From: Louis Seiller
In Albania, the Last Balkan Lynx at the Mercy of Poaching

This boreal lynx subspecies is one of the most threatened in the world. After one of its individuals has just been killed by Albanian hunters, NGOs want to put a stop to impunity.

They stand frozen above the bar, reduced to the condition of an absurd plushie. These two Balkan lynxes, stuffed after being slaughtered in the neighboring forests, are the pride of the place. On the adjacent wall, next to a buzzard with half-closed eyes, there are no paintings or posters, but, instead, two brown bears, stretched out like tapestries, with their mouths open. In this restaurant in a large city of central Albania, popular with lovers of game meat, they are hoping for a new trophy of choice, a third “Balkan tiger”, freshly drawn and stuffed. A somewhat risky order since July 2019 and the modification of the Albanian Criminal Code, which now foresees up to seven years in prison for this type of acquisition.

An uncontrollable practice

Because this big cat with a spotted coat and almond-shaped eyes is a strictly protected species. A protection that humans are struggling to provide. Since late 2015, this boreal lynx subspecies has been classified as critically endangered in the wild by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), “the penultimate category before extinction ”, laments Urs Breitenmoser, feline specialist at IUCN. “This means that, globally, there are fewer than 50 adult individuals in the wild. As there is no breeding in captivity of the Balkan lynx in zoos (and there never will be), the situation is really very dire.” Distinct from its neighbor in the Carpathians, the Balkan lynx is genetically linked to the eastern populations of the Caucasus and Anatolia. Very discreet, it was thought to have definitely gone extinct, until it was rediscovered in the early 2000s. Today, it only breeds in the mountains of North Macedonia and Albania.

Video of the Balkan lynx of the NGO Protection and preservation of the natural environment in Albania

With the destruction of its habitat and the disappearance of its prey, poaching is one of the main threats to the survival of the lynx. The nocturnal feline is paying the price for the lack of an adequate strategy to preserve Albanian flora and fauna. Strictly controlled and reserved for apparatchiks of the regime at the time of the communist dictatorship (1944-1991), hunting became uncontrollable amid the political chaos of the 90s, favored by the massive circulation of weapons in Albanian homes after the insurrections of 1997.

A 2013 report from National Geographic described Albanian wetlands as war zones for migratory birds from Europe. Shooting ducks and sparrows in the Adriatic lagoons or bears in the Eastern mountains of the country remains a way of improving an often difficult daily life, but also of flattering the ego of certain men, eager for spoils to exhibit. The forests, themselves victims of massive and continuous deforestation despite a ten-year ban on all logging, bear witness to the massacre. Very few hares or wild boars pose for the camera-traps installed by biologists. Undergrowth animals have suffered dramatic losses.

A sense of impunity

In the face of the ongoing tragedy, Albanian authorities have taken unprecedented and draconian measures: in 2014, a total ban on hunting was passed for two years, and then extended by an additional five years. Six years later, what are the results? “The positive impact the moratorium has had on wildlife is obvious and significant,” says Klodiana Marika, from the Ministry of Tourism and the Environment. “Data shows that in 2017, 2018 and 2019, the total number of waterbirds counted was around 50% higher than in 2016: 98,564 in 2016 and 146,395 in 2019. ” But if the protected areas of the coast have become more welcoming to migratory birds, mountain forests still often remain places of lawlessness, where some do not hesitate to “shoot everything that moves” .

Despite the number of fines put forth by the Ministry, NGOs draw a completely different conclusion regarding the ban. “Unfortunately, only the first year of the moratorium can be considered a success,” laments Aleksandër Trajçe, director of the NGO Protection and preservation of the natural environment in Albania (PPNEA).”The following years were marked by major shortcomings in its implementation, causing a lot of conflict and dissatisfaction among hunters. In reality, poachers – who are often people with close ties to the authorities – have relentlessly started killing wildlife without any control. The only ones who comply with the ban are legal and honest hunters, who are the helpless observers of this unjust situation.” Well-equipped and driving a 4×4, poachers invade forests like that of the Shebenik-Jabllanice National Park at night to fight a battle that has already been won. And what does it matter if, in the cross-hairs, the yellow eyes of one of the country’s ten lynxes appear …

It must be said that a certain feeling of impunity permeates this country, a European Union candidate since 2014. Rule of law has a great difficulty in imposing itself, and the bribes of corruption are rotting citizens’ daily lives. “Hunter’s” restaurants, far from changing their name due to this prolonged ban, have often simply hidden their most controversial trophies, like stuffed lynxes. But, changing the dishes or worrying about the laws in force is out of the question. It is above all necessary to please the game-loving, and well-off, clientele. In the center of Tirana or elsewhere in the country, restaurants promote the chef’s recipes on Facebook. “The reorganization of the Environmental Inspectorate has created a vacuum and weakened the temporary control,” admits Klodiana Marika from the Ministry. “This has led to an increase in negative phenomena, such as the offering of wild birds in restaurants. ” On the menu: deer, wild boar, quail, pheasants, but also, for the most adventurous palates, hedgehog, turtle, or even bear, “depending on the season”.

“Hellish Zoo”

In the Balkans, wild animals still undergo practices that have disappeared (or almost disappeared) elsewhere on the continent. Bears as entertainment in restaurants, “hellish zoos” wherein rickety lions languish, captured birds of prey… Albania is unfortunately not to be outdone. “This phenomenon has a major impact on the way the public perceives wildlife,” assures Aleksandër Trajçe. “These places are visited by many people, including many children. Promoting these “spectacles of death ” can have lasting negative effects on the minds of younger generations, who are very poorly educated on how to appreciate wildlife. ”

Thanks to pressure from associations and the desire to present a “positive” image of Albania to tourists, these acts of cruelty towards animals seem to be less and less tolerated. A Balkan lynx was recently “released” from a restaurant and transferred to the Tirana zoo. But to prevent other animals being sacrificed like him, NGOs now want to see legislation “seriously” enforced in cases of poaching. “A few more illegal killings could constitute a fatal blow to the entire Balkan lynx population,” warns Urs Breitenmoser of the IUCN. “To prevent its ultimate extinction, an immediate and prolonged halt of illegal killing is essential! ”


This article first appeared on Libé and has been translated by Exit with the permission of the author.