Face-to-face with Norway’s predators [Polar Park, Tromsø]

Text: Marcella van Alphen
Photograhs: Claire Lessiau & Marcella van Alphen

She is well camouflaged. The light brown colour of her fur dotted with some darker small spots hardly shows when she runs through the forest. I catch a glimpse as she moves out of the thickets. She stops and looks at me with her fluffy fur, white throat, elegant long legs, short tail and characteristic cat ear tufts. The lynx is one of the very special animals living in the wilderness of Norway. Very shy and rarely seen, it is in the Polar Park near Tromsø that we can observe her and learn about her.

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The Eurasian Lynx is an excellent hunter: it can jump as far as five meters on its prey that it stalks. Hares, rodents, birds, foxes, deer and even sheep and an occasional reindeer are on the menu. This does not make lynxes very popular amongst farmers, and they have been wiped out in many parts of Europe: hunting, poaching, habitat loss and depletion of prey are all contributing factors. It is only thanks to a ban on lynx hunting and a compensation plan for farmers who could prove their livestock got killed by a lynx that their numbers are on a slow rise in Norway, that counted about 452 adult lynxes in 2008.

We leave the thick-coated lynx roaming her large enclosure while we walk along a forestry path towards another arctic animal hard to see on the Scandinavian mainland these days. Three arctic foxes curiously pop their heads out of their den. It is only early September and a few white hairs start showing on their greyish fur: light snowfalls on the high reliefs last night announced the Winter when they turn white to camouflage and hunt for lemmings, rodents and birds or even eggs and carcasses left by polar bears and wolfs throughout the season. This is because of this beautiful, thick and warm white Winter fur that they have been sought after by hunters for centuries. Even though worldwide numbers are stable, the Scandinavian mainland population is critically endangered with a shockingly low 200 individuals left in the wild. They are quickly losing ground to red foxes which prey on them and take over their habitat due to climate change (and which lack natural predators, i.e., wolves). The protected eagles, increasing greatly in numbers, also prey on arctic foxes making their survival in Norway quite tricky these days.

I freeze. I have just heard the howling of a wolf in the distance. Goosebumps. Drawn by the majestic call of the God of the Forest as the Japanese refer to wolfs, we move in its direction. A pair, in the bloom of their lives, stares at us from a distance. The social pack animals take a prominent place in the Polar Park which mission is to educate the public, and more specifically its Norwegian visitors who tend to demonize the critically endangered species. The Polar Park even offers accommodation in a comfortable chalet inside the large wolf enclosure for guests to get to know wolves better during this unique experience.

Only roughly 450 wolfs populate the whole of Scandinavia today, and they still face extinction as Norway releases controversial hunting quotas each year. They actually became extinct in the country in the 1960’s due to overhunting, and today’s population originate from three wolves that migrated from a Russian-Finnish population in the 1980’s.

Another species feared by many is the Eurasian Brown Bear. However, it is very shy and tends to move out of sight right away when they hear or scent a human being, as we noticed ourselves a few days prior, mountain biking through bear territory in the forest near Snåsna. We found quite a few rather fresh excrements containing plants, roots and berries as well as claw marks on trees, without seeing a glimpse of the majestic mammal that must have been on a frenzy for food before hibernation.

Endangered in many European countries as it also targets livestock such as reindeers and sheep in Norway, populations in Scandinavia are slowly increasing with an estimated 3,000 bears in Sweden, 2,000 in Finland and only 100 in Norway where questionable hunting quotas are also enforced.

Another shy and extremely smart animal of which it is easier to find tracks rather than catch a glimpse in the wild is the wolverine. Master of climbing and digging with their large claws, they eat about anything they can find, sometimes even killing a reindeer or scavenging on carcasses left behind by lynxes and wolves. Their common name of glutton gives a good idea of the feeding behaviour of the stocky and muscular mammal.

If the Polar Park keeps these arctic animals, as well as reindeers, musk-oxen, roe deer and moose in captivity in large enclosures to educate visitors, it wants to evolve towards playing a greater role in conservation of endangered arctic species also encompassing Siberian Tigers and Snow Leopards, making the visit all the more interesting.

Travel tips:

  • The Polar Park is open year-round. Make sure to check feeding times for guided walks to make the most of your visit.
  • To see the musk oxen in the wild, go on a musk ox safari in the Dovrefjell-Sunndalsfjella National Park.
  • The best bet to stay close to the Polar Park is the fifth-generation-family-owned Lapphaugen Tourist Station along the E6, offering a vast array of accommodation including simple yet comfortable modern wooden cabins overlooking the surrounding mountains. Located on the battleground of the WWII Battle of Narvik, historical walks are also organised by Lapphaugen.
  • Check out this interactive map for the specific details to help you plan your trip and more articles and photos (zoom out) about the area (short tutorial)!

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