The threat of big cat extinction is looming, so it’s crucial that people act now to prevent this tragedy from occurring. National Geographic has created the Big Cat Initiative (BCI), partially headed by Dereck and Beverly Joubert, in an endeavor to save these fiercely elegant animals. To put the seriousness of the big cat extinction crisis in perspective, here are some quick population facts:
“There were 450,000 lions when we were born and now there are only 20,000 worldwide,” says legendary big cat conservationist Dereck Joubert. “Leopards have declined from 700,000 to 50,000, cheetahs from 45,000 to 12,000 and tigers are down from 50,000 to just 3,000,” adds Dereck’s wife, Beverly.”
These decreases are severe, and now is the time to take definitive actions to halt this downhill trend.
Dereck and Beverly Joubert have been studying big cats for 30 years, engaging the public with campaigns and films. Through the production of interesting educational materials, they have raised awareness and encouraged organizations and communities to take part in conservation efforts. Recently, from December 11-17, 2011, National Geographic released a special series of documentaries called Big Cat Week. Episodes covered topics such as the competition between lions and cheetahs in the Serengeti of Africa; the attempts to film to jaguar, a notoriously mysterious cat; and the celebratory news that tiger populations are growing, featuring the birth of cubs.
Hopefully, these films will help inspire people to take part in the campaign to save big cats; the danger of losing these species, at least in the wild, is quite real. Along with environmental destruction, purposeful killing is a serious problem contributing to the big cat decline. Lives may be taken for entertainment through safari hunts, by poachers for the prized coat, or to protect livestock. The problem with various big cats killing cattle, horses, or water buffalo stems from the lack of natural prey left for them to pursue. This proves to be a vicious cycle: Human-induced changes to natural habitat threaten the cats’ abilities to sustain themselves, leaving them to seek alternative sources of food and compete with humans for resources. This ultimately leads to one of the greatest threats to big cat survival.
The case of the lion highlights this problem. Historically, lions prowled the lands of Africa, the Middle East, and parts of India. Since the 1960’s, the population of these species has dramatically declined by a stunning 90%, and some scientists believe that all wild lions could be gone within the next 10-15 years. People commonly shoot or poison lions, due to the fact that they threaten livestock.
To address this problem, BCI researchers Anne Kent Taylor and Laly Lichtenfeld, carrying out conservation projects among the Masai cattle herders of eastern African countries like Tanzania and Kenya, have embarked on projects to provide ecological animal husbandry workshops to the people and to build enclosures that protect livestock from lion predation. J. Weldon McNutt, working in northern Botswana in the Santawani region, has also directed educational initiatives and the installation of protective spaces; additionally, an insurance program has been developed to compensate farmers if their livestock are killed. Projects are also taking place in Mozambique, Zambia, and Cameroon.
Cheetahs are primarily found in the vast grasslands of Africa, in the southwest and east regions. Like the lion, this incredibly fast animal is at risk of death from pastoralists who need to protect the family’s prime economic asset – livestock. The population of jaguars, the only big cat native to the Americas, isn’t fully known. Due to their elusive nature and natural habitat in the dense jungle, tracking them is challenging. Indigenous ethnic groups throughout Latin America revere the jaguar, and efforts to locate and study these sacred animals are underway. Like the jaguar, the population level of snow leopards, who make their home in Asia, isn’t fully understood and must be further researched. Tigers are one of the best known animals in the global campaign for species conservation, and for a rightful reason: The population has declined a shocking 97% in the past century. The tiger has traditionally been a symbol representing positive values in China and India.
Imagine what the world would be like if no big cats were left. An important cultural symbol to many would remain only in memories, pictures, and videos. Big cats are known to regulate ecosystems through hunting prey, so other species population changes would occur. The characterization of life on Earth would be far different. Please get involved in this conservation effort to preserve these stunningly powerful and beautiful beings.
For current updates on the project, you can visit National Geographic’s Big Cats Initiative page. To view excerpts from the Big Cat Week episodes, click here. If you’re able to to make a monetary donation, you’ll help support ongoing research and conservation initiatives as well as fund new ones, and you’ll make sure that the mighty big cats continue to roam free and rule the wild lands.
Photo credit: inwhiteriver.wrsp.in.gov/Portals/_default/Images/Events/20101104-135116-Tiger%20web%20wrsp.jpg