For this Earth Day 2021 I’d like to share the biggest idea I’ve ever had for saving the planet. In 1997 my daughter and Big Cat Rescue’s President, Jamie Veronica, then age 16, came to me with what was possibly the ugliest, scratchy brown, round, wooly thing I had ever seen. I wasn’t sure what it was, but she was brightly insisting that if we could figure out a way to sell them we could save the snow leopard in the wild. That actually worked and you can read more about it here: https://bigcatrescue.org/save-snow-leopards/ Briefly, the concept was to offer locals, who share habitat with snow leopards, a worldwide market for their handicrafts provided they protect the snow leopard in their region. Now, 20 years later, most wild cat populations have plummeted by 50-75% and are expected to decline by another 50% in the next few years…but not the snow leopard. Their numbers are improving because the only way to save wild animals in the wild is to incentivise those who must co-exist with them.
COVID-19 was the shared experience that is causing many people to rethink their choices and values and no matter where you are on the spectrum, you want clean air to breathe, clean water to drink and healthy food to eat. That’s only possible if we protect the life support system for our planet that includes vibrant ecosystems on land and sea. We will only choose different options in our lives if they provide us with what we want now at a price we are willing to pay. Consider this plan for monetizing forests, jungles, plains and fresh water sources and tell me if it is worth your personal choice “investments”.
This is my vision of a world where all wild cats live free
I’ll be saying tiger, or big cats, or wild cats, but understand that none of these apex predators can survive in a broken ecosystem. Their very presence means that all of nature is in balance around them and that is the goal. All around the world, where people live in close proximity to wild cats, we can install Internet capable, live streaming, motion sensored, 360 or 180 3D cameras. (Ultimately 360 3D cameras) These would first be installed along known nature paths where the wildcats are known to travel, but could be expanded to den sites, river crossings, etc. as investments pour in. Local people would be hired to manage the cameras, keep the lenses clean (cats love to lick them), and keep undergrowth from blocking the view. Entire villages or cities would participate in a profit sharing scheme that insures there is plenty of prey available to sustain a healthy population of big cats. As in the snow leopard example above, any area that lost cats to poaching would also lose their profit share, so it essentially makes everyone an invested park ranger.
There are no simple answers that people will accept. The simple solutions are to quit over breeding the human population and quit consuming animals, but those willing to make those changes are still held hostage by those who will not. A virtual experience of wildlife is more complex, but more acceptable to all involved. The biggest threat to our existence is the demand for animal protein as it requires 2.5 pounds of grain and 1,799 gallons of water to create 1 pound of beef. This is the reason forests are burned, farmed irresponsibly and then abandoned once the top soil is depleted. There are many animal protein substitutes or lab grown derivatives, but they are not affordable to those who need them most; those who are destroying nature at an alarming rate to eek out an existence that is meager at best. If protecting natural resources provided more income than current, unsustainable practices, then we could quickly shift to a model that is sustainable locally and globally.
To pay for all of this infrastructure into Internet, cameras and jobs there could be subscription services. 360 film can be experienced on phones and tablets and it requires us to get off the couch and walk around in order to see what is going on in the big cat’s world. Instead of a standard motion trap camera sending just a second or two of a cat passing, you now can see the whole landscape. You see the prey animal running past and know to look around to find who is in hot pursuit. Is it a friendly game of tag between youngsters, or lovers, or is it the real life or death drama of living in the wild? For those with head mounted displays, like the Oculus Quest, or HTC Vive, the viewer feels like they are right there in the middle of the action. It’s a visceral understanding of the challenges wildlife face and their irreplaceable contributions. There are many ways to monetize these streaming cameras through ads, sponsorships by conservationists, targeted merchandising and enabling real time, real world tips to those in the field who are insuring the cameras are getting the most spectacular views day and night.
Big Cat Rescue has many live web cams at the sanctuary and they have given us and our viewers a glimpse into the lives of these cats who cannot be set free since they were born in captivity and handled by humans. They have amazing low light capacity and some are driven by remote camera operators, in order to see the best views, while other cheaper cameras are stationary. None of them are the 360 streaming type that I dream of, as the tech is just not quite there yet…but it’s coming! Entire fan groups have built up in our social platforms around watching these cameras, and sharing their favorite screenshots and moments. This all started with a little Logitech webcam streaming through a computer on UStream.com in 2010 when a broken bobcat named Skip was being monitored in our on site hospital. He was the first wildcat to have his own live streaming show and had more than 200 fans on Facebook and more than 36,000 views in the first two weeks of his convalescence. Now those live webcam fans number somewhere around 5 million across our platforms and the views are in the hundreds of millions. You can see all of our cameras at BigCatCams.com
Inclusion at an affordable cost
In America the largest zoo association, AZA, claims to bring 16 billion dollars to the economy. Our nation’s most prestigious zoos are well positioned to become the “arks” they have claimed to be; not by holding animals captive, but by monetizing animals in the wild through respectful techniques and utilizing the zoos’ central locations as a hub for exploration. Not everyone can afford a $500 head mounted display or the subscription fees to live streaming, Internet based, 360 3D cameras, that are beaming in the real time drama of life in the wild. Zoos could become the location based experiences, much like video gaming arcades, where you pay your $10 and go from building to building to immerse yourself in the real worlds where wild animals roam free. Zoos have the infrastructure necessary to create even richer experiences. These could range from planetarium styled rooms where you walk into the middle of the room and the cameras are feeding the live imagery to the walls along with sounds, smells and even temperatures that would be specific to the region. Or headsets could be made available but in a room that brought all of the same audio, scents and temps.
People learn by doing
We all learn best by doing; by being a part of the lesson unfolding. Virtual reality has the benefit of putting us at the center of the action and blocks out all of the distractions. When I say that wild cats don’t belong in cages, the only objection I ever hear are people trying to justify the barbaric practice by saying it’s the only way to teach children to love and respect nature. The last 200 years of that philosophy brought every exotic cat species to the brink of extinction and when they die all of nature collapses as a result. Holding wild animals captive against their will is also the worst possible message we could teach a child. Essentially it teaches them they can take what belongs to others or hold them prisoner, if it suits their self centered desires. Virtual zoos will instill the viewer with the awe and wonder of animals and places they may never visit. There is so much more that can be done in virtual reality and augmented reality to educate more fully about the importance of protecting the earth we share with all other earthlings.
Big Cat Rescue VR was introduced into the Oculus and Steam stores in June of 2020 as the first game that teaches the players about tigers in the wild and how to save them. It’s a prototype for so many more games that teach important lessons in a gamified way that people will love. It’s incidental learning which is our most natural way of learning. We are currently working with the creators of our game, XennialDigital.com and QuantumImprovements.net to bring these CGI big cat games to phones and tablets. My vision is a world where all wildcats live free, but I run a sanctuary and am a real estate investor by trade. I don’t care to make money in these virtual concepts. I want someone to steal these ideas and run with them. – Carole Baskin