Monday, 26 March 2012

Tracking in Slovakia

There's something thrilling (and difficult to describe) about simply being in a landscape where wolf and lynx roam. The chances of an encounter are slim, yet even finding their tracks had us buzzing with excitement.

Eurasian lynx by Robin Rigg, SWS. Copyright.
I was helping to lead Slovak Wildlife Society's White Wilderness trip - a tracking survey aimed at getting a clearer picture of the much-contested wolf and lynx numbers. Hunters say there are far too many wolves  - 1500 they claim, which is certainly an overestimate. Some environmental groups fear there is one tenth of that, which is probably on the low side. The real figure is somewhere between these, and to establish it would help to inform decisions to safeguard the future of these magnificent animals.

Early starts and long walks though deep snow in sub zero temperatures were part of the daily routine, as was the great hospitality in the warm lodge owned by our Slovak hosts. An extra treat was the local thermal spa where we luxuriated like Japanese macaques while the crisp night air (-18 degrees C) froze our hair and eyebrows!

Collecting hair samples from a lynx's resting spot
 by Sam Puls
Our aim was to gather as many samples and data as possible and we made deliberate effort to reduce the chances of disturbing the large carnivores themselves. Trailing lynx and wolves was really exciting, and offered a privileged glimpse into the movements of these charismatic predators (quite literally sometimes, as we collected scat samples to help with DNA and prey analysis). At times we followed a wolf trail for several kilometres before having any idea how many were in the pack; they like to step in one another's footprints to save energy, and after walking through deep snow for any length of time, it's easy to see what an efficient strategy this is!

During the survey days we saw tracks and signs of a whole host of wildlife including martens, wild boar, stoats, foxes and incredibly even brown bear. Bears would normally be in hibernation in early February, but the extreme cold had taken its toll on their reserves, and forced them to get out and forage. We were also treated to views of red and roe deer, red squirrels, foxes, hares and one participant even saw the local beech marten. Among the birds we saw crossbills and crested tits, through to ravens and a golden eagle - it was a wildlife paradise situated in a spectacular Narnia-esque landscape.

One wolf pack we trailed went across two pistes in a ski resort, a couple of hundred metres from a hotel! this reminded me how closely these maligned but shy predators can be to human activity with virtually no-one being aware they're around.

Slovak Wildlife Society is doing excellent work, not only with this survey but also in a range of other projects aimed at reducing conflicts between predators and humans. For more about their work or to find out about the next White Wilderness trip, visit www.slovakwildlife.org
Wolf trail through forest in a ski resort

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