The species that inhabit our planet are beautiful, iconic, and sadly, exploited. They are placed in danger every day and are going extinct at a rate 1,000 times faster than normal because of our actions. An estimated 80 percent of wild cats are in danger, especially big cats like tigers, jaguars, and snow leopards. As apex predators, big cats play an important role in keeping ecosystems in balance. When they kill smaller prey animals, big cats help keep populations regulated which, by chain reaction, regulates species further down the food chain. And new research shows that they may even help regulate plant life by spreading plant seeds in their scat.
Sadly, cheetahs, jaguars, lions, and snow leopards are either listed as near threatened or threatened, and tigers are listed as endangered. According to a news update from the International Fund for Animal Welfare, “wild animals are at a tipping point” and in America, there are more tigers in captivity than there are in the wild. They also state that wild tiger populations have declined by 95 percent and African lion populations have declined by 60 percent.
The decline of big cat species is a global issue that has been going on for decades and the biggest threats against big cats are habitat loss, human-animal conflict, poaching and the illegal wildlife trade. There are many people and organizations dedicated to saving big cats and their habitats, but they can’t do it alone.
Habitat Loss Is Leaving Big Cats with Nowhere to Go
The destruction and deforestation of land for development and agriculture has a devastating impact on big cats and other wild animal populations. A staggering 2,000 trees are chopped down in the Amazon rainforest every minute, and 80 percent of that number is related to the livestock industry.
In Sumatra, deforestation caused by logging and palm oil industries have destroyed more than half of the forests, 80 percent of which was Sumatran tiger habitat. This devastating destruction has left fewer than 400 Sumatran tigers in the wild. Jaguars have also lost nearly 54 percent of their native habitat due to the palm oil, mining, logging and livestock industries. Roads and buildings have also destroyed and dissected jaguar habitats throughout Brazil Columbia and Peru.
Having less space to roam is only part of the issue. Animals being forced into smaller habitats means more animals are competing for territory, prey, and mates. It also pushes them closer to human populated areas, posing yet another threat to their already fragile existence.
Human-Wildlife Conflict Affects Animals and Humans
Human expansion and the subsequent destruction of habitats for agricultural practices, roads, and housing is forcing animals into smaller habitats and decreasing the distance between wilderness and populated areas. Loss of prey from shrinking habitats also means big cats and other wild animals are more likely to venture into populated areas in search of food and they have been known to attack and kill livestock. This upsets farmers and leads these natural predators being hunted and killed to protect livestock and people in the village from attacks.
Human-wildlife conflict is a major concern for people and animals and will only continue to worsen as natural habitats continue to decline. Organizations like the World Wildlife Fund and others are working to prevent conflict by working with governments to design land-use plans that allow expansion while protecting critical habitats.
Poaching and the Illegal Wildlife Trade Threatens Dwindling Populations
Benh Lieu Song/Wikimedia
Poaching is a cruel and heartbreaking act that affects a number of wild species including big cats. Lions are illegally hunted and tigers are killed for their pelts, paws, and bones. These parts typically are sold or used in traditional Chinese medicine to create treatments for various ailments.
Poachers often lay snares and other traps to capture big cats; these barbaric contraptions cause unimaginable suffering and many die either struggling to escape or by starving to death. Poachers will stop at nothing to make a profit and it’s not just wild animals that are in danger of being killed. In South Africa, poachers broke into the Emoya Big Cat Sanctuary and killed two lions, then beheaded and skinned them before making their escape. The lions were a bonded pair that had been rescued from a circus and were only at the sanctuary a short time before being killed.
Poaching is tied to the lucrative, multibillion-dollar illegal wildlife trade and organizations like CITES are constantly fighting to confiscate illegal animal parts and hold traffickers accountable for their crimes. This also involves monitoring the illegal trafficking of live animals, including cubs that are smuggled for the exotic pet trade or for use in cub petting and other animal attractions. It takes a joint effort between government officials and park rangers in the field to help protect species from poachers and traffickers.
The anti-poaching rangers tasked with protecting big cats and other animals are placed at risk every day – some have even lost their lives working to protect animals from danger. The Thin Green Line Foundation, a foundation that provides training and funding to rangers, estimates that a ranger is violently killed by poachers every three days. These brave men and women are an often overlooked, yet incredibly important part of the protection of big cats and other animals threatened by poaching.
How You Can Help Big Cats
Captivity is not the answer to protecting these species, we need to focus on conservation and making changes in our daily habits. So much of the damage we’ve caused can never be revered, but that doesn’t mean all hope is lost. By being proactive and working to educate others about the struggle of big cats, we can help save them before it’s too late.
- Animal agriculture plays a significant role in habitat loss. One of the most significant things you can do as a consumer is to leave meat and dairy off your plate. Learning to #EatForThePlanet will not only help animals of all species but help protect our natural resources from pollution.
- In addition to ditching meat and dairy, avoid packaged foods that contain palm oil. This oil present in nearly half of all packaged foods and palm oil plantations have destroyed over 27 hectares of habitat.
- Never participate in tourist attractions that exploit animals, no matter how “cute” they are or how “fun” you think it would be to hold a tiny cub. Refusing to support these businesses is the best way to end animal suffering and exploitation.
- Support organizations aimed at preserving natural habitats and protecting big cats from poaching.
Lead image source: Peteranta/pixabay