From lynx to turtles: How are Estonia's endangered species doing?

Lynx. Source: Tarmo Aarma

Species that need old forest habitats are not doing well, with lynx and the flying squirrel moved down one endangerment category. The white-tailed eagle and the European mink have fared better, zoologist Uudo Timm told Novaator.

The recent evaluation of the situation of mammals took place at the end of last year, beginning of this one. Even though several species remained elusive, they have not been declared extinct in Estonia yet.

"For example, no one has seen a garden dormouse or a hazel dormouse for decades. However, a species is considered extinct if no sign of it is found for 50 years," said Uudo Timm, chief specialist for the Environment Agency's wildlife department. He said he hopes a few specimens of these species might still be out there and have simply managed to hide from scientists.

The flying squirrel and lynx have drawn the short straw in recent years. Destruction of old forest habitats has put the former among critically endangered species and the latter in the near endangered category. Species that require wild meadow habitats are also not doing well.

Flying squirrel. Source:

The situation of turtles in Estonia makes for a curious case. The European pond turtle (Emys orbicularis) was last seen a few kilometers east of the boundary line between Estonia and Russia in Setomaa.

"If we look at the 1920 Treaty of Tartu border, we could say we still have wild turtles in Estonia. However, if we look at the boundary line, we don't," Timm said. Turtles found in the Pärnu River are non-native species who have been abandoned or have escaped.

Luckily, the white-tailed eagle has markedly improved its situation. "We only had a few nesting pairs in the early 1980s, while the entire coast and even the surrounding areas of major rivers and lakes are full of white-tailed eagle nests today," Timm said. While the eagles are not out of danger yet, the species has been moved from the endangered category to the vulnerable category.

White-tailed eagles. Source: ERR

The precarious situation of the eagle was caused by agricultural chemicals that ended up in natural environments and tended to build up in the bodies of apex predators. This caused both infertility and thinning of eggshells that impacted the species' ability to reproduce. Changes in insecticide use, especially the banning of organic chlorine compounds have allowed the population to recover.

The other well-known species that has suffered because of marine pollution is the gray seal. Their fertility was very low for a long time, while the situation has now improved a little.

There is still reason to be concerned for the striped seal. "The situation of striped seals is critical. Lack of sea ice in recent years means that all of their offspring have perished. The seals give birth on the ice and prefer locations with a lot of ridged ice where caves can be fashioned for the young." In addition to the risk of drowning, young striped seals are also in danger from white-tailed eagles for whom they make the perfect pray.

Baby striped seal. Source: Shawn Dahle/ Wikimedia Commons

Talking about success stories, Timm points to bats. Both the pond bat (Myotis dasycneme) and Brandt's bat (Myotis brandtii) have improved their situation, moving from the vulnerable category to least concern. The situation of the European mink is also cause for celebration as the species that was considered regionally extinct for some time has now been categorized as endangered following decades of conservation efforts. It has not been necessary to complement the wild population of European minks in Hiiumaa with new specimens from the zoo for a good while.

The European green toad has not done as well and has been declared regionally extinct. Regarding plants, matgrass (Nardus stricta) and yew have moved down a category, while the situation of ivy and early coralroot (Corallorhiza trifida) has improved. The situation is dire for the golden eagle who is now officially endangered according to the Estonian Red Book.

Work on the first international Red Book of mammals and birds started in 1964 and it was published five years later. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) approved a broader system of categories and criteria in 1994 that is still being used, after a few updates along the way, to this day.

The situation of species is studied every ten years in Estonia, with the process taking a few years and progressing in stages by species. The IUCN publishes global summaries every year that can be accessed on its website.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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