After several previous visits to the Naliboki Forest we organized another group trip to support the research of Vadim. The trip took place in January and February 2016. Winter is an exciting time to visit the forest. Snow cover reveals the hidden behavior of carnivore species and many other impressive animals such as elk and bison are more visible in this season.
One of the targets of this wintertrip was the lynx. Searching for their tracks, learning about their behavior and maybe, who knows even catching a glimpse of Europe’s biggest cat… Seeing the secretive and enigmatic Eurasian lynx in the wild is for many naturalists an intangible dream…But in Naliboki forest and with the help and expertise of Vadim this dream becomes reality!
When I first visited the Naliboki Forest in 2012 I assisted Vadim as a volunteer during wolf pup searching. Besides being totally overwhelmed by the biodiversity of the forest, learning so much about wolf denning behavior and actually finding a wolflitter, this trip also delivered my first lynx observation. While driving around a lynx was seen lying on a forest road, seeking relief from the many mosquitoes in the swampy forests. The duration of the observation was quite short - it soon disappeared into the cover of the forest - and the observation distance was quite large. In september 2013, during the autumn wolf census, I had a very brief glimpse of what was most likely a lynx in the tall grass disappearing into the forest edge…
In the months and weeks before for our wintertrip in January 2016 Vadim regularly sent us updates and information about the local lynx. By December Vadim already finished his lynx census for the winter 2015-16. 42 lynx were censused in an area of 2700 km2 in the Naliboki forest and its surroundings. Vadim also knew several ‘house’ plots of lynx family groups and lynx males. These house plots are smaller area’s within their large territories which they use a lot for resting. They are usually well sheltered and comprise very beautiful and wild habitats. Knowing the house plots of several lynxes and visiting them greatly increases the chance of an encounter with this ‘ghost of the forest’.
The first day of our wintertrip 2016 was already memorable: we encountered no less then 16 elk and a group of 11 bison. White-tailed and golden eagle were found on the remains of a wolf kill…In the afternoon we visited the ‘house plot’ of a female lynx with three kits. This family was photographed with camera-traps on several occasions in the weeks preceding our visit. For several weeks only the kits were photographed so Vadim left some carrion for the kits. Later the mother showed up again. When we visited this area with our group no fresh tracks were found, it looked like this family had moved to another house plot. Usually lynxes have 2-4 such house plots within their territory.
In the afternoon of day 4 we visited a beautiful mixed forest with black alder swamps and quite a lot of spruce in the Volka river valley. This was the territory of a large male lynx. Vadim was very familiar with this male. It inhabited the same territory of about 120 km2 for six consecutive years and was given the name Kazimir…Unlike most lynxes, Kazimir only had one house plot where it spends most of its time resting and hunting.Vadim told us it had an acquired taste for wild boar and raccoon dog…
At first we only found old tracks of a lynx making a large jump of several meters in the deep and loose snow cover. A bit later we finally encountered really fresh tracks! The tracks suddenly appeared, seemingly out of nowhere, a true ghost of the forest….Apparently the lynx was resting somewhere in the trees before it came down and left those fresh tracks. We installed a camera trap directed towards a tree where Kazimir had been photographed before, as well as a large male bear and a female bear… We followed the tracks of this lynx for a while longer with our group of 9 people until we reached the point where the tracks lead into a more open swampy terrain with reedbeds and a few canals. Vadim was convinced Kazimir was very close so in order to optimize the chance of someone of our group catching a glimpse of this lynx we split up in small groups of 2 and 3. Vadim told two duo’s (Frederik and Stephanie, Stien and Arnout) to walk slowly along the frozen canals. The lynx might be seen crossing one of the frozen canals… Maxime and I formed the third duo. Vadim told us to walk along the ecotone of swamp and forest until we encountered a small hill with spruces where we had some overview. There we could settle down to watch for a while. Vadim and the two Sanne’s made a loop behind us.
When Maxime and I reached our spot to settle down and watch, the first we saw was Arnout and Stien walking…After 10 minutes of being immersed in the silence of this wonderful forest I heard the sound of a creature stepping through the snow….I turned my head to the right and to my amazement I saw a big lynx coming towards the hill where we sat! That moment when you realize you are looking at a lynx in the wild is hard to describe, but it is simply stunning! It didn’t notice us and walked by at the foot of the hill, right in front of our positions at a distance of merely 20 meters! A few minutes after the lynx passed my hands were still trembling from so much emotions of pure joy and excitement!
Moments like these will stay engraved in my memory for the rest of my days… My trip to Naliboki in the winter of 2016 will forever be associated with my encounter with Kazimir the lynx.