In Focus The Czech Republic - a world of wildlife
Tereza Mináriková is a zoologist, who spent a number of years heading the Conservation Policies Unit of the Nature Conservation Agency of the Czech Republic. She is now with the NGO Alka Wildlife, serving as a manager of research projects; she is also a specialist in carnivorous wildlife, and has a particular passion for lynxes.
Today, we’re going to talk about the many kinds of wildlife one can come across in the Czech Republic. So Tereza, the Czech Republic is a central European country, with plenty of forests. Let’s begin with an overview of the kind of wildlife we can find here.
“We’re not a country with very high biodiversity. But we do have some rare and interesting species, or sub-species. My work is focused on large carnivores, for example wolves, bears or lynxes. These are all species which are very rare and endangered in the Czech Republic. Carnivore species in general are all endangered and declining as a group. So we focus on them.”
Is biodiversity in the Czech Republic now improving? Presumably because of the Industrial Revolution, and then you have two World Wars, the Czech lands lost a lot of forested land and wild habitat. It is improving now? Are we seeing wild animals returning?
“No, it’s declining. Especially after World War II we experienced quite massive changes to our landscape. These land use changes affected many species.”
Was the communist era somehow responsible for that?
“Yes, the collectivization approach to agriculture. That had a major impact. Before, we had many small plots of land; small areas of farmland or grassland. The landscape was very heterogeneous. Collectivization changed that. Suddenly there were big fields all of the same crop. The landscape was less diverse, with large areas of the same kind of land: big forests, big fields of crops, and so on. Many species were affected by this. It wasn’t just habitat loss, but it also impacted the ability of wildlife to migrate through the countryside.”
Which species were lost? You mentioned bears and wolves and lynxes? We’ll talk more about lynxes – a specialty of yours – later on. The wolves, bears and so on – those were the kinds of animals that could live among the smaller kinds of fields?
“It is a bit of a different story with carnivores. In the past, these were hunted, and this extreme hunting almost led to their extinction. Or a local extinction, but then they returned. Unlike other species, which lost habitats or saw habitats fragmented, and that led to a population decline. Carnivores really were brought to the edge of extinction. There are different stories for different species. With large carnivores mainly hunting is responsible, and today this same group suffers from poaching.”
How widespread were wolves and bears in the Czech lands in the past?
“They were very common in the past. Very widespread. But then, due to hunting, they almost went extinct. In the Beskydy area on the Czech and Slovak border, the forests were always connected to Slovakia. So some wolves and bears were always able to come through. But they were extinct in the rest of the Czech lands. The same is true of the lynx.”
So today there are no wild bears or wolves in the Czech Republic?
“Bears are only present in this Beskydy area in eastern Moravia. And until recently there were no wolves in Bohemia. And now wolves have returned.”
“Mostly from Poland and Germany. So from the north.”
And the bears were reintroduced?
“It was just natural dispersal. Because the bear population is growing in Slovakia. It’s doing very well. So it’s natural that at the edges of these populations animals try to migrate or disperse to new areas. We are basically dependent on the state of the Slovakian bear population. When that is doing well, then from time to time a bear will appear in the Czech Republic. But it’s just on the border.”
What kinds of bears are these? And what should a human do if they come across one in the wild? Is there a danger? They’re not like grizzly bears...
“No, they’re not the same. People should just stay calm, and leave quietly. They are not carnivores that will naturally attack people. They can in some cases, but usually that is in situations when they feel endangered, such as a mother with cubs, or if it is hurt or seriously disturbed. Then it can attack you, but it is only in self-defence. But it won’t normally attack a person that is not threatening them.”
We’re listening to the sound of an animal very close to your heart...
That sounded either like a chainsaw or someone snoring, but I am told that is in fact the sound of a lynx. What is it doing to make such a growling sound?
“Usually such vocalisation is somehow connected to the mating period. They interact and ‘talk’ to each other. During the year, lynxes are solitary species, but during the mating period many encounters take place. Males try to protect their territory from other males. Or males meet females and try to impress them. That is a time of year when there is considerable social contact.”
Lynxes are a species of big cat – so how many do we have now in the Czech Republic, and the history of when they were plentiful, and now efforts are underway to revive their numbers, right?
“Currently we think we have around 60-80 animals, but we don’t have exact numbers. That’s because intensive lynx monitoring is only carried out in certain areas. It’s definitely less than 100, and probably around 60-80. It is true that the lynx was almost extinct in the Czech Republic, but then in the Beskydy area maybe one or two animals survived during the Second World War. They were totally absent from other areas. A very successful re-introduction programme then took place in the Šumava region in southern Bohemia on the Czech-German-Austrian border.”
That’s very hilly terrain.
“Yes. It was in the late 1980s and early 90s, when these animals were released back into the wild. These formed a new population, which we call the Bavarian-Bohemian-Austrian lynx population.”
So if one comes across a lynx in the forest, should one be afraid? They are big cats. Could they jump on you and eat you with their big teeth?
[laughs] “No, no. They are absolutely not dangerous. They are very quiet animals. Although they are big cats, they are quite small. They are only knee-high or so. If you come across a lynx you can consider yourself to be a very lucky person. And you should watch it before it disappears. You shouldn’t be afraid. It is definitely not a dangerous animal.”
Let’s talk about some of the wild animals that are very common in the Czech Republic. There are many, many wild pigs – or boars – around. You walk through forests and see these mud patches where they have been busy rummaging. Their numbers are almost too plentiful, right?
“Yes. I don’t think we have exact numbers because hunters don’t do this kind of scientific monitoring. All we have are estimates. But they are definitely over-populated. In some areas they quite significantly damage forests by their digging and eating of everything. Their numbers are growing very fast because they can reproduce very fast.”
You sometimes see little piglets in the forest, which is quite a cute sight...
“Yes. And these pigs can have litters of fifteen piglets at a time. Before, they only reproduced during a specific season. But now it is year-round. Their population is just doing very well; they have plenty of food, so they are very fat and in very good health.That means more reproduction. And it very difficult to manage their numbers.”
This is an instance where hunting and culling are useful tools to preserve the natural environment?
“Yes. More hunting of boars would definitely be a good thing. But, as I always say, if we had wild wolves widespread in the Czech Republic then we wouldn’t need to deal with this issue. They are a natural predator of wild pigs, which are large animals otherwise lacking natural predators. But because they organise in packs, wolves can hunt for quite large animals such as moose. They can even hunt for wild boar and would serve as a natural regulator of their numbers. And that would finally lead to the forests being in a better condition.”
Are you happy overall with the amount of natural land in the Czech Republic, and the amount that is designated for protection vial national parks and so on?
“I would say that we (at Alka Wildlife) are quite satisfied. But there are still some sites of natural importance which are not protected and definitely should be. Especially as part of the Natura 2000 system of European protected areas. So some very nice areas would deserve protection on the national level.”
“Like Soutok podluží. That is an area (in south-eastern Moravia on the Slovak border) where the rivers Thaya and Morava meet. This is an area of very high biodiversity, perhaps the greatest in the Czech Republic. Huge forests along the river have very large numbers of fish, beetles, birds, and also beavers.”
You mentioned beavers. These, and otters, are also present in the Czech Republic.
“Yes. And they are doing better and better. The otter is now quite widespread. It is also a species in which we are very interested. We have undertaken a number of national surveys and can say that otters are basically everywhere in the Czech Republic wherever good habitats are to be found.”
That means water-based habitats?
“Yes. Rivers and ponds, with fish, of course. In areas that are either dry or have poor water quality – and of course when there are no fish – then otters can’t live there. But they are pretty widespread. And beavers are doing better and better, dispersing into new areas.”
Beavers also require water, right? They build dams and also gnaw on trees...
“In small streams and waterways, they can build dams. But not across large rivers, of course. Then, they only make burrows.”
What other animals, small and large, can one see in the Czech Republic?
“There are many. We don’t have very high levels of biodiversity – many forms of amphibians are rare; the same can be said of reptiles. We also have many bird species, which are well-studied. There are countless ornithologists in this country who could identify dozens of species to be seen.”
Overall, are you optimistic right now? Do you think that Czech society, government and NGO structures, and farmers – all these interested parties – are they all working together relatively well to preserve the Czech natural environment? Or do you believe we are still on a downward, destructive course?
“I would say it is working relatively well. But it is very difficult to repair some of the damage from the past. Many species declined to a level where it is very difficult to change the direction and improve their status. If we could have it like it was fifty or sixty years ago, then that would be great. The decline is continuous, and it is very difficult to stop it once it starts. But one very positive thing is that Czechs, I think, really do like nature. They like walks in nature and are quite supportive of natural conservation. And that is very important. Everyone wants to live close to a forest, or a river. They want their children to be able to see many animals. And that is great. We need that.”