a country known for its picturesque and mountainous landscapes is also home to some of the world’s most elusive and rare felines. Wild cat enthusiast, camera trapper, photographer and passionate citizen scientist Lars Begert is helping to tell the story of the small wild cats that call Switzerland’s Jura Mountains home. His hope is that by sharing his photographs and knowledge he will give them a voice, helping to inspire others to appreciate and protect these unique and important animals.
I recently interviewed Lars about his life long passion for nature, wildlife and his participation in the Wildcat Monitoring project that is doing important research not far from where he lives.
How did your passion for photographing wild cats start?
It all started as a child when my parents showed my brother and I the beauty of nature and love for wildlife early on. We lived on the edge of the forest and in my spare time I would visit the ponds and pools to watch amphibians. We also went to the Swiss National Park for at least 2 weeks each year to watch animals. Relatives often gave me animal books for my birthday and I can remember one specific book very well, it had a tiger on the front cover, and I spent hours studying the different animal species. My grandparents always had domestic cats at home and I loved playing with them so I guess this was where my relationship with the cats started. As a child I always wanted to be an animal researcher, but lost interest for a short time while growing up. When I met my wife back in 2000 we started to look for wildlife on our vacations, because she also has a big interest in animals.
The big push really happened in 2011 when I started to wonder whether there were any lynx in the Aargau Jura. There was some indication that they were, but there wasn’t really much information about it so I started putting up cheap trail cameras. However, I had to wait over a year for the first lynx to run into one of my cameras. Also during that time I recalled a vacation from 2005 when we were in Kenya, so I decided to fly there again. It was just wonderful, I had a great guide and we saw so many wild cats but I was not so happy with the pictures, so I bought a better camera and went again in the same year. Since then, we always plan our vacation around wild cats. I can’t really describe it, but I am somehow quite attracted to them.
How did you become involved in camera trapping?
I started with cheap trail cams going after the Eurasian lynx and when I saw the pictures I was happy, but being quite the perfectionist I was also not happy. I mean you could identify the species, but for a great capture it was just not the right device. I recall seeing the captures of Sebastian Kennerknecht*, Steve Winter’s capture of mountain lion P-22** and the beautiful Eurasian lynx captures of Laurent Geslin*** and I thought I want to take pictures like this!
It took me a lot of time to find out how to work and create a stable, reliable setup but when I finally had my first capture of a pine marten I was so happy and it really opened up a whole new world photography wise. So I really started with DSLR camera trapping about 2 years ago and I am still learning a lot. I also had, and still have, a lot of setbacks. In the beginning I had a lot of technical issues and sometimes still do, particularly after heavy rainfall or storms. I also had quite the bad luck when it comes to the Eurasian lynx, last year it passed one of my camera traps 4 times and during that time the camera trap didn’t work, but when I finally did get a capture it was all worth it!
Tell me about the Wildcat Monitoring project you are currently involved in?
In 2008-2010 the Wildcat Monitoring Switzerland project was carried out to determine the distribution of the species in Switzerland for the first time. The monitoring was based on one systematic survey of wildcat occurrences in the Jura, unfortunately I wasn’t involved back then. Ten years later, the second survey is to be carried out to monitor developments in the wildcat population, both in terms of distribution and hybridization. The purpose of the inventory on behalf of the FOE (Federal office of environment) is as follows:
- Distribution map of occurrences of wildcats in the Jura and in the Central Plateau up to the Pre-alps, status 2018-20201
- Estimation of wildcat density2
- Estimation of the rate of hybridization of wildcats
- Changes in the distribution, density and hybridization rate in large carnivore management in the Jura compared to the first monitoring survey
Since you can’t tell the difference a 100% between a domestic cat (Felis catus) and the European wildcat (Felis silvestris) you have to find out through a DNA Analysis. This means you need hair from the cats.
In this Wildcat Monitoring project there are specific square kilometer habitats defined and, on every square kilometer you have to set 3 wooden pickets on an animal trail. You treat the picket with a knife that the hairs get stuck to when the cat rubs on the picket. To attract them you spray the picket with Valerian. Wildcats, as well as other animals, are quite attracted to Valerian especially during mating season which is January to March.
To date, what species of wild cats have shown up on your camera traps?
In Switzerland we have two species of wild cats: the European wildcat (Felis silvestris silvestris) and the Eurasian lynx (Lynx lynx carpathicus). The Eurasian lynx was eradicated during the 19th century and reintroduced in 1971 again with individuals from the Carpathian mountains, while the European wildcat was strongly reduced but never became completely extinct in Switzerland. So far I am happy that I have been able to capture both of our wild cat species with my camera traps. This fact makes me particularly happy as the area in which I operate the camera traps is the direct “back-country” of my home, as well as a peripheral region for these two animal species.
As a citizen scientist what do you hope to contribute to wild cat conservation where you live?
I hope that I can collect as much information as possible about the distribution and density of the wildcat in our region to support and help the scientists. With my captures I hope that I can inform people that these wild cats actually exist, as many people don’t know about them and when I do show them pictures they feel that it is a domestic cat. I want to make them aware that we have a great little wildcat in the woods with us, that it is worth protecting and that we need to be aware of the importance of protecting nature including our forests. In the next few years I would like to create a picture book about the beautiful nature we are surrounded with and focus on our two wild cat species.
What is next for the monitoring project?
For the next 2.5 months I will manage the hair traps, that means I have to check every 2 weeks if there are hairs at the pickets and treat the pickets again with a knife and Valerian. I already found hairs on two of my pickets this season, but of course don’t know yet from which animals the hairs are from. I personally set a camera trap in front of every picket so I already know that at least on one of the pickets a phenotypic****Euorpean wildcat went by and examined the picket, but I also know that there were 4 other species rubbing their body on the picket. The lab will sort out and analyze the hairs and with some hairs they can already tell, by the structure, that it is not a wildcat.
I expect to have the first results, which determine whether the hair has wildcat DNA or not, by August/September this year. During the second step they analyze all the remaining wildcat hairs to determine the hybridization level. By the end of 2021 the project will be over and we should have all the relevant data. My work will be completed by end of march as I only work in the field, but my camera trapping will continue.
Why was it so important to become involved in helping document the presence of these animals?
For me it was a dream, because I wanted to become a animal researcher as a child but decided then to another path work-wise. I want to help in my free time as much as I can to provide as much data as possible for the researchers and to get a better understanding of how we can help a species like the wildcat in this small, fragmented country. I wouldn’t expect that everyone becomes involved in this type of project, but it could really help to raise the awareness with people. I think we are so disconnected with nature, there has to be a change. Otherwise the nature we know will disappear.
What are some of the biggest threats wildcats in Switzerland face and, what is being done to help them?
The main threats of the European wildcat include:
- Habitat loss, destruction and fragmentation (road traffic)
- Disease transmission from domestic cats
- Hybridization with domestic cats
Although the idea of hybridization is quite controversial, some scientists see it as a threat while others are not sure because it hasn’t been thoroughly researched yet. Unfortunately there is not a lot that can be done to reduce this threat. Switzerland is quite a small fragmented country and there are some projects working to connect habitats. Even though the wildcat is never the main focus of course it will benefit. Concerning the hybridization issue there are some animal welfare organization which require neutering for free range domestic cats or feral cats, which is also considered controversial because it is quite a harsh measure.
Please tell me about the recent Swiss hunting law that was proposed
The new hunting law has come out all wrong. “In the future protected animal species such as lynx, wolf, beaver and grey heron can be shot down before they have caused any damage and, before any protective measures for herds or flocks have been taken simply because they exist. This new law also comes at a time when biodiversity is facing its most precarious moment in the history of humankind. The congress of states and the national council already voted for it. Several Swiss nature and animal protection organizations are resorting to a referendum against the revised “Swiss Federal Law on Hunting and the Protection of Indigenous Mammals and Birds” (In German Jagdgesetz, JSG) and are fighting against this unacceptable weakening of the protection of species in Switzerland. The only things the new law would protect are agricultural interests and hunting and fishing yields.” Together with a colleague I went to the zoo Basel to collect signatures from people. I am happy that the 50,000 signatures were collected and there is now a vote for the referendum on May 17, 2020.
What is your personal philosophy with regards to conservation and photographing wildlife?
Even though I’m pretty wild cat oriented, the important thing is the entire ecosystem so every species counts. When it comes to photographing wildlife I have discovered disturbing things in the last years. There are a lot of so called wildlife photographers that are not really interested in the animal, they are interested in their capture and the fame and glory they probably will get from it. They don’t care if they destroy nature, or if the animal gets hurt or if they stage and fake the photo as long as they are getting their shot. So in my understanding there is no wildlife photography without conservation. Just observe before taking a capture.
If you had to pick a few favorite highlights while photographing wild cats, either at home or on your travels, which would they be?
It is quite hard to pick. I am very grateful, and I really appreciate, that I had already a lot of awesome encounter with wild cats. But I will narrow it down to 3 highlights:
- My first Iberian lynx, one of the world’s most endangered wild cats. In 2014 we went to Andalusia, southern Spain, and after 2 attempts and 4 weeks down there we finally saw our first lynx, it was just magical to see this beautiful animal in the wild.
- Next is caracals in Kenya In 2013. I decided to go again to Kenya, Masai Mara, to photograph wildcats. I told our guide at the camp that I’d plan to go to South Africa later that year because of caracals. He laughed and told me that he could show me a caracal if we came back again. So I convinced my wife to go to Kenya again instead of South Africa. We searched for days to see a caracal, and our guide was already quite frustrated when a colleague of his called and told him that they had seen a caracal. We hurried over and found 2 strolling in their territory. I didn’t get any proper capture, but it was again so wonderful to just watch and observe these beautiful animals.
- Finally my first bobcat capture in 2018. We already tried to see bobcats in 2015 in California, but weren’t successful at that time. We later flew to San Francisco where I went to the Golden Gate Bridge recreation area and, on the second morning there I decided to go a little bit earlier. I started hiking down to the sea, my camera ready when I passed by some coyotes and saw another shadow further down. At first I thought it was another coyote, but realized suddenly that it was moving like a cat. I slowly approached the animal and saw a bobcat! He was looking for rodents in the grass and walked up again another road. He turned his head and wasn’t even disturbed at my presence as long as I kept my distance. I followed him for around 20 minutes, took some pictures before he disappeared in the tall grass again. That was just another magical moment, alone with a beautiful creature!
Is there anything else you would like people to know?
Go out enjoy nature and wildlife! Appreciate this amazing planet we have and help to protect and conserve it. Get your connection to nature back – It gives us so much in return. Nature needs all of us now.
For more wild cats, camera trapping photos and other wonderful images of wildlife like amphibians, be sure to follow Lars on Instagram at @Lynxlynx.ch.