Lions, tigers, big cats may face extinction in 20 years

Avatar BCR | October 27, 2011 276 Views 0 Likes 0 Ratings

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Icons of the wild  lions, tigers and other big cats  are fading from the world’s wild places, warn conservation experts worldwide.

  • The world's population of big cats, like this juvenile African cheetah, has been decimated, say conservation scientists. They could face extinction within two decades.By Chris Johns, National Geographic Stock


    The world’s population of big cats, like this juvenile African cheetah, has been decimated, say conservation scientists. They could face extinction within two decades.

By Chris Johns, National Geographic Stock


The world’s population of big cats, like this juvenile African cheetah, has been decimated, say conservation scientists. They could face extinction within two decades.

“Do we want to live in a world without lions in the wild?” says Duke University biologist Luke Dollar of theNational Geographic-sponsored Big Cats Initiative (BCI), which seeks emergency conservation steps worldwide. “That is the choice we are facing.”

The populations of lions, leopards, cheetahs and especially tigers have been decimated in the past half-century. Tigers have become so rare that lions have become their soup-bone substitutes, sought for Asian medicines and “tiger bone” wine, Dollar and other conservation scientists say.

Find out more about the Big Cats Initiative at

Top predators in Asia’s jungles and Africa’s savannahs, big cats do more than serve as national symbols. “Lions play a role in keeping migrations going, and keep populations in check,” says naturalist Dereck Joubert, co-founder of the Big Cats Initiative. “Big predators play a role in keeping prey species vital and alert.”

How to help the Big Cats Initiative

-Trick-or-treating kids are collecting donations Monday. Look for the lion, tiger or big cat costumes.

-Text-message “BIGCATS”to 50555 to make a $5 or $10 donation.

-Donate $5 and the initiative will add a photo of your own house cat to National Geographic’s website as a show of support.

The initiative has costume-making instructions for Halloween. For more information, National Geographic magazine’s next issue will be devoted to the plight of the big cats. And on cable, the Nat Geo WILDchannel will host its 2nd annual “Big Cats Week”in December.

“I’d tell everyone to cause an uproar,”says African documentery-maker Dereck Joubert, co-founder of the effort. “Emergency solutions, sadly, are what we need now,” he says. “Inspiring people is not enough.”

For 25 years, Joubert and his wife, Beverly, made PBS documentaries such as Eternal Enemies: Lions and Hyenas from their home in Botswana. “We had this wonderful life, but there was always the sinking feeling that the big cats were disappearing,”Beverly Joubert says.

So the documentary makers “took National Geographic by the lapels,”scientist Luke Dollar says, and persuaded the society, which has sponsored much of the Jouberts’ work, to put some muscle behind conservation of lions and cheetahs. Over the course of 18 months, the initiative awarded 19 grants to conservation efforts across Africa.

Efforts range from teaching herders better ways to protect livestock, to starting Africa’s first livestock insurance program against lion losses.

To raise funds, the campaign is urging schoolchildren to dress as lions for Halloween and collect donations.

“We have to start somewhere,” Dollar says. “If the world just knew about the situation, then people would demand (that) more should be done.”

—Dan Vergano, USA TODAY

Biologists have documented that removal of top predators from wild settings almost inevitably leads prey numbers to explode, says John Robinson of the Wildlife Conservation Society, based at the Bronx Zoo. “Ecologically, focusing on protecting top predators just makes sense,” Robinson says. “Protect them, and you are protecting the habitat for everything else.”

Without top predators, booming prey populations soon strip vegetation and later collapse from illnesses and starvation. At Yellowstone National Park, elk devoured stream-protecting cottonwoods without wolves. Dolphins and sea cows wiped out sea grasses in Australia’s Shark Bay without tiger sharks to chase them into deeper waters. Sea urchins ate kelp forests off Alaska’s coast after sea otters numbers dropped in the late 1990s.

“The habitat doesn’t recover,” says photographer Beverly Joubert, Dereck’s wife and BCI co-founder. “We’re left with just hyaenas or their equivalent.”

In Africa, as more herders develop lands that are home to big cats, the animals are killed by poaching, poisoning and livestock shrinking their ranges. In Central and South America, farmers have developed 39% of the original range of the jaguar, according to the SeptemberSmithsonian magazine. “We are seeing the effects of 7 billion people on the planet,” Dereck Joubert says. “At present rates, we will lose the big cats in 10 to 15 years.”

Over the past half-century, International Union for Conservation of Nature estimates show:

• Lions are down to perhaps 25,000 in the African wild, where 450,000 formerly roamed.

• Leopards are down to 50,000, from 750,000.

• Cheetahs number about 12,000, down from 45,000.

• Tigers number about 3,000 in the wild, down from 50,000 total. Perhaps only 1,200 breeding wild females exist.

In the long term, conservation experts would like to see “corridors” opened between African nature reserves to allow lions and other big cats to mingle, preserving their genetic diversity as a hedge against illness and congenital diseases. A similar “jaguar freeway” has been proposed for Central America.

“The good news about big cats is that they are resilient and will breed to recovery, if allowed,” Robinson says. Snow leopards found in remote Central Asia, look to retain healthy population sizes for this reason, he says.

Any recovery has to take place in the wild, however, not zoos or home menageries, says Ian Robinson of the International Fund for Animal Welfare in Yarmouth Point, Mass. “Captive big cats will breed but they’ve lost the genetic characteristics suited to their home environment,” he says. “It would be a huge loss for the world for tigers and other cats to disappear from the wild. You can’t put a money figure on it; they are part of the world’s heritage.”

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