The Lynx Whisperer

This report is part of our series The Naturalist’s Walk: a walk to discover a unique species or environment in the company of an enthusiast.

Orchamps-Vennes (Doubs), report

Sunday damn Sunday… » From the soft crackle of the hi-fi system escapes the melody of the Irish group U2, disturbed only by the click of the computer mouse. A glass of amber wine in the palm of his hand, Patrice Raydelet scrolls through the video files. Outside, in the growing darkness, the tops of the majestic conifers dance with the gusts of wind.

bingo ! » he writes suddenly. On the dark screen appears the slender silhouette of a belly with mottled fur. A tuft of black hair adorns the top of its triangular ears. The naturalist’s blue eyes light up: I present to you Rocky, the local man. »

At night and the black and white of the camera traps, the lynx takes on a spectral appearance. © Patrice Raydelet

Petiot », Patrice fell in love with the Eurasian lynx. Author and nature photographer, he devoted his life to: It is not a profession, nor a passion. It is a way of life, a commitment, a strugglehe said in a Jura accent to cut with a knife. People often tell me: “How lucky you are to live doing what you love !” No, no, it’s not great. There is something to fuck… »

Patrice Raydelet roams the forests of the Jura in search of traces of the lynx. © Emmanuel Clévenot / Reporterre

At the foot of his native Jura, he took us to discover this ghostly and endangered mammal, classified in danger of extinction » on the French Red List of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

It’s over there… » With giant strides, Patrice climbs towards a wooded ridge. With barely a twitch of breath, he throws us into the story of this mysterious cat. In the Middle Ages, its distribution extended from the Iberian Peninsula to the borders of Siberia. Victim of hunting, destruction of its habitat and lack of prey, it disappeared from Western Europe at the end of XIXᵉ century.

The louse has long since disappeared from French territory. © Patrice Raydelet

The last trace that I found in the Jura departmental archive goes back to 1885describes the founder of the Large Predators cluster. A man told of having killed and buried a huge wild cat, with a short tail and pointed ears. I understood that it was a lynx and that no one knew this species at the time. »

And then nothing. A big black hole for a century. The distant cousin of the cougar first reappeared in the Jura Mountains in October 1974. Three years earlier, a few lynx had been reintroduced in Switzerland. A female traveled 100 km as the crow flies to finally be brutally slaughtered in Gex, in Ain. » Patrice stops walking with her hands on her hips. Under his sleeve a tattoo is revealed: the footprints of a lynx. So. His disappearance and his return were marked by two animals shot down by Man. The table is drawn. »

Lack of scientific knowledge

Without really believing it, the Jura man set off on the trail of the lynx as soon as the rumor of its return appeared, in the early 1990s. He then understood that, aside from fantasies and legends, scientific knowledge of the species was almost non-existent. For the hunters, this crap was supposed to empty the forests of game [1].

For breeders, he would eat everything in the sheepfolds. And to his defenders, he was just a nice fat cat. From 1991 to 1997, it was in a Bavarian zoo that he learned to observe them, listen to them, imitate their cries. It may seem strangehe is having fun but at that time there was nothing to study their behavior. »

Patrice Raydelet watches the tapes of his camera traps in search of pilot passengers. © Emmanuel Clévenot / Reporterre

The leaves of the trees filter the sun’s rays and provide a sumptuous green shade. Under our feet the rustle of the humus, whose scent fills the fresh air, matches the song of a jay of the oaks. Patrice squats down and examines the faeces strewn by a lynx. So the thoughts race: maybe we’ll see ? He smiles. I waited twenty years for the chance to cross his path in Jura. And to think it was played over a beer… »

In the late 2000s, the photographer visited a breeder to work on setting up guard dogs [2]. When I was about to leave, he invited me in for a drink. I give in and end up going quite late. » Night had fallen over the valley. In the headlights of his car, he saw two stealthy shadows in the distance: Damn you loser ! » He immediately hit the brake pedal, stopped across the road and jumped onto the tarmac. I started calling themhe continues, gesturing to mimic the scene. And boom ! A young lynx turned around, fascinated, and sat down two meters from me. » They will take a few minutes chat »both lying in the ditch. It was an amazing moment, an unforgettable closeness. I have never come home so easily. »

Wild, the lynx is however more discreet than violent. © Emmanuel Clévenot / Reporterre

This story is so surprising that you would think it came out of a fantastic tale. Isn’t the lynx a wild animal ? Far from there ! He is simply extremely discreet. He alone decides whether he wants to be seen or not. In Andalusia I walked with a male… He walked beside me as if I was walking my dog. » The enthusiast sometimes feels a touch of curiosity in the gaze. More often nothing but indifference. He can count such meetings on the fingers of his hands.

Arriving at the top of a small rock wall, the man with graying hair takes off his backpack and goes to retrieve the memory cards from his camera traps, hidden in the brush. Installed in the heart of the spring, they allow him to monitor the lynx that live in the area.

Where are they ? Therein lies all the mystery »

Today, the French lynx population is around 150 individuals, of which more than two-thirds live in the spruce forests of the Jura. In the massif, we observe more and more females in foal, which was very rare in the past. », the specialist rejoices. By spring 2021, forty-two litters of one to four kittens had been identified in the departments of Ain, Doubs and Jura. Where are they ? Therein lies the whole mystery. Why doesn’t the population seem to be growing? ? I do not understand… »

Officially, road traffic is the biggest cause of death among these animals. Every year, about fifteen of them die after being hit by a vehicle. It doesn’t seem like much, but it’s still 10 % of the national population. » So Patrice is trying to encourage drivers to slow down and is considering developing wildlife crossings, over or under the most accident-prone roads, with the Haut-Jura Regional Nature Park.

Patrice Raydelet was a nature manager and worked at a care centre. © Emmanuel Clévenot / Reporterre

The fragmentation of forest cover by urbanized areas also complicates, if not prevents, the dispersal of individuals and exchanges between different population centers. In the future, these isolations risk causing a genetic weakening of the species.

And then there is poaching. A cause of death that is difficult to quantify but very reallaments Patrice, his hand resting on the bark of a beech tree. I am disgusted when I hear the hunters, worried about running out of game, and want the skin of the lynx. And afterwards, these so-called nature lovers would have us believe that they are only chasing regulation ? » Launched in 2022 by the Ministry of Ecological Transformation, a national action plan aims to restore the black-spotted cat in a favorable state of preservation ». If he welcomes the initiative, Patrice laments the lack of funds given to the investigations in the fight against illegal destruction.

Today, almost 150 lynxes live in France’s forests. © Emmanuel Clévenot / Reporterre

On the way back, at the edge of the forest, the chirping of a baby bird warns us. Fallen from its nest, a small field color lies on the ground, frozen in fear. With his delicate fingers, the naturalist grabs the miracle and places it on the branch of a large fir tree. Around him, the despairing parents spin like bats in the dark. Hope she pulls through… »

Twenty years ago, when I asked an elementary school to draw me a lynx, more than a third of the students gave me monsters with teeth dripping with blood. Now kids don’t do that anymore. » In Patrice’s eyes, the acceptance of predators and their coexistence with humans will require more culture and knowledge. Journalists who illustrate their papers with a fierce-looking wolf or bear model a negative image of these animals in the minds of citizens. This is no longer possible… »

The legend of the brain teaser

On XIXᵉ century, and even today in some books the loon was called deer wolf ». This expression originates from the many superstitions that have circulated about the species since the Middle Ages: Back then it was said that it hid in the trees and waited for its prey to pass, to jump on its back and rip out its brains. »

A fantasized behavior that, added to his growl coupled with the wolf’s howl, earned him this strange nickname. By spreading these legends, scholars and priests have caused much harm to the lynx. »

Traffic accidents, poaching, forest fragmentation… So many obstacles to building a sustainable lynx population. © Emmanuel Clévenot / Reporterre

To study this mammal is finally to accept an eternal question mark of the collected knowledge. A Belarusian naturalist recently observed a male kill a deer and sacrifice the carcass to a female and her youngcontinues Patrice with raised eyebrows. We would never have imagined that ! Everyone thought he left the female immediately after mating. »

The sky darkened. Patrice sneaks under an old barbed wire, serving as a fence for a couple of cows with creamy white coats. At the other end of the field the house appears. The excitement is at its peak », he smiled and took the memory cards out of his pocket. Will they have immortalized a moment of the secret life of the ghost of the woods ?

Patrice Raydelet’s camera traps catch lynx… and many other animals.

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