This World Wildlife Day, let’s shine a light on the plight of one of Europe’s most endangered mammals. The European mink (Mustela lutreola) was once widespread across Central and Eastern Europe, but its population has drastically declined in the past 200 years.
The European mink is part of the carnivorous mustelid family, and is closely related to the polecat, stoat and weasel. Its small, elongated body is not only adapted to running, but also swimming and diving, and it is closely associated with wetland areas. Apart from in the mating season, it lives alone in burrows near riverbanks. Here, they search for their prey (mainly voles, but also fish, frogs and crustaceans). Foxes, owls and polecats are the mink’s main predators, but it is more threatened by human influences.
European mink – populations collapsing
The European mink’s range used to extend from northern Spain to the Ural and Caucasus mountains. However, since the 1800s, it has declined by over 90%, and the IUCN now classifies the species as Critically Endangered. Historically, this was due to hunting, but as mink fur now originates from domesticated animals on farms, this is less of an issue. Habitat loss is partially to blame. As European mink are highly dependent on riparian habitats, the drainage of wetlands has been disastrous for the species. This is yet another reason why wetland conservation is so important – read more about our ALFAwetlands project here.
Another major reason for its decline is competition from similar species. The larger American mink was introduced to Europe in the1920s for fur farming, and has since competed for habitat. As it is less reliant on wetlands, the American mink is more adaptable and is able to expand more aggressively, driving out the native species. It can also breed with the European mink, which prevents them mating with their conspecifics. The European polecat also hybridises with the European mink, as their ranges are increasingly overlapping due to climate change. To cap it all, American mink also potentially spread diseases to their European counterparts.
However, there is still hope for the European mink. Various reintroduction programmes are in place in Estonia and Germany, and several LIFE projects have taken place for their conservation over the years. The LIFE VISON programme, for example, focused on bolstering European mink populations in one of their last strongholds in Southern France. Find more about supporting the European mink here.
World Wildlife Day
World Wildlife Day is celebrated on March 3rd each year, to raise awareness about the planet’s wild animal and plant species. This year’s theme is “Partnerships for Wildlife Conservation”, celebrating conservation efforts on every level. Additional focus will be on on marine life and oceans, as well as on business and finance. 2023 also marks the 50th anniversary of CITES, protecting endangered wildlife from exploitation in international trade. This year’s celebration will therefore also be an opportunity to recognise CITES’ work and the partnerships enabling wildlife conservation.