The fading call of the wild

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By Luke Hunter, Claudio Sillero, Jeffrey Flocken and Kelly Keenan Aylward– 07/27/10 03:00 PM ET

They are cultural icons as symbols of strength, agility, speed and grace.  They hold special places in music, art, theater and film.  Phrases that Americans use every day illustrate their ubiquity; we know what people mean when something is described as 'fast as a cheetah,' 'proud as a lion' or 'hungry as a wolf.'  They are regarded as important touchstones in this country despite the fact that many Americans have never seen one of them in the wild.

Yet many species of wild cats and canids remain perilously close to extinction. 

Eighty percent of all wild cat species are experiencing population declines, as are 25 percent of wild canids  – the family of foxes, wolves and wild dogs.  A report, “The Fading Call of the Wild,” released today by the International Fund for Animal Welfare, the Wildlife Conservation Society, Panthera, and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Canid and Cat Specialist Groups, paints a bleak picture for 15 different great cats and rare canids.  This suite of species, which includes lesser known species like the Borneo Bay Cat, Darwin’s fox, clouded leopard and bush dog along with the more familiar ones like jaguars and African wild dogs, faces a set of challenges ranging from habitat loss and degradation to new diseases to poaching for the global wildlife trade.  While the report profiles 15 species, these challenges profoundly affect each of the world’s 72 different wild cats and canids.

The alarming news contained within “The Fading Call of the Wild” does not signal the end of the road for these fascinating and important creatures, however.  Each species profile provides a roadmap of steps toward the recovery of the species and its habitat.  The steps outlined show how attainable long-term protection could be, given the proper resources and policy interventions.

For many of these animals, the path to population recovery and protection could begin with the passage of the Great Cats and Rare Canids Conservation Act.  The House passed the Great Cats and Rare Canids Conservation Act, thanks to the efforts of sponsoring Rep. Jay Inslee (D-WA) and a bipartisan group of co-sponsors.  But the Senate version of the bill, sponsored by Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-CT), Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM) and Sen. Sam Brownback (R-KS), still awaits a floor vote. 

First introduced in 2004, this vital piece of legislation would provide wild cats and canids the same level of conservation assistance presently supporting tigers, great apes, elephants, sea turtles and other iconic species through the Multinational Species Conservation Funds, administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Division of International Conservation.

Through such a program, wildlife health experts could implement vaccination programs to protect endangered Ethiopian wolves from lethal rabies.  Conservationists could map out and plan corridors for cheetah migration that keep them moving safely between parks and reserves.  Sustainable tourism programs could be developed so that local people will see healthy populations of African wild dogs as an economic benefit.  And law enforcement professionals could train international customs officers how best to intercept and report illegal shipments of skins from jaguars and leopards.

The threats faced by wild cats and canids are mirrored by countless other species.  By providing the mechanisms to protect the populations and habitats of cats and canids, other threatened species who share the same landscapes in South America, Asia and Africa will benefit as well. 

Congress has a chance to act to protect iconic species that are both vital to their ecosystem and important to Americans who treasure these animals as part of their culture.  The time for that action is now.

Dr. Luke Hunter, wild cat specialist, is the executive director of Panthera. Dr. Claudio Sillero is a canid specialist and chair of IUCN Canid Specialist Group. Jeffrey Flocken is the D.C. director of the International Fund for Animal Welfare. Kelly Keenan Aylward is the Washington office director for the Wildlife Conservation Society.

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