Camera traps shed new light on wildcat presence in Czech Republic

The wildcat is a small carnivorous species that once inhabited the Czech Republic’s forests, before it was hunted down at the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries. However, images of the wildcat recently captured by camera traps in some parts of the Czech Republic suggest that the rare feline may once again be settling in the country.

Wildcat, photo: Schorle, CC BY-SA 3.0Wildcat, photo: Schorle, CC BY-SA 3.0 More than a year ago, experts from the Czech Republic teamed up with colleagues from another five European countries to monitor and protect the endangered lynx population, setting up camera traps to track down the animals’ movement. To their surprise, they captured not just lynxes, but also their smaller, and even rarer relative – the wildcat.

I met with Tereza Mináriková from the Czech NGO Alka Wildlife, which is responsible for the 3Lynx project here in the Czech Republic, to find out more about the wildcat sighting:

“We camera-trapped the wildcat in the area of Český les (a mountain range on the Czech-German border) and it was not exactly surprising, since we already had two pictures from the southern and central parts of Český les.

“But it was still a big success, because it’s a very rare and endangered species and until recently we had very little information about its distribution or sites of occurrence. It really is a mysterious species.”

So what do we know about the population of wildcats here in the Czech Republic. Are there actually any wildcats settled on the territory of this country?

“Ten or fifteen years ago I would tell you that the species may already be extinct. After the Second World War there were only few sightings of the wildcat.  

“But with the development of camera traps, more and more wildlife monitoring projects started to use camera traps and successfully captured the wildcat in the Carpathians on the Czech and Slovak border. Its reproduction was also confirmed there, because biologists discovered a den with kittens.

"The wildcat is a very rare and endangered species and until recently we had very little information about its distribution."

“Its occurrence was also confirmed in the Šumava region and in Český les. This last picture, taken by our cameras, captures a male, which has already been sighted on the Bavarian side.

“We set up a hair trap to get the DNA evidence, so we know that it is definitely a wildcat and a male. However, we are not sure if it has reproduced in the area.”

How do you differentiate between a wildcat and a domestic cat? They seem to look very much alike...

“This is actually really tricky, because wildcats and some domestic cats really look alike and it is really difficult to tell the difference. Moreover, in some cases, the wildcats and domestic cats hybridize. We don’t know about any hybrids in the Czech Republic but in other European countries this is a common phenomenon.

“The first thing we look at is the tail, which should be really bushy and striped. But you can never say for sure that it’s a wildcat unless you have the DNA evidence.”

So what exactly do we know about this particular specimen that was captured by your camera?

Tereza Mináriková, foto: Matěj Pálka / Czech RadioTereza Mináriková, foto: Matěj Pálka / Czech Radio “We know it’s a male. It was captured for the first time in 2015 on the Bavarian side of Český les, in the southern area. Than it was spotted near Čerchov in 2017 and now it was found further north. But it was also seen some 65 kilometres west from Český Les, in Bavaria, which means it covers a very large territory. Its home-range can be 100 kilometres or even more.”

And do we know whether it is just crossing the territory of the Czech Republic or whether it has settled here?

“We think that this male is occupying the area permanently, because it was captured by the camera-trapped in 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2018.That means it has been staying here for three years already. So it is a permanent occurrence but we don’t have any information about the breeding.”

What kind of landscape do wildcats prefer?

"They prefer mostly lowland and broad-leaf forests and rocky areas, where they can hide, rest and breed. But as I said we have very little information about this species.

"The pictures we have come from both broad leaf and coniferous forests and one of these locations is quite high in the mountains, so it is not a typical habitat for the wildcat.”

What is the wildcat’s role in the ecosystem?

“Well, it’s a predator. It preys on small mammals in the forest. So I would say it’s a regulator of small mammals. That is its main role. But as I said, we know very little.”

What drove the wildcats in the Czech Republic to extinction?

"We set up a hair trap to get the DNA evidence, so we know that it is definitely a male wildcat."

“It was probably overhunting but also other human impacts. As I said, the typical habitat of wildcats are lowland, broad-leaf forests, which are usually close to villages and towns and they need larger areas connected together.

“But as we are building new railways and roads, the habitat fragments into smaller patches. For some animals it is too disturbing and they try to search for larger areas to live in.”

So would you say that this fragmentation is the biggest threat to the wildcat today?

“This fragmentation is the biggest threat for many species, especially carnivores. These animals have travel large distances and the habitat fragmentation has a very strong negative impact on them, because when they cannot migrate, they cannot meet a mate and reproduce.”

What have you discovered so far?

“During the past year, we have been mapping the distribution area of the Bohemian, Bavarian and Austrian lynx population and we have just started to started to count the animals.

“We sorted the pictures of lynxes and identified them individually based on their spots and colouring, but it’s a lot of work because we have got hundreds of pictures.

“We have sorted them on the national levels and now we are about to have a workshop where we will do a cross comparison of Czech, Austrian and Bavarian lynx.

Lynx, photo: Silke Sohler, CC 3.0Lynx, photo: Silke Sohler, CC 3.0 “My personal guess is that we will probably have better results than in the years 2013 and 2014, when we did the last population census, and we counted around   t 60 to 80 independent animals.”

Is this a sign that nature in the Czech Republic is improving?

“We have to think whether it is a real improvement or whether it is just an effect of our monitoring efforts. The 3Lynx project is the first large-scale project covering the whole area of the lynx distribution in the Czech Republic, Austria, and Bavaria, covering over 14,000 square kilometres.

“My personal opinion is that there is a slight increase in the lynx population, but that doesn’t mean that the lynx population is not endangered anymore. It is still very small.”