Estonian researcher: Hard to explain lynxes' increasing proximity to humans

TÜ doctoral student Raido Kont is researching large predators in an anthropogenic — or human activity-impacted — landscape.
TÜ doctoral student Raido Kont is researching large predators in an anthropogenic — or human activity-impacted — landscape. Source: Private library

The increasingly frequent occurrence of lynx in human settlements in Estonia may be related to their increase in numbers as well as decreasing human-shyness in connection with the suspension of lynx hunting, but there is nonetheless no single explanation for it, said University of Tartu researcher Raido Kont. The Environment Agency recommends not permitting lynx hunting yet.

"Previously, lynxes typically ended up near humans in April, May, or even at the start of summer still," Kont, a specialist in the Conservation Biology Group at the University of Tartu's Department of Zoology, told ERR. "And then [it was] usually young animals about to turn a year old."

According to Kont, lynx cubs born in May usually remain with their mothers until her next heat the following March, at which point they have to strike out and make it on their own.

"This period of independence can be considered one of the most difficult periods in lynx' lives," he explained. "They have to find a new habitat, i.e. move away from their birthplace, as well as obtain their own food." It is precisely at such times that young lynxes may be more likely to come nearer to humans.

He noted that lynxes spotted in or near human settlements during this period are often starved and rough-looking and may also be affected by mange.

"But if lynxes are appearing among humans going into fall now too, then that I don't have a good explanation for right now," Kont admitted.

Another possible explanation for the increasing occurrence of lynxes in human-populated areas he cited was the fact that lynx hunting has been suspended in Estonia since 2016.

"Their behavior has maybe changed a bit as a result too, and they've become less shy of humans," the conservation biology specialist explained. "But that's also something we can only speculate; we don't really know how likely that actually is."

Lynx spotted on the patio of Restaurant Ülo in Põhja-Tallinn on Friday. July 21, 2023. Source: Anton Kostjuk

Yet another aspect that could be contributing to the phenomenon is the fact that increasing numbers of people have convenient access to cameras in the form of smart devices, allowing them to record anything they see. "Hunters use a lot of trail cameras, and people can conveniently record these animals right from their cars," he highlighted. "That's also a factor."

Lynx population halved

Kont said that while lynx numbers at the turn of the century were growing smoothly, they began to decline in the second half of the 2000s before seeing a sharp drop at the start of the 2010s. It's only in recent years that the number of lynx in Estonia's forests has grown again.

According to an overview drawn up by the Environment Agency, Estonia was home to some 200 lynx litters with kittens in the 2000s, but by 2013 this figure had fallen to below 80; last year, it was 86.

The decline in lynx numbers was caused by two concurrent unfavorable factors, the TÜ specialist explained.

"There were two consecutive winters with a lot of snow — 2009-10 and 2010-11 — and roe deer numbers fell severalfold," he recalled. "But roe deer are the lynx's primary food source, its primary prey, on which our entire lynx population essentially depends."

The food shortage resulted in higher mortality as well as in she-cats no longer raising their kittens, leading to much smaller increases in lynx numbers over several years.

At the same time, however, lynx hunting continued for several more years at volumes based on previous population sizes, he continued.

"During some years, 180 animals were hunted," Kont highlighted. "More than 100 lynx [a year] were hunted several years in a row. Hunting didn't react as quickly to the decline in lynx numbers; hunting continued to be maintained at a fairly high level for another few years yet. And these [factors] combined led to a fairly major decline in the lynx population. The number of lynx dropped by nearly half."

Eurasian lynx spotted in a meadow near the Olerex gas station in Lihula. Source: Kertu Hool

Another factor likely adversely impacting Estonia's lynx population is the fact that when they faced a shortage of roe deer, lynx began hunting raccoon dogs as well, who are frequently afflicted with mange and which spread to the lynx themselves as a result, he continued.

"We don't know all of this for sure; we can only speculate that this was the case," he clarified. "But plenty of mange-afflicted lynxes were being found."

Kont said that Estonia's lynx population has since begun to recover, but initial growth is nonetheless slow.


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Editor: Aili Vahtla

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