Written by Tamara Kovačič
Lonely Conservationists posted a while back that they needed a new photo for their Instagram page. I have quite a few photographs in stock because I am a biologist and have previously had the opportunity to visit many lovely places. So I gave it a go. While browsing through the folders, I came across photos from the 2018 bio camp. Each year, the Biology Students Association from Biotechnical Faculty hosts a biological camp in one of the Balkan countries. The topic is the study of different ecosystems in the Balkans. This means that the leaders divide the students into groups based on their interests, such as botany, speleobiology, herpetology, ornithology, and so on. In 2018, there was also a group for large carnivores, which I applied to with great interest and enthusiasm.
Well, Kosovo had been chosen as the camp’s site that year. Although Kosovo only joined the IUCN in 2019, the government and some non-governmental organizations have already tried to protect the most vulnerable species before. Despite this, some hunters still ignore international agreements and European rules that restrict them from hunting. On the other hand, certain rare and endangered species, such as the brown bear, lynx, deer, wild cat, and chamois, have received tight legal protection in Kosovo since 2003. Therefore, our survey of each plant and animal species was even more important, as it would undoubtedly contribute to providing a better picture of the biodiversity of this area.
Unfortunately, the large carnivore group’s mentor had to cancel just before the camp started. We were slightly unprepared for the fieldwork because we had no idea before going to Kosovo that our group would not have a mentor. Of course, the camp organizers apologized and allowed us to join other research groups. We did, however, get the chance to do the research ourselves with their support. Many of us have decided to persist and complete the task that brought us to Kosovo. At the very least, I can say that this is a topic that truly sparks my interest, and I wanted to learn as much as I could about it. But we still had to start from scratch.
Our goal was to determine whether large carnivores were present in the chosen regions, what people’s attitudes toward them were, and whether they caused any damage. We wanted to know how hunters felt about these animals and if they followed the rules in national parks. We also wanted to learn about the research organization (ERA – Environmentally Responsible Action group) and the Four Paws Society’s activities.
Since we were our own mentors we began by interviewing hunters, beekeepers, and other individuals we thought had encounter bears or wolves. During our research, we went to the areas around Prizren, Peja, and Pristina. We did independent fieldwork and excursions with researchers from the ERA group. They also prepared a lecture on photo traps. In the Rugova region, the researchers from the ERA group caught bears, Balkan lynxes, and wolves on their photo traps and they even caught jackals before. We were also told that poaching, deforestation, the development of hydroelectric power plants in protected regions, and a lack of effective management in national parks are the main threats to large carnivores in Kosovo, especially the already rare Balkan lynx. These sorts of lectures and conversations usually leave me with all kinds of unanswered questions. Even if we are ecologists and conservationists, how much can we really do to preserve the natural environment around us if there are corporations and groups of individuals that clearly do not care about the world we live in?
Throughout the week, our group also tested the usage of photo traps in a variety of locations that the animals used as passageways or drinking holes. We also picked two evenings for “howling”. We were trying to detect the presence of wolves in the region of Shar, in a clearing near the hut where we stayed. We did not get a reply from wolves, but luckily, we found some wolf and bear scats in the fields. We kept them in DET buffer for further laboratory analysis. We found several animal tracks, particularly those of wild boar and deer in Blinaja Park. We also discovered some marten scats, among others.
Most of us were so excited about the whole process. But honestly, it is really easy to lose sight of the big picture. Especially, if you work on your own for the first time and you do not have the constant supervision that you are used to. I realize that for many younger students who were exposed to this type of work for the first time, all of these conversations and interactions with people were quite boring. Many others were also unimpressed with the deer tracks, which is an important wolf prey. Or they were disappointed by the empty camera footage. But that is just the way it is with large carnivores. These are animals that avoid contact with humans. And, in my perspective, if you find at least their footprints in the environment, or even if it’s just people’s stories or the remains of their hair on the fence, you have a lot to be happy about.
We finished our excursion by visiting the Four Paws bear sanctuary in Pristina. There, we witnessed the society’s incredible efforts in rescuing bears from captivity throughout Albania and Kosovo. These bears were previously kept in tiny cages near restaurants to entertain customers. Some were also owned by individuals. Many of them had a horrible past and were severely injured and in terrible condition before Four Paws saved them. They now live in enclosed meadows surrounded by woodlands, with access to ponds and the company of other bears.
Perhaps this narrative lacks the usual “lonely” touch. However, I wanted to illustrate that even if you are in a foreign country, in an entirely unknown setting, with no guidance or without the person who would always “keep an eye on you,” you can still achieve your goal. Just do not be embarrassed to be curious and ask questions. Do not be afraid to get in touch with like-minded people. And dare to share your ideas.
I have learned that if needed, I can take the initiative. I also really enjoy working in the outdoors and with different groups. And I remember a lot more if I have firsthand experience with things. I would not have discovered any of this if we hadn’t been left without a mentor. So, if someone asks, I guess everything happens for a reason.
For more of Tamara, check out @tamaraakovacic on Instagram