Blogging for World Wildlife Day 2018

Conserving Big Cats Isn’t Easy, But It’s Possible

Big cats require large areas of habitat to accommodate an adequate prey base. Photo credit: Kalyan Varma/WCS

By John Robinson
March 2, 2018

While we biologists all have our own favorite animals, surveys of public opinion from all parts of the world indicate that big cats are among the most recognized and beloved species on our planet — from Asia’s tigers and snow leopards, to Africa’s lions, to the jaguars of the Americas.

But big cats are not just symbols. As apex predators, they structure the faunal communities in which they live. Such intact biological communities have many values. Typically they are high in biological diversity and provide ecosystem services like the provision of fresh water and the storage of carbon. They also have resources for rural communities and cultural values for the people that live there.

But despite their being culturally revered and ecologically critical, big cats all face severe threats. Loss of habitat threatens their survival. The jaguar has lost almost 50 percent of its historical range in Latin America. The lion has lost 75 percent of its range in Africa, and the tiger a stunning 93 percent across Asia.

Seizures of canines and skulls indicate that since 2014, a minimum of 189 jaguars have been poached in Bolivia for trade to Asia. Photo credit: Julie Larsen Maher/WCS.

Even where they persist, big cats depend on a robust prey base. For a single tiger to survive, for instances, it needs to have 500 large ungulates in its territory. Hunting by people can deplete that prey base.

Big Cats are also hunted and killed by people. These killings often result from the threat these top predators pose to both people and their livestock. This is especially a problem where natural habitat is declining or natural prey is depleted. Big cats prey on livestock and — in the case of tigers and lions — can kill people. Retaliatory killings are common in many places as a result.

Big cats are likewise sought after for their body parts. Their fur has long been revered, although implementation of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) has reduced this threat. The hunting of big cats for their teeth, claws, and bones for traditional medicines has led to tiger losses for years — a major threat that has expanded to lions and, most recently, to jaguars.

So, what can we do about it? Conservationists know that parks and protected areas are key to conserving species populations. Effective management of these protected areas is needed to ensure that habitat remains intact to prevent hunting of prey species and the direct killing of big cats.

Lions and other big cats face retaliation against loss of livestock or threats to humans. Photo credit: Julie Larsen Maher/WCS.

One invaluable tool is a GPS-based ranger patrol program known as the Spatial Monitoring and Reporting Tool (SMART), which is now widely deployed in protected areas globally. In the hands of well-trained rangers, SMART technology has vastly improved their efficiency and effectiveness.

Wildlife corridors are needed to allow big cats to travel across the broader landscape. Big cats need a lot of space and protected areas are typically insufficiently large to protect viable populations.

On the plus side, though, big cats are generally very effective at moving through human-dominated landscapes without being notice. The dramatic case of a mountain lion from South Dakota being killed in Greenwich, Connecticut in 2011 is a case in point.

Predator-proof corrals are being built across snow leopards’ mountain habitats, protecting livestock and halting retaliatory killing of these cats. Photo credit: WCS Afghanistan.

As big cats move through the wider landscape, we must work to reduce human-big cat conflict, especially with livestock. Key here are good management practices, such as corralling livestock at night to keep them safe from predation.

Preventing the trafficking of big cats and their parts remains a challenge, but can be accomplished though intelligence-supported enforcement — work that requires involvement of the judiciary to take cases effectively through the judicial process.

Conserving big cats is not easy. But it is possible, and we do know how to do it. It requires that we adequately value big cats, and have the commitment and will to give them space to live their lives.

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John Robinson is Executive Vice President for Conservation and Science at WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society).