Tracking wolf, bear and lynx in Slovakia’s Vel’ka Fatra National Park
This is the fifth year that Biosphere Expeditions has run its winter lynx, wolf and bear conservation research project in the Vel’ka Fatra National Park, located in the Western Carpathian Mountains of Slovakia. The study site in the Lubochnianska valley, where the expedition operates, continues to support large carnivores, which have disappeared from most of their former ranges across Europe due to hunting and habitat destruction.
Although designated as a national park, the Vel‘ka Fatra, is still subject to logging and hunting. Biosphere Expeditions is working with local scientist and wildlife filmmaker Tomas Hulik to collect scientific data on the numbers and distribution of large carnivores in Lubochnianska valley.
Each year the expedition runs for two weeks in February when the valley slopes and trails are usually covered in snow, providing a canvas on which the tracks and trails of the large carnivores are painted. Data are collected by citizen scientist volunteers walking the forest trails on snow shoes, recording evidence of large carnivores and their prey. This includes recording tracks, scats and prey remains. Cameras are also left out on trails to record passing animals and identify them by their coat patterns. Although the weather this year was unusually mild, there has still been sufficient snow to collect significant amounts of data on the large carnivores using the valley.
Expedition scientist Hulik explains: “We do not expect expedition participants to have any scientific background. The expedition leader and scientist provide all the training necessary to recognise field signs and collect meaningful data.”
Participants this year came from many countries including Germany, Sweden, Switzerland, Australia, UK and the USA. The expedition also offers placement opportunities for local people committed to wildlife conservation. This year the expedition was joined by Karolina Skrivankova, a Slovakian student hoping to pursue a career in biology. Karolina says she “liked the cooperation between participants and expedition leader, group leaders and scientist” and “thank you for the chance to participate, it was amazing”.
The youngest participant this year was thirteen year old Samantha from the USA, with ambitions to be a wolf biologist. Samantha joined the expedition with her mother, Tiffany, who described the experience as “a once in a lifetime trip that Samantha and I will always remember with great memories of the food, people and tracks. We both learned so much!”.
All evidence collected is carefully measured, photographed and its location recorded using GPS devices. As the expedition progresses, a picture develops of the numbers and distribution of large carnivores in the valley. The study site is divided into grid cells (2.5 x 2.5 km), which allows for the expedition’s large carnivore data to be entered into an internationally recognised database. The results help to inform population estimates for wolf, bear and lynx numbers in the valley and changes between years to be monitored. This year the expedition participants walked a total of 460 km along 33 transects, covering 26 grid cells. Hulik describes this as “a really great effort, which resulted in the recording of 32 wolf signs, 5 lynx signs and 4 bear signs, as well as the collection of 6 wolf scat and urine samples which can be used for DNA analysis”.
The scientific data collected during the expedition are reported each year in a full expedition report. The findings are presented to the government’s national park and national forestry departments and help inform estimates of large carnivore numbers in the Vel’ka Fatra National Park. The data also contribute towards realistic estimates of population sizes, which inform conservation measures and therefore increase the long-term survival changes of these iconic predators in the Vel’ka Fatra.
This year’s Biosphere Expeditions leader Paul Franklin says: ‘‘We have had another very successful year surveying large carnivores in the Lubochnianska valley. The team has worked hard to survey the transect trails each day in all weathers and these data are valuable to enable us to monitor population changes of large carnivores between years. The financial contribution from participants makes it all possible by funding the research, expedition logistics and local scientist. This research will make a meaningful contribution to wildlife conservation in Slovakia”.
Tomas Hulik, the expedition scientist, adds: ‘‘This was another very successful year with volunteers from Biosphere Expeditions. We collected a lot of data on the presence of wolf and lynx in the valley, including locating all three resident wolf packs and at least two resident lynx with an additional individual likely to have migrated into the valley for mating. The mild conditions and relatively thin snow cover enabled us to achieve our second highest coverage of the study area transects in the five years that the expedition has been running”.
Below is selection of pictures from the expedition (also mirrored on Facebook).