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True white wilderness: tracking lynx, wolf and bear in the Carpathian mountains of Slovakia

Summary

This ecovolunteer expedition will take you to the Carpathian mountains of Slovakia to monitor lynx, wolf & bear populations and their interrelationship with prey species. You will be part of a small international team, working with the local scientist and contributing to an important piece of research. You will track large carnivores through snow in the forest and meadow habitats of the mountains (using snow shoes, which are easy to use) and you may be involved in capturing and radio-collaring them. You will also learn how to recognise and record other signs of their presence, such as radio telemetry signals, scats and scent markings, camera trap them, collect samples to study their diet and for genetic analysis, and survey prey species. All in an effort to create a sustainable future for these icons of the Carpathian wilderness and to promote greater understanding of their role in European ecosystems.

Expedition contribution: £1290 (ca. €1590 | US$2140 | AU$2290) land only per group dates as shown below. Please note: expedition contributions are quoted in £ and the approximate € | US$ | AU$ equivalents. Try the XE currency converter for other currencies and up to date exchange rates.

Dates & meeting point1 - 7 February | 8 - 14 February 2015 (7 days). Participants can join for multiple slots (within the periods specified). The meeting point is in Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, and participants have to organise their own travel there. More details on this and how to get to the assembly point are in the expedition briefing

Status & availability: Red: Expeditions of status red have no spaces available (or have already been to the field). If an expedition is full already, you have the option of going on a waiting list.
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  • Equipment table at base
  • Mountain chalet expedition base
  • Lynx caught in a camera trap
  • On a survey walk
  • Study site landscape (c) Tomas Hulik
  • Study site landscape (c) Tomas Hulik
  • Study site landscape (c) Tomas Hulik
  • Lynx (c) Tomas Hulik
  • Navigation training session
  • Deciding on a survey route
  • Deciding on a survey route
  • On a survey walk
  • Observing animals and recording data
  • Deciding on a survey route
  • On a survey walk
  • Collecting a bear hair sample
  • Recording animal tracks
  • Setting a camera trap
             
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Details

Terrain

Mountains, cliffs with meadows and forests on the lower slopes.

Weather expected during expedition

Cold mountain weather with snow cover and temperatures averaging +5 to -10º C.

Expedition base

The expedition is a comfortable chalet with all modern amenities.

Team size

Up to 12 team members + 1-2 local scientist + 1 expedition leader.

Skills & prerequisites required

None. You don't need to be a scientist or have any special qualifications - everyone can take part and there are no age limits whatsoever.

Fitness level required

Ability to walk about 10 - 20 km per day in hilly to mountainous terrain with snow cover. If required, you will be given instruction in the use of snow shoes, which are not difficult to learn how to use. Those with existing cross-country or ski mountaineering skiing skills are welcome to bring their equipment as we may make use of their existing skills (in groups with the expedition leader and/or scientist).

Team assembly point

Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia.
> full details on how to get there are in the expedition briefing

Aims & objectives

(1) To ascertain total numbers of lynx, wolves & bears in the study area.
(2) To ascertain lynx, wolf and bear population dynamics, movements and activities.
(3) To ascertain numbers of prey species within the carnivore habitat.
(4) To assess predatory impact of lynx, wolf and bear on their prey populations.

Background

With higher numbers of wolves, lynx and bears in Slovakia since the second half of the 20th century, conflicts with local people have come to public attention. Negative aspects of their presence often make news headlines, promoting a heightened sense of fear. Wolves sometimes cause considerable losses to livestock, particularly sheep, and hunters think they will wipe out game stocks. Such conflicts often lead to calls for culling, which is the approach that almost eradicated carnivores from Slovakia in the past. The concurrent emergence of new threats to wildlife and habitats presented by economic development means that a more sensitive approach is required, one based on a sound understanding of the place of carnivores in ecosystems, but also considering their impact on local people. As very little modern scientific work has been done on large carnivores in Slovakia, there is much to be done in order to achieve these goals.

Study species

Lynx (Lynx lynx), grey wolf (Canis lupus), brown bear (Ursus arctos), wildcat (Felis silvestris), red deer (Cervus elaphus), wild boar (Sus scrofa), roe deer (Capreolus capreolus), red fox (Vulpes vulpes), brown hare (Lepus europaeus).

Other species present, all in an environment of alpine meadows, cliffs and forests: golden eagle, raven, pine marten, stone marten. All in an environment of alpine meadows, cliffs and forests.

Typical day

Activities are usually decided the night before and then confirmed in the morning, depending on the weather. The whole set-up of the expedition is quite flexible so that you can participate according to the weather conditions, your skills and general fitness and how you feel on the day.

In the morning the expedition team will divide into sub-teams of two or more people, who will be assigned a route to cover during the day. You will then be taken to the start of your route and set out on foot, snow shoes (or cross country or mountaineering skis) according to snow conditions and your preference & existing skills. When you find tracks or other signs of wolf, lynx, bear or other landmark species, you will record them using GPS receivers, cameras and notebooks. In the case of wolves and lynx, you will then follow the tracks for as far as possible in order to collect further data on their movements and activity. On other days you will also assist in a systematic assessment of prey numbers or you may be involved in camera trapping, capture, collaring or radio telemetry activities. You will return to base before it gets dark in the afternoon to log results and discuss findings with the rest of the team.

Research area

The Western Carpathian mountains cover much of northern Slovakia, and spread into the Czech Republic with Moravia to the east and southern Poland to the north. They are home to many rare and endemic species of flora and fauna, as well as being a notable staging post for a very large number of migrating birds.
 
The expedition’s study area is the Veľká Fatra National Park. The Bradt Travel Guide has this to say about the park: “The gorgeous Veľká Fatra National Park is a vast 403 square kilometre area of unspoilt, undiscovered natural beauty, and you can walk all day in peace and solitude, feeling like the first explorer to set foot in a beautiful, flower-filled mountain meadow. Most of the area is covered by beech and fir forests, in some places by spruce and pines. The area around Harmanec is the richest yew tree region in Europe.”

The national park and its buffer zone comprise most of the Veľká Fatra range, which is part of the Outer Western Carpathians. The national park was declared on 1 April 2002 as an upgrade of the Protected Landscape Area of the same name established in 1972 to protect a mountain range with a high percentage of well-preserved Carpathian forests. Ridge-top cattle pastures date back to the 15th century, to the times of the so-called Walachian colonisation. The Veľká Fatra National Park is also an important reservoir of fresh water thanks to high rainfalls and low evaporation in the area. The core of the range is built of granite, which reaches the surface only in places. More common are various slates, creating gentle ridges and summits of the so-called Hôlna Fatra and limestone and dolomite rocks, creating a rough and picturesque terrain of the so-called Bralná Fatra. There are also many karst features, namely caves. Various rocks and therefore various soils, diverse type of terrain with gentle upland meadows and pastures, sharp cliffs and deep valleys provide for extremely rich flora and fauna. All species of big central European carnivores live abundantly there: brown bear, gray wolf and Eurasian lynx. The UNESCO World Heritage village of Vlkolínec with well-preserved log cabins lies near.

Partners

Our main partner for this expedition is the Slovakian NGO ‘Protection of Carpathian Wilderness’ (PCW), which has been working in the field of nature conservation and education since 1995. PCW carries out scientific research, primarily on lynxes and golden eagles, and provides expert knowledge and assistance in the management of these species. PCW is also engaged with projects of reintroducing the golden eagle to the Czech Republic and works with zoos on releasing endangered species such as lynx and wildcat back into the wild. Education and public awareness are also important aspects of PCW’s work. PCW hopes to foster greater understanding and acceptance of native predators. The common theme of all PCW’s work is that it is conservation-driven. In the case of research this means that the data gathered is intended to provide a sound basis for management decisions and improve coexistence with people.

Other partners include the Slovak State Protection of Nature Department, the Forestry Department and the National Park authorities of the Veľká Fatra and Mala Fatra National Parks.

And finally (almost)

Our expeditions are not about playing the primitive, neither are we a military style 'boot-camp'. Our expedition leader and the local scientist will be by your side and we believe strongly that we get the best out of our expedition teams by making them comfortable, safe and well fed. You won’t be living in the lap of luxury, but we will do our best to make you feel comfortable and at home in your working environment, as this is the key to a well-balanced and successful expedition.

And finally (briefing)

Even more details, including instructions on how to get to the assembly point, are in the expedition briefing below.

Briefing

For even more details such as activities, staff, accommodation, the assembly point and how to get there, and lots more, please access the expedition briefing by providing your full name and e-mail.

Biosphere Expeditions will never share these details with anyone. 

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Results & achievements

Biosphere Expeditions has been involved in Slovakia since 2004, first in chamois conservation in the Lower Tatras and more recently with large carnivores in the wider Carpathian mountains. Since 2013 the current project has surveyed transects of more than 1,000 km and in doing so was able to confirm the presence of bear hibernation locations, several lynxes and three wolf packs in Lubochnianksa valley, the longest valley in Slovakia. Remarkably, the presence of three wild cats in this mouintain area has also been confirmed by the expedition. Studies by Biosphere Expeditions of lynx, wolf and bear population density and distribution are still in their initial stages, but show promise of exciting insights into the management and presence of these species in Velka Fatra National Park, which is threatened by logging and unsustainable hunting.

Scientific reports and publications for this expedition are on the reports & publications page. As far as we are aware, Biosphere Expeditions is the only organisation in the world that has a direct and transparent link between the work done by citizen scientists and an expedition report. Each expedition year is matched by an expedition report for that year, which deals with the two main areas that expedition participants contribute to: funding and data collection. Chapter 1 of each report, written by Biosphere Expeditions, reviews the expedition logistics and publishes an expedition budget, which shows in a clear and transparent way income and expenditure for each expedition and the percentage of income spent on the project. Chapter 2 onwards, written by the expedition scientist, shows who collected what data, how they were analysed, what the conclusions were, as well as the conservation recommendations and actions flowing from this, and what future expeditions should do. In this way, each expedition comes full circle for its participants.

Awards & accolades

National Geographic    

This expedition was honoured in National Geographic Adventure magazine's "Best New Trips" list.

Get Lost!    

This expedition was honoured in Australia's Get Lost! magazine "30 Great Escapes / Best Adventure Trips on the Planet" list.

Videos

More videos on   YouTube

Press

National Geographic   Bear necessities
in English
pdf View article 331.72 Kb
    Overland Journal   Tracks in the snow
in English
pdf View article 5.38 Mb
               
Get Lost!   Wildcat tracking in the Carpathian mountains
in English
pdf View article 197.35 Kb
    Biorama   L wie Luchs
in German
pdf View print article 675.92 Kb
View (longer) online article
               
Biorama   Der Schädel des Bären
in German
pdf View print article 129.32 Kb
    Universum   Wo die wilden Tiere wohnen
in German
pdf View article 298.21 Kb
               
DiePresse  

Spuren im Schnee
in German
pdf View print article 189.12 Kb

         
 
       
More press coverage on   Issuu  

Testimonials

"For me as a lone scientist, it is not possible to check and cover the whole territory of the Veľká Fatra and Mala Fatra National Parks during the wolf and lynx mating season. But with the people from Biosphere Expedition, who always enjoy the wilderness of these parks and are keen to help, it will be much easier to cover the area and collect important research and conservation information about lynxes, wolves and wildcats. Thank you very much!
Tomas Hulik, Protection of Carpathian Wilderness, Slovakia.

"I enjoyed my expedition very much – the group was great. It was also great to meet people from different backgrounds and nationalities, and the different ages did not matter at all. The staff were excellent, good fun and kind. I admire the extremely hard work they put in to make this work so well for everyone."
Cathy Ryan, 49.

"Fantastic opportunity and a fantastic expedition."
Kyley Chapman, travel journalist, 32.


Feedback from team members about their experiences and reasons for coming (on/from various expeditions).

"For me this was again a very successful undertaking and I look forward to receiving a copy of the report. Last year was my first venture into ‘responsible travel’ and I feel I made a good choice with Biosphere Expeditions. I would recommend this type of vacation to anyone. I will be back and follow Biosphere’s development with interest.”
Alan Franklin, 52.

"The other expedition members were lovely and really made the expedition brilliant. The whole experience has been fantastic and everyone involved deserves a big thanks!”
Katie Bunting, 32.

“I loved working with people with different backgrounds and experiences, being challenged with long walks and navigating yourself  – an unforgettable experience!”
Tom Barratt, 35.

"Really enjoyed the whole experience and would not hesitate to sign up for another expedition in the future."
Fiona Eccleston, 50.

"Amazing expedition, thank you ;)"
Lauren Fuller, 22.

"It was a great holiday, thanks for everything!"
Catherine Hillman, 56.

"Thank you for everything: all the adventures, experiences, impressions. I will never forget them!"
Sonja Käßmann, 28.

"I have learnt a lot from this experience and I hope the animals benefit from the data I have collected. Thanks for a great experience – long live Biosphere!"
Jamie Sommerville, 18.

> more testimonials

Expedition diary / blog

See what's gone on during past expeditions via the expedition diary and blog.

Frequently asked questions

What's the accommodation like and how do I get to the assembly point?
A description of the accommodation and some pictures are in the details section above. All participants organise their own travel to the assembly point, which is an easy to find place in-country, and exact instructions on how to get there at what time are in the expedition briefing, which you can download above. > more

Is it just young people roughing it, i.e. will it be for me or am I too old/young/unfit?
A common misconception is that conservation expeditions are full of youngsters roughing it and boozing. With Biosphere Expeditions nothing could be further from the truth! Our typical participant is in his/her mid-30s to late 70s (average age 42.3, spread six months to 87 years). It is rare to have fewer than five nationalities, typically from Europe, North America and Australasia, on the expedition, all united by the common interest in wildlife, wilderness and conservation. If you would like details who is already signed up, then just get in touch. > more

Do I need special skills or fitness?
Apart from the ability to communicate in English and a diving qualification for our diving expeditions, there are no special skills (biological or otherwise) required to join our expeditions, and there are no age limits whatsoever. If you have special needs, please contact us to find out about the suitability of the experience of your choice. > more

How good does my English have to be?
If, with the help of a dictionary and a little patience, you can understand what we are talking about here, then don't worry - you'll be fine.

Will I be safe?
Yes. Although we are not in the business of controlling nature and expect you to take some responsibilities, safety is our top priority. Our three key watchwords are ‘safety, science, satisfaction’ - in that order. We always have emergency procedures and backup systems in place. Biosphere Expeditions has an excellent safety record with no serious accidents, long-lasting injuries or let alone deaths since its foundation in 1999. > more

Can people under 18 attend?
Yes, because there are no (upper or lower) age restrictions. With their parents' consent they can also come by themselves.

How do I sign up and when do I pay?
Signing up is easy: Use the  and pay a deposit of £300; the full balance will be due four weeks before the start of the expedition. If you don't want to sign up online, you can also download paper forms to fax or snail-mail.

What's included and what's not included?
Once you have made it to the assembly point and we’re on our way, we pay for everything apart from the obvious such as personal souvenirs, luxury drinks, phone calls home, etc. (and in many places we go to there's no need for money anyway ;). Travel arrangements to the assembly point are for you to make and pay for. Additional costs may include passport, visa and airport fees, your personal gear and preparations, and travel insurance, but not much more. There are certainly no hidden fees from our end.

Where does my money go?
On average at least two-thirds of your contribution will benefit the project directly and locally, the rest will go towards administrative back-up, as well as researching and setting up new expeditions. Within six to twelve months after your expedition you will receive an expedition report with full details on how your expedition contribution was spent on running the expedition and supporting its research work. We can put as much as two-thirds into the project, because we are a non-profit/charitable research and conservation organisation, not a large scale tourism business, which means that we can keep expensive overhead costs to a minimum. We also do very little advertising and costly marketing, concentrating instead on press, media and research publication work. > more

> more FAQs and detailed answers in text and video format are on the FAQ page

More questions?

If you have any more questions, please just e-mail us, get in touch with one of our offices, or use the form below.