Victoria Hillman is a National Geographic Explorer and Research Director for the Transylvanian Wildlife Project overseeing research on carnivores and biodiversity of Europe’s last great wilderness. Follow the expedition here on Explorers Journal through updates from the team.
The Carpathian mountains are home to two species of wild cat, the Eurasian lynx (Lynx lynx) and the European wildcat (Felis silvestris silvestris). In Europe both these species are found in forested areas with low human disturbance and are incredibly elusive with the best method for estimating population numbers and capturing behaviours being the use of camera traps. We have set camera traps up throughout the forest at varying altitudes and differing habitats and have not been disappointed with the results.
The Eurasian lynx is the largest of the four species of lynx found worldwide. Historically, the lynx inhabits mountainous, forested regions from Central Asia and Russia through Europe. The Carpathians are home to the largest continuous population of lynx making it the most important population in Europe since populations in Western Europe have been greatly reduced or completely eradicated due to hunting and habitat loss.
The Carpathian population is not only the second largest (behind Siberia), but is also completely isolated from other populations. Several different literatures describes the population as being a sub-species (Lynx lynx carpathicus), although the exact classification of subspecies is still being debated. In 2000, population estimates ranged from 1,700 to 2,600 — a stark contrast with the most recent estimate for the whole of the Carpathian mountains sitting between 2,300-2,400 individuals. Romania alone is estimated to have approximately 1,200 individuals, with an estimate of 60-75 individuals in Covasna and less than 10 in the Ciomad-Balvanyos area.
There is a complete ban on hunting lynx in Romania. Although populations are considered stable, there are concerns about the future of the Eurasian lynx due to increasing human populations, habitat fragmentation, continued hunting, and inconclusive population estimates. The European lynx is the largest of all the lynx species and is the only one that will regularly prey on ungulates leading to conflicts with hunters resulting in poaching.
We have been encouraged by the footage we have captured so far. Our work is ongoing to identify individuals and to gain an estimate of the population of the area. Unfortunately, we have received information that our posts and videos are being monitored. We have already had a couple of cameras stolen and do not wish to disclose any further details about the lynx in this area. Here is a compilation of some of the footage we have captured so far.
The wildcat (Felis silvestris), is the most widespread of wildcat species found across Eurasia and Africa. The European wildcat is one of five subspecies of the wildcat and is found across most of Europe. Despite being listed as “Least Concern” on the IUCN Red List, populations are decreasing and have become locally extinct in some countries.
Information about the wildcat in the Carpathians is scarce at best, but it is thought that the population in Romania is around 10,000 individuals, with an estimate of 410-450 individuals in Covansna and less than 10 in the Ciomad-Balvanyos area. However, this figure is not based on quantitative data and there is very little research on wildcat populations of the Carpathian Mountains. Although the wildcat is protected in Romania, there is a special hunting permit that allows for the hunting of a small number of wildcats. There seems to be little effort from officials to protect the cats from poaching or illegal hunting.
This species faces many threats. A major concern is hybridization with domestic or feral cats which can lead to killings via mistaken identity. Other threats include habitat fragmentation and increasing human disturbance.
So far we have identified four individuals, two of which have overlapping territories (possibly a male and a female). The second set of individuals reside in other areas of the research site. One of the individuals lacks the thick bushy tail, and instead sports a tapered end to the tail associated with the European Wildcat. There is a possibility that this may be a hybrid individual. With more footage coming, it is possible that more individuals will be identified by their markings as well as the locations in which they were seen.
Over the winter months, trips to the site have been less frequent. However, we are still getting some interesting footage on the cameras which is being analyzed during this quieter time. We are busy identifying individuals, territories, movements, and behaviors and we continuously learn more about the wildlife that inhabits our research site. I, for one, am excited to see some of the behaviors that have been caught on camera so far.