The Balkan lynx is a critically endangered subspecies of the Eurasian lynx. According to IUCN, its population is estimated to number fewer than 50 individuals spread over Albania, Kosovo*, Montenegro and Macedonia.

The non-governmental organization Protection and Preservation of Natural Environment in Albania (PPNEA) received good news about lynx reproducing in the Central and northern parts of Albania, i.e. in the Munella area, in a very sad way. Namely, they were informed about a lynx cub which was found dead near the town of Puka in Northern Albania. How the cub ended up near the town area is still unknown.

More than 600 children in two Albanian regions are educated on the specifics of the lynx

That sad event immediately urged PPNEA to develop the “Balkan Lynx Ambassadors” educational program. They implemented it in northern Albania in the Puke-Mirdite region, in spring and autumn of 2015. At a later stage, the program was replicated in schools in and around the Shebenik-Jabllanicë National Park. 25 schools in both regions were involved in the program with more than 30 student ambassadors from the Puke-Mirdite region and 30 students from the Shebenik-Jabllanicë National Park.

Although they have been working systematically on the protection of the Balkan lynx in Albania for more than 12 years and have organized several information and awareness sessions, it was only now that PPNEA found it necessary to have a focused environmental education program.

It was Klaudja Koçi, the coordinator for educational programs for PPNEA, who started working on the creation of the network of the Balkan lynx ambassadors.

“We started designing the educational programs in cooperation with my professors and volunteers in 2015,” Koçi says. However, even now when the Balkan lynx ambassadors meet with Koçi, you can notice the close connection that still exists among them.

The program consisted of a two-day training for the young ambassadors during which they learnt about the ways lynx feed, how they look, how they act and how they live. The ambassadors then had to go to other schools and teach other students, so more than 600 children were peer-coached and educated about the specifics of the lynx.

Silva Përgega was one of the lynx ambassadors from the Puke-Mirdite region. She was really surprised when she found out that the lynx were her “neighbors” for she was not aware of living so close to them and didn’t know how special and endangered they were.

“We attended the training to learn more about the lynx. We lived in that area and we didn’t know that lynx were so close to us, just on the Munella mountain. Students from other schools had the same reaction,” said Përgega.

According to Koçi, the Municipality of Munella are lobbying now for environmental protection.

Viktor Bogdani is also serving as a young ambassador for promoting the biodiversity values, and he lives inside the national park in the village of Rrajcë. At the beginning of our conversation he seemed a bit shy, but when we tackled the topic of nature protection and the protection of the lynx, he opened up like an Albanian lily, a very rare flower that can be found in the Shebenik-Jabllanicë National Park, in spring.

“I have passed on all the information I received from the educational program to my cousins and family explaining that what they call the wild cat is actually the lynx, a very rare species in all Albania that we need to protect,” said Bogdani.

The educational programs that PPNEA has organized in the Shebenik-Jabllanicë National Park created a new opportunity for young ambassadors. Three of them now work as tour guides in the park, Bogdani included.

“Being a lynx ambassador since 2015 has greatly changed my views about nature as I have learnt a lot about its values through this program. I have passed on all the information I received from the educational program to my cousins and family explaining that what they call the wild cat is actually the lynx, a very rare species in all Albania that we need to protect,” added Bogdani.

During his tours in the Shebenik-Jabllanicë National Park, Bogdani has identified new trails inside the UNESCO protected area of the national park where they could potentially put camera traps for the lynx. “I believe that we could capture photos of the lynx because that area has more trees,” said Bogdani.

For Ornela Poçi, a specialist from the Regional Agency for Protected Areas of Elbasan, it was very important to show locals the true values of the park and how to generate income through activities that are in service of the ecosystem and the community. In her opinion, they should become tour guides in nature, open their homes that are inside the park to tourists, offer horse riding and many other things.

“The group that was trained and all the students that took part in our activities did not stop right after they got certified as young ambassadors. They are our focal points now, every time when tourists visit us, we suggest these groups to hire them as tour guides,” added Poçi.

Some ambassadors have shown initiatives in the form of painting, poetry, starting local campaigns, and sharing leaflets to the local community, so they are still influencing local communities even after the education was over.

Shebenik-Jabllanicë now has a person dedicated to education and communication activities.

“They have dedicated staff for education and they have a plan for activities and they keep in contact with the young ambassadors who help raise awareness,” said Koçi.

Ambassadors are becoming watchdogs in these areas. They are reporting on different environmental crimes in their respective areas. Different school projects on the importance of PA, wildlife protection, and threats are presented to local communities thus increasing the awareness on these topics.