alps, tracking down the lynx is no easy task. So hard, that a recent lynx excursion in the picture-perfect Simmental Valley in the Bernese Oberland came with a disclaimer that the chances of seeing the pointy-eared feline in its natural habitat were next to zero. Even stumbling across a paw print or a slight sign of its existence, even its scat, could not be guaranteed.

So why even lead such a trip that offers such low expectations?

“The excursion was never actually about seeing a lynx,” said Joanna Schoenenberger, a large carnivore expert with WWF’s European Alpine Programme who led a group of outdoor enthusiasts from the Swiss capital, Bern, through lynx territory.

“It was about introducing people, particularly from the city, to the kind of wildlife that lives right in their backyard, the Alps, and more importantly, about trying to understand the growing conflicts between wildlife and local communities and farmers.”

Linking the lynx
The lynx, like its fellow European predators the brown bear and wolf, was wiped out of Switzerland’s alpine landscape by the end of the 19th century as a result of human population growth, combined with forest conversion for agriculture and logging that saw their habitat encroached upon and their main prey, roe deer, drastically reduced. They were also persecuted by local farmers who saw them as a threat to their livestock, especially when grazing high in the alpine meadows. It is believed the last lynx in the Swiss Alps was killed in 1894, not too far from where our excursion took place.

Fast forward about a 100 years and the situation has changed. As large-scale deforestation came to an end, forest cover increased and deer populations dramatically recovered, creating the right ecological conditions for the lynx to return, albeit with a little help. According to the IUCN/SSC Cat Specialist Group, at least 14 lynx were translocated in the 1970s from the Carpathian Mountains in Eastern Europe to the Swiss Alps, making Switzerland one of the first European countries to endorse the re-introduction of this species, as well as grant it legal protection. Today, there are about 100 individuals in Switzerland, consisting of two main populations — one in the northwest Swiss Alps, which includes the Interlaken area, and the other in the Jura Mountains overlooking Lac Léman (or Lake Geneva) and continuing on to France.

“The two populations are not enough,” stressed Schoenenberger. “They are too small and isolated to be viable, and the lack of contact between the populations can lead to a decrease in the genetic pool. We have already observed several lynx with hip problems, a genetic defect that indicates inbreeding.”

According to WWF, the present lynx distribution does not reflect the potential range of the species in the Alps — only 18,100km2, less than 10 per cent of the Alp’s entire 192,000km2 range, is permanently occupied.

In order to link the lynx, a WWF-supported project was established in Switzerland by the government (coordinated through the Swiss-based KORA Carnivore Research Centre) to restore the endangered cat species across the whole alpine region, particularly trying to link the two main alpine populations between Switzerland and Slovenia. As part of the project, six lynx were translocated in 2001 from the north-western Swiss Alps to suitable areas on the eastern side.

“Connecting the populations is crucial to their survival,” Schoenenberger added. “It’s the only hope we have.”

Lynching the lynx
But not everyone is looking to connect the populations, let alone endorse the return of this carnivore. Many rural communities in Switzerland still retain the notion that the lynx, as well as a handful of wolves and one bear that crossed from Italy last summer, are ferocious killers and a threat to their livestock and livelihoods (even though a majority of sheep mortalities are a result of dog attacks).

One elderly farmer met along the way expressed concern for the safety of his sheep with lynx in the area, and held the predator directly responsible for the decrease in game that once grazed in the nearby forest.

“I used to see many chamois (wild goat) and deer foraging down here in the valley, but since the lynx came back there is now nothing,” he said, pointing to one of his fields up the hill. “I am not so happy about the lynx, but I guess we’ll have to get used to it.”

Some farmers and hunters, however, openly blame conservationists for its reintroduction. Lynx researchers working the Simmental Valley area have been threatened on many occasions by locals and had their tracking equipment damaged. They, and the species they are trying to study, have not been welcome.

Such hostile attitudes are reflected in a recently published Swiss novel, aptly titled Luchs (or Lynx in German), which depicts the conflict between conservationists and local hunters and sheep farmers through the eyes of a young man from the city doing his civil service with lynx researchers in the field.

“The novel is based on my experience as a research volunteer at a time when several lynx were found shot or poisoned in this very valley,” said author Urs Mannhart, who read passages during the lynx excursion.

“The conflict in the book and the events that happen are not far from the truth,” added Mannhart, who was personally threatened and had his tyres slashed when monitoring the lynx in the winter of 2000. “I wrote the book to show how real the hatred for this animal really was.”

Although a protected species within Switzerland and Europe, illegal lynx killings remain the predominant cause of mortality. Government records confirm that 49 lynx have been poached since the 1970s. With current funding for lynx monitoring down and researchers not as often in the field, determining their status in the wild is getting more difficult.

“The real number of illegal lynx killings is estimated to be at least four times the recorded number, as many go unrecorded or uninvestigated,” said Schoenenberger. “This year the numbers of lynx in several key areas have decreased because of poaching. No poacher has ever been convicted.”

Living with lynx
Not all farmers have a death warrant out for the lynx. Konrad Egger, from Zweisimmen in the Simmental Valley, has lost 140 of his sheep to lynx in the past 13 years, and only one-third of his losses have been compensated by the government. Still he is not bitter.

“Despite my losses I can live with some lynx,” said Egger, who unlike many of his fellow farmers, is open to dialogue and came along on the lynx excursion to share his experience. “One shouldn’t poach the lynx, but at the same time they shouldn’t be re-introduced. If there are too many, something needs to be done. They need to be hunted.”

Farmers aren’t the only ones concerned. One woman on the excursion — an elementary school teacher from the nearby alpine resort town of Gstaad — said she wasn’t necessarily against drastic measures if lynx were proving to be a problem.

“The kids love learning about the lynx,” said the woman, a WWF member for 30 years, “but the parents, many who are against the lynx for their attacks on their sheep, are not so happy. I try to be balanced when teaching and discuss the different sides to the problem, but personally, if there are too many lynx or too many attacks I am not opposed to shooting them.”

The gap between attitudes towards the lynx is still broad. That is why groups like WWF are working on educating and involving local communities, especially when it comes to lynx management.

“The return of large predators to our densely populated region represents a big challenge,” Schoenenberger added. “The only probability of success lies with sensitizing and informing the general population, particularly local communities living within lynx territory.

One method to deal with livestock attacks has been the introduction of guard dogs, a protection technique that disappeared long ago with the disappearance of the lynx, as well as the wolf. In an attempt to bring back the traditional use of guard dogs after many generations in Switzerland, WWF offers advice on how to choose the right animals for protection. Great Pyreneans and Maremmano-Abruzzeses are two breeds that have proven effective. Other changes to farmers’ herding practices, including the use of electric fences, provide additional livestock protection from carnivore predation.

More excursions into lynx country are also part of an ongoing plan to educate people from all walks of Swiss life about their environment, the Alps, and the many species that live there.

“Lynx need support to regain their once lost territory and our tolerance,” Schoenenberger said. “People need to want the lynx if they’re going to survive here.”

“The future of the lynx in the Alps depends on cooperation and on solutions on how to co-exist with large carnivores,” she added. “In the end, natural diversity will depend on cultural diversity.”

* Mark Schulman is Managing Editor at WWF International, based in Gland, Switzerland.


• The Alps are one of the largest and highest mountain ranges in the world, covering some 192,000km2 of land area, stretching from Austria and Slovenia in the east, through Italy, Switzerland, Liechtenstein and Germany to France in the west. About 13 million people live in the Alps in over 6,000 communities.

• There are an estimated 8,000 lynx throughout Europe. The lynx population in the Carpathians is estimated at about 2,900 (KORA, 2001), the densest in Europe.

• The Eurasian lynx (Lynx lynx) is the third largest predator in Europe after the brown bear and the wolf. Adults weigh between 15–28kg, and the body length ranges from 90–110cm. Males are larger than females, and individuals from the species’ northern and eastern geographical range tend to be larger than those from southern and western areas. There are four species of lynx, but one, the Iberian lynx (Lynx pardinus), is close to extinction with only 100 left in the wild. The other two species are the Canada lynx (Lynx canadensis) and the bobcat (Lynx rufus), which is native to North America.
There are about 100 lynx in Switzerland, consisting of two main populations — one in the northwest Swiss Alps, which includes the Interlaken area, and the other in the Jura Mountains overlooking Lac Léman (or Lake Geneva) and continuing on to France.
© WWF / Fritz Pölking
Safiental, Grisons, Switzerland. FSC certified forest
© WWF-Switzerland / A. della Bella / WWF
Joanna Schoenenberger, large carnivore expert with WWF's European Alpine Programme, examining a lynx radio collar on an excusion through lynx territory. Simmental Valley, Bernese Alps, Switzerland.
© WWF / Mark Schulman
Roe deer is one of the lynx's main prey.
© WWF / Fred F. Hazelhoff
Konrad Egger (left) has lost 140 of his sheep to Eurasian lynx in the past 13 years. Despite his losses, Egger is open to dialogue with conservationists and came along on the lynx excursion to share his experience. Simmental Valley, Bernese Alps, Switzerland.
© WWF / Mark Schulman
Guard dogs are being trained to protect livestock from fox, raven and wolves. There is also some evidence that they have scared bears away too. Ticino, Switzerland.
© Mark Schulman / WWF