Could the world be lion-, tiger-, leopard-, and cheetah-free within the next 20 years. That is what the Big Cats Initiative, a National Geographic sponsored group looking to save big cats in the wild, stated recently. The group’s experts feel that these felines could be wiped off the face of the Earth within the next two decades.
“Do we want to live in a world without lions in the wild?” biologist Luke Dollar of Duke University and the Big Cat Initiative asks. “That is the choice we are facing.”
And these experts aren’t just blowing smoke – the statistics prove that big cats are on their way out. The International Union for Conservation of Nature have released some sobering statistics regarding the decline of the big cats over the past 50 years. There are only about 25,000 lions left in the wilds of Africa, not 450,000 like there used to be. Leopards are down from 750,000 to only 50,000 today. Cheetahs have dropped from 45,000 to only 12,000. And tigers have plummeted from 50,000 to only 3,000 left in the wild, and more importantly, only about 1,200 breeding wild females. Scary stuff.
“We are seeing the effects of 7 billion people on the planet,” naturalist and co-founder of the Big Cat Initiative Dereck Joubert explains. “At present rates, we will lose the big cats in 10 to 15 years.”
Which is bad news for everyone, as big cats are apex predators – the top predators in the food chain. Removing an apex predator from an ecosystem has irreversible, devastating results. The absence of the top predator allows the populations of its prey to go unchecked, which then causes them to run out of food sources themselves as they ravage the environment, eventually causing them to die off too. A domino effect causes several species of animals to go extinct and the environment to get devastated.
“Ecologically, focusing on protecting top predators just makes sense,” James Robinson of the Wildlife Conservation Society says. “Protect them, and you are protecting the habitat for everything else. The good news about big cats is that they are resilient and will breed to recovery, if allowed.”
The conservation experts would like to see African “corridors” opened up between nature reserves, which would allow the cats to come in contact and breed with cats from other reserves. They’d like to see the same happen in Central America with their jaguar population. But all this has to happen in the wild, not in zoos, to save the big cats.
“Captive big cats will breed but they’ve lost the genetic characteristics suited to their home environment,” Ian Robinson from the International Fund for Animal Welfare explains. “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.”