There are only about 150 Eurasian lynx in Switzerland and France, very few in Germany and Austria, and none in the United Kingdom, according to photographer Laurent Geslin. These small numbers magnify the most difficult part about photographing lynx: seeing them at all.
“For the last five years, I spent hundreds of hours waiting in hiding,” Geslin says. “This year, I built a hide near a cliff where I know the lynx comes regularly. I started [on] the 15th of January and stopped [on] the 17th of April, waiting every day—morning and evenings—and I only saw the lynx three times, and twice it was too dark for any decent picture.”
Why so elusive? The nocturnal animal is very discreet and well adapted to its environment. “If it doesn’t move, it’s almost impossible to spot,” Geslin says. Additionally, lynx inhabit a wide territory—roughly 75 miles—and they often don’t cover the same ground for weeks at a time.
But it was this challenge that tempted Geslin. Though the Eurasian lynx is the largest of the lynx species, it isn’t technically classified as a “big cat” (like lions, leopards, cheetahs, cougars, jaguars, and tigers). But Geslin notes that for Europe, it is the “iconic big cat.”
“Everybody dreams of seeing one, but they are so hard to spot that all the pictures of this mammal in magazines and books are taken in big enclosures in Germany or Scandinavia,” he says. “I couldn’t imagine that it was possible to photograph snow leopards, tigers, or other rare big cats but not the Eurasian lynx.”
So he dedicated five years to photographing the cat in the French and Swiss Jura Mountains—the recently revived heart of lynx territory in western Europe—using up to six camera traps, hiding in the woods for weeks at a time, and becoming a more patient man.
Worldwide, the Eurasian lynx is not a threatened species, with a stable presence in Russia, Scandinavia, and eastern Europe. However, its existence in the forests of western Europe is fragile. Until they were reintroduced 40 years ago, lynx had been absent from Switzerland for over a century due to habitat loss, lack of prey, and hunting.
Part of the reason for their reintroduction was to keep native grazing animals, which were overwhelming the ecosystem, at bay. But the lynx’s excellent hunting skills are what sometimes get them in trouble with humans.
Geslin says that’s because lynx change the normal behavior of their prey. “Game won’t stay in big herds but will scatter, [becoming] more vigilant as they adapt themselves to new predators.” This makes it harder for humans to hunt roe deer and chamois. “Humans see the lynx as a direct competitor.” Geslin explains that in some areas where lynx have recently been reintroduced, such as the Vosges Mountains in France, there are none left. He says local NGOs blame poaching.
The prey these cats leave behind ended up leading Geslin to one of his most emotional encounters with the animal. “In August 2012, I found a dead chamois and quickly built a hide. There I spent four full days waiting for a lynx to come back to its prey. The very last night, it came back with two kittens.” He showed the photos to KORA, a nonprofit that works with lynx in the area, and they said no one had ever witnessed such a rare scene. Even though Geslin deems any documented sighting of a lynx a blessing, he singles this one out as the highlight.
Unfortunately, despite the fact that lynx are strictly protected in Switzerland, the mother lynx was shot that September, highlighting one of the challenges of bringing lynx back to their historic range.
“Reintroducing predators is important, as we give back to nature what we’ve taken from her years or centuries before,” says Geslin, “but the [human] population is not used to living with predators. Shepherds don’t want stay in the mountains the whole season. Hunters can’t stand a more efficient hunter. Therefore the battle to preserve the predators, even the ones reintroduced more than 40 years ago, is never really won.”
Big Cat Week continues all this week.
See more of Laurent Geslin’s work on his website.