Goldman Environmental Prize: Campaigner protecting endangered lynx wins award

(CNN)One of the rarest of wildcats, the Balkan lynx has gained an almost mythical reputation. A national symbol of North Macedonia, it appears on the country's five denar coin, but today the species is critically endangered.

As few as 20 adults still roam the mountains and alpine forests of the south-west Balkans, and the only place they are known to breed is the Mavrovo National Park -- an area famed for its gorges, meadows and dramatic waterfalls, which straddles North Macedonia's border with Albania and Kosovo.
The majestic lynx is the national symbol of North Macedonia
With its habitat coming under increasing threat, Ana Colovic Lesoska spent seven years campaigning against two large hydropower plants planned for the national park.
She launched petitions, went door-to-door stirring up public opposition, and challenged international banks over their involvement.
    Today, her work has been recognized by the Goldman Environmental Prize for grassroots activism. Each year, the prize honors six environmental trailblazers -- one from each habitable continent -- who have often taken great personal risks to protect their environment.
    Lesoska, 39, brought up in Skopje, North Macedonia, says she endured intimidation and threats to her life during her campaign. She even traveled to the mountains door-knocking to raise awareness while seven months pregnant with her second child.
    "If you get scared, then you stop," she told CNN. "I couldn't let it consume me because that would have meant the end of the campaign."
    Ana Colovic Lesoska's love of nature spurred her to try to protect it.

    'A matter of injustice'

    The struggle began in 2010, when the state-owned power utility ELEM proposed the construction of two large hydropower plants in the Mavrovo National Park. Both had attracted significant funding from international development banks -- one plant €65 million ($72 million) from the European Bank for Research and Development (EBRD), and the other $70 million from World Bank.
    Conservationists feared they would harm Mavrovo's biodiversity. The protected 280-square-mile area of natural beauty is home to more than 1,000 varieties of plants, wolves, bears, golden eagles, otters, a rare trout species, as well as the Balkan lynx.
    Dime Melovski, of the Macedonian Ecological Society (MES), told CNN that the dams would have had a "negative cumulative effect" on the lynx population, by disturbing their habitat, making them more accessible for poachers, and disrupting the rearing of kittens.
    "I felt that it was a matter of injustice," said Lesoska. "It's not as if a meteor dropped on the middle of the park and destroyed the lynx, it's a decision ... It was a decision by the banks to contribute to the extinction of the Balkan lynx."