3 March is World Wildlife Day – a day proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly to celebrate and raise awareness of the world’s wild animals, most of which are under threat from human influence on the planet.
This year, World Wildlife Day is celebrated under the theme ‘Big Cats: Predators Under Threat’. While we recognise the importance of all animals big and small, it is in the spirit of this theme that I’d like to draw attention to the plight of the magnificent big cat species we at MORE’s lodges are lucky enough to closely share environments with: lion, leopard and cheetah.
Big cats are among the most powerful creatures to roam this planet, but their populations are also among the most fragile. The threats to their survival in the wild are the same as those endangering much of the animal kingdom – loss of habitat and prey, poaching and smuggling, human-wildlife conflict, and climate change. Overall, their populations are declining at a disturbing rate. Here is a look at some of the shocking statistics providing insight into the severity of the crisis:
Lions have vanished from over 90% of their historic range, and disappeared from at least 16 African countries. In the past 21 years, lion populations have dropped by 42%.
Over the past 20 years, leopards have been wiped out from at least 40% of their historic range in Africa and over 50% of their historic range in Asia.
Cheetah populations are now only found in 10% of their historic range. A conservative estimate puts the cheetah population at under 1 000 in South Africa.
Imagine the Louvre without the Mona Lisa or New York City without Time Square. Just as incomplete would be the African savannah without the lion, leopard and cheetah. The big cats are, without question, among the world’s most widely revered animals, and I don’t think I need to convince anyone that these majestic predators are worth saving. So it’s more a question of how do we protect them?
Large animal species are challenging to conserve. The big cats have large spatial requirements; meaning substantial areas of wilderness are necessary to accommodate them. Also, as predators, they can come into conflict with livestock owners and communities who share their habitat. This doesn’t make them very popular animals with local rural communities, and can present challenges to their conservation. But, with the right measures put in place, living in harmony with predators can certainly be achieved.
There has been considerable work done to mitigate the problems – the most successful of which are efforts involving local communities in conservation to prevent human wildlife-conflict and address the illegal trade of wildlife goods. Further assisting and one of the biggest contributors to global conservation, is ecotourism. The money brought in by people who come to view these animals in their natural habitat not only creates an entire industry, but also supports the industry in protecting its driver. That is, ecotourism brings value to conserving these animals.
So it’s clear the big cats have both ecological and economic value, but they are also regarded as having a special ‘existence value’. This class of economic value recognises the benefit people receive from the pure pleasure of seeing them or knowing that they are alive somewhere in their natural habitat. It’s possibly the reason their sightings are most sought after on safari by our guests, and usually the most talked about after. Some species of big cat is often also the favourite animal of our field guides and trackers. Over the course of their working lives, they may have had the privilege of seeing them hundreds of times, but are still mesmerized by them. As for me, I could see leopard five times a day and it still would not be enough to dull the strong feeling of awe that they inspire. They are truly a wonder to behold.
Words by: Charlotte Arthun