Posted on 03 March 2018
Today (3 March) we’re celebrating UN World Wildlife Day, which this year highlights the importance of protecting our big cats. Found across almost every continent, big cats are more than just a ‘pretty face’ - as an apex predator, by conserving these species, we can save a whole complex web of life that exists below them on the food chain.
Today (3 March) we’re celebrating UN World Wildlife Day,
which this year highlights the importance of protecting our big cats. Found across almost every continent, big cats are more than just a ‘pretty face’ - as an apex predator, by conserving these species, we can save a whole complex web of life that exists below them on the food chain. Big cat conservation can also secure essential resources for people – for example, snow leopard habitat alone forms the headwaters of rivers that support more than 3 billion people.
Big cats can also bring a wealth of benefits to local communities such as alternate livelihoods, water security and much more. A single tigress in India was responsible for bringing in over US$103 million in the first decade of her life, through park fees, lodging, taxes and services fees. She also effectively employed over 3,000 local people according to Travel Operators for Tigers, and her offspring continue this legacy.
However these species are under grave threat. Habitat destruction, human wildlife conflict and poaching are causing massive declines in the populations of these beautiful creatures and at times, in the most surprising ways.
Bike cables kill more cats than guns in Asia
Wire and cable such as that used in bicycles are being repurposed into deadly snare traps, which are increasingly littering big cat habitats. While these snare traps aren’t always intended for the big cats, this illegal hunting method does not differentiate between species and today, snare traps are sadly killing more big cats than guns across the Asian continent.
In the Eastern Plains of Cambodia every single square km has on average four snares, but just five deer. Within the UNESCO World Heritage Site ‘Tropical Rainforest Heritage of Sumatra’, the only place on Earth where wild tigers, orangutans, elephants and rhinos are found in the same habitat, snare traps are estimated to have doubled between 2006 and 2014.
Death can be slow and for cats that do manage to break free, often by gnawing off their trapped paws, an inability to hunt unfortunately leads to starvation not long after.
Tigers are being farmed for illegal trade
Today, there are estimated to be only around 3,900 tigers left in the wild, and they reside across Asia from the snowy landscapes of Russia to the tropical jungles of Indonesia. Yet in farms across China, Thailand, Laos PDR and Vietnam there’s thought to be as many as 8,000 captive tigers.
This may sound like good news but tiger farms, which can also masquerade as tourist attractions, breed tigers for the intention of trading their body parts. Every part of the tiger—from whisker to tail—is currently in demand for products such as medicine, wine and status symbols. As tiger products from farmed tigers have often been found in illegal trade, these farms have grave consequences for the remaining wild population by continuing to fuel demand.
Growing lion bone trade bad news for lions – and tigers
As low wild tiger populations make meeting the relentless demand for illegal tiger products increasingly difficult, recent evidence shows lion bone is being used as a substitute, given the similarities in the bone density. In addition to fuelling the demand for illegal wildlife products, this worrying trend is also creating another threat for lions; a species which has seen numbers plummet by more than 40 per cent over the last three generations due to loss of habitat and conflict with people.
Cattle killing off America’s most powerful big cat
The jaguar, America’s largest cat, now occupies less than half of its historical habitat. The destruction of their habitat through clearing land for cattle ranching and industrial plantations like soybean, sugar cane, and oil palm is a major threat to the survival of the species. Like the snow leopard, jaguars are so elusive that conservationists are yet to have an accurate population number, but all the evidence they do have suggests this big cat is in decline.
Jaguars are also killed in retaliation due to livestock predation, fear, and more recently due to the rising demand for their body parts; further hindering their survival.
‘Love thy neighbour’ – retaliation killings remain as great a threat to snow leopards as poaching
You may know that poaching, fuelled by demand for wildlife products such as skins and claws is an ongoing threat to snow leopards. However, one of the greatest immediate threats facing the cats comes from the revenge killing by the angry herders who lose their livestock and thus livelihoods to snow leopards. In large swathes of high Asia, livestock often outnumbers wild prey, resulting in snow leopards turning to livestock for food. This triggers a vicious cycle as local communities lose money and livelihoods from the death of their livestock so retaliate by killing the snow leopards.
With human and livestock populations expanding, as well as new settlements, roads and mines, habitat loss is threatening the snow leopard’s future. Declining numbers of prey species, and a rise in poaching are also thinning the big cats’ ranks.
In the landscapes where WWF works, we are supporting communities to develop ‘predator proof’ solutions, encouraging more land to be set aside for natural prey species, and setting up livestock insurance schemes. This is providing some positive results for both people and wildlife.
No doubt, big challenges persist in protecting our planet’s big cats but we know that conservation efforts are working. In 2016, we celebrated an increase in tiger numbers for the first time in conservation history. And, just this week (March 1) all jaguar range states met for the first time at the UN headquarters in New York to unite in committing to protect the future of the species.
Everyone can play a role in saving these cats from saying no to wildlife products, to engaging with conservation organisations to writing to governments or simply using your voice to spread the word about the threats. If you haven’t already, get started today and do one thing today to help protect these beautiful animals.