The lynx is once again facing extinction in the canton of Valais. Reintroduced to Switzerland in 1971 after having disappeared from the country's forests during the 19th century, lynxes are reproducing at a slower rate than they are disappearing.
The study, part of a project that stretches back to 2011 in which researchers monitored 34 areas of 100 square kilometres each – between Saint-Gingolph and Geschinen in the canton of Valais – estimates that there are only a dozen lynxes left in the southwestern Swiss canton.
"If stricter surveillance measures are not put in place quickly by the authorities, the Valaisan lynx population could be extinguished again, as was the case in the 19th century when the feline was exterminated from the Alps," wrote the study's author, Raphaël Arlettaz, according to Swiss news portal Le Nouvelliste.
"Rampant poaching remains the most serious hypothesis," added Arlettaz. Road accidents are another major cause of death for lynxes, according to Swiss NGO Pro Natura Vaud. Seven were found dead in the canton of Jura in 2015 alone due to "collision with cars, illness or poaching."
"The perpetrators do not have much to fear because these crimes are rarely taken seriously and brought to court," emphasizes the Swiss branch of the World Wildlife Foundation (WWF).
The WWF adds that the animals' limited genetic pool could be responsible for the drop in numbers. "The population is genetically too limited to survive in the long term," it states.
The lynx has protected status under Swiss law but the authors of the University of Bern's study also say that prosecution for poachers is rare.
In 2014, the Swiss government published an action plan to ensure the long term survival of the animal, which pledged "to create the conditions necessary for the existence in Switzerland of viable populations in the long term, adapted to local conditions and likely to spread over new territories."
The University of Bern's study estimates that only 12 to 20 per cent of the expected population was identified by the monitoring project in Valais.
While in other Swiss cantons, like Jura, there are nearly four lynx per every 100 kilometres, in Valais there are only 0.32 within the same radius.
According to one estimate, there are about 200 lynxes in the whole of Switzerland. The animals were reintroduced to Swiss cantons from the Slovakian Carpathian mountains in the early 1970s and protected under law in 1981.
Swiss NGO Pro Natura Vaud estimated that there were 172 lynxes in Switzerland in 2016, 114 of which were in the Alps. "The lynx plays an important regulating role on deer and chamois populations: a lynx consumes on average one prey a week, ie 50 to 60 ungulates per year," states a report by Natura Pro Vaud.
In 2016, the Swiss government updated its plan for lynxes, allowing for hunting of animals younger than 12-months-old in cases where reproduction is satisfactory and 1.5 lynxes per 100 kilometres remain. Pro Natura Vaud said that plan "represents a contradiction" and suggests that a population of at least 1,000 lynxes should be encouraged to prosper in the Swiss Alps.
The lynx however only lives in specific areas and struggles to move into new territory and come into contact with its own, which affects reproduction. "The lynx has trouble crossing roads, rivers, and high mountains. Its habitat is therefore very restricted," writes WWF.
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