Drawing on a dataset of four years of annual survey effort, the latest Slovakia expedition report now posits that there are stable populations of lynx, wolf and bear in Veľká Fatra National Park, which is excellent news. The report also praises the efforts of citizen scientist volunteers, saying that “the great value of citizen science volunteers in wildlife monitoring projects has been shown time and again and this study is no exception.
This report covers the fourth year of field research in northern Slovakia’s Veľká Fatra National Park with the support of citizen scientists and the aim of collecting biological information to improve management practices for bears (Ursus arctos), wolves (Canis lupus), lynx (Lynx lynx) and wildcat (Felis silvestris) in the park. Fieldwork was conducted from 1 February to 14 February 2015 and concentrated on the Ľubochnianska Valley.
The study was a collaboration between Biosphere Expeditions and Environmental Society LENS. It used a cell-based presence/absence approach and recorded signs (such as footprints, animal trails of footprints, scats, feeding remains, marking points) of large carnivores and their prey. Samples such as scats, hair and urine were also collected for batch DNA analysis. Camera traps were also used. The different recording methods showed that snow-tracking can yield a substantially higher amount of information on lynx, wolf, bear and wildcat range than any other observation technique employed.
During the expedition 34 transects were surveyed with a total length of 438 km. The average length of a transect was 13 km and the total area surveyed was 150 square km. The survey area was divided into 24 cells of 2.5 x 2.5 km size, in 13 of which signs of target species were recorded. In total, 74 signs were recorded, of which 23 were identified as being left by lynx (32%), 49 by wolf (66%), one by bear (1%) and one by wildcat (1%).
Ten camera traps were placed in the study area and 1,989 photographs were taken. One camera trap recorded one individual lynx multiple times as it repeatedly visited the carcass of a red deer. Fox (Vulpes vulpes), marten (Martes martes), red deer (Cervus elaphus), roe deer (Capreolus capreolus) and wild boar (Sus scrofa) were also photographed.
Twenty-nine samples (11 scats and 18 urine samples) were collected for DNA analysis. Fifteen samples (52%) were assumed, from footprints, to be from lynx, thirteen samples (45%) from wolf and one sample (3%) from wildcat. All samples are currently awaiting DNA analysis (to be conducted in 2016) to confirm species and enable identification of individuals.
Survey results since 2012 suggest that the lynx population in Veľká Fatra National Park is more or less stable. During normal winters the lynx’s main prey, the roe deer, concentrate in the valleys where they are fed at feeding stations by hunters and foresters to ensure an artificially high ungulate population for hunting purposes. This abundant food supply is likely to be one important reason for the lynx’s stable population in the park, as is the high protection status of the species in Slovakia.
In 2015, wolf signs were as frequent as in 2014, but were detected in fewer cells, a result that is shared with lynx. Wolf was detected in 12 cells, especially in the central and lower parts of the valley, because of higher concentrations of food around deer feeding stations, as evidenced by the expedition finding three carcasses of red deer and wild boar in the vicinity of the feeding stations. Here too, as for the lynx, artificially high deer prey populations, combined with the relatively high protection status in Slovakia of the wolf, appear to contribute to a consistent presence of wolves in Veľká Fatra National Park.
The winter conditions in 2015 were normal and the expedition found only one older bear footprint, indicating that the bear population of Veľká Fatra National Park was hibernating. This is in contrast to the very mild winter of 2014, when many bear signs of non-hibernating individuals were found, or the very harsh winter of 2012 when extremely low temperatures are likely to have disturbed the hibernation, especially of young and inexperienced bears. In any case, a consistent bear presence is evident in Veľká Fatra National Park.
At present the Veľká Fatra habitat appears suboptimal for wildcat. Wildcat signs, nonetheless, have been recorded consistently by the expeditions in Veľká Fatra National Park, once in 2015, six times in 2014 and once in 2013.
More citizen scientists needed! Be part of the movement in 2016.
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