Big Cats in Crisis on World Wildlife Day

March 3rd is World Wildlife Day, designated by the United Nations to celebrate and raise awareness of the world’s wild animals and plants.

This year, the theme is Big Cats: Predators Under Threat. All kinds of events are planned across the world to celebrate these magnificent animals, and, more importantly, to raise awareness of the perilous situation in which they find themselves, almost without exception as a result of human activities such as poaching, land conversion and conflict.

Big Cats continue to live across three continents. Lions, leopards and cheetahs call both Africa and Asia home. Asia is also home to tigers, snow and clouded leopards. Jaguars and pumas roam over large parts of the Americas.

The range of habitats occupied by big cats is nothing short of astonishing, from the vast icy home of snow leopards across numerous bleak yet beautiful Asian mountain ranges, to the hunting grounds of jaguars in the rainforests of the Amazon basin, and the deserts of Northern Namibia where prides of lions eke out a living in one of the driest and most inhospitable places on earth. Few other large mammal taxa can match the big cats’ ability to adapt to such diverse and challenging environments. The puma has the largest range of any land mammal in the Western Hemisphere, and the African lion is capable of surviving in pretty much all African habitats, save only the densest tropical rainforests and the interior of the Sahara desert.

However, behind this apparent resilience and adaptability lies a worrying truth. All big cat species are in decline, and in many cases their very future is in serious doubt. Less than 4,000 wild tigers are scattered across 13 countries. As few as 20,000 wild lions remain across Africa, occupying just 8% of their historic range, and alongside the 7,000 wild cheetahs, declining leopard numbers, and snow-leopards counted in the low thousands, are vulnerable to local or regional extinction. Jaguars are classified as near-threatened, and even pumas, which are considered to be of least conservation concern among the big cats, are decreasing in number.

The reasons behind these declines vary between species and locations. There are, however, some all-too-common themes. Loss of habitat, and particularly declines in prey animals, affect all big cats as expanding human populations encroach on their traditional hunting grounds and convert them for settled agriculture, livestock or other uses. As big cats and people come into ever closer contact, conflict inevitably results, and big cats find themselves persecuted by people who fear for their cattle, sheep and goats – and sometimes their own lives and those of their families.

As troubling is the fact that big cats haven’t escaped the increasing global demand for wild animals and parts and products derived from them. Cheetah cubs are captured, often at the expense of their entire families, and smuggled  as exotic ‘pets’, principally to the Middle East. Tiger parts have long been in demand in the Far East for use in traditional medicines and tonics, and as tigers have become more scarce, bones and products from lions and other big cats are increasingly sought as substitutes. Tiger farms have sprung up in China and some other Asian countries to illegally supply the demand, and South Africa now legally exports hundreds of skeletons from captive-bred lions each year, fuelling demand and increasing the risk of wild lion poaching. These farms not only serve to further stimulate the demand but also provide a means by which products from wild cats can be laundered into trade, while all-too-often maintaining animals in appalling captive conditions.

Controversially, trophy hunters also target big cats for so-called ‘sport’, and there is increasing evidence that trophy hunting is not only cruel but, in many cases, unsustainable. Morally, the killing of wild animals for ‘fun’ is something the majority of people reject and allowing people to pay to kill these magnificent animals as ‘trophies’ only adds to the pressure they are under.

Lions have and continue to play a massive part in Born Free’s story. Today, we work across continents to protect habitats for lions and other big cats, mitigate human-cat conflict, rescue animals from poor and exploitative captive conditions, and increase legal protection from trade and other threats.

So as we celebrate big cats this World Wildlife Day, we must not only remember that their future is precarious, but that their future is very much in our hands. If we want to be able to continue celebrating the magnificence, wildness, variety, range and splendour of big cats long into the future, we need to act now.

Keep wildlife in the wild.

Dr Mark Jones,  Veterinarian

Associate Director at Born Free

Support our work by adopting a big cat this #WorldWildlifeDay!

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