Jan 21

The State of Africa’s Big Cats: a 30-year Conservation Report Card

Leopard-Dow2014 Despite staunch conservation efforts, global big cat populations continue to decline. In just the last 30 years, data collected by conservation groups in Africa show that some big cat populations fell by at least 50% (table 1). Loss of habitat, human-wildlife conflicts, hunting, and poaching continue to threaten the long –term survival of these iconic creatures.



1985 2015
Cheetah (Africa and Iran) ~21,000 <10,000 (CCF)
Lion (African and Asia) 100,000 ~23,000 Africa; <400 Asia (IUCN)
Tiger (6 subspecies) 5,000-7,000 <3,500 (Global Tiger Initiative)
Leopard (9 subspecies) no reliable data 100,000 Africa; 8,000 India (Nat Geo)
       *Amur Leopard no reliable data 30
        Snow Leopard 5,000 ~2,000 (Nat Geo)
Jaguar >25,000 ~15,000 (WWF)



Why Big Cats Matter
Predators keep ecosystems in balance. Large carnivores, like lion, leopards, and cheetah, play important roles as stewards of the environment by maintaining healthy populations of herd animals. Culling sick and geriatric individuals limits disease contact to others and ensures populations will be maintained at a sustainable level. When the natural balance is shifted to the side of the prey, the habitat suffers. Yellowstone National Park in the United States suffered a near collapse in several areas when gray wolves were removed in the early 1900s. By removing the predator, prey animals flourished. So much so that massive elk populations destroyed entire willow thickets and the subsequent habitat for a variety of other species.
Where Have All the Big Cats Gone?
At present, our human population is at 7.3 billion. The increasing demand for resources for an ever-growing global community, as well as human displacement from internal civil conflicts, have caused a great need for new settlement areas. The problem is that most of these places are already called for and have been for centuries by our wildlife. Human-wildlife conflicts over territory and resources are a daily occurrence. Human encroachment into designated parks makes interactions with wild animals inevitable.
Big cats are opportunistic hunters. Although they have a preference for wild hoofstock like deer and antelope species they are never going to pass up an easy meal; and honestly, who can blame them. Coming into contact with sheep, goats, and cattle usually end in death, either to the livestock and/or the big cat. Because of a lack of government assistance, compensation, or impatience and anger on the pastoralist’s part, retaliatory killings target individual cats or entire prides.
Cheetah_Kruger by mukul2u wiki
The trade in wildlife and their parts is the fourth largest illegal trade behind drugs, weapons, and human trafficking. It is currently a $20 billion a year business. The uniquely patterned coats of leopard, cheetah, and tigers continue to be in high demand for black market fashion. In China and Taiwan, tiger bones and blood are falsely sought after as a cure-all elixir. Similarly, lion teeth, claws, whiskers, and manes are sold as amulets for protection and even used in cursing rituals.
For some, to witness a big cat in the wild is a thing of grace and beauty; however, for others they are nothing more than a trophy. There are more than a few international countries that allow for hunting of big cats. Hunters pay a very large sum of money, in some cases upwards of $50,000.00, to visit game reserves and literally be driven up to cats that have been preconditioned to not fear humans to make their kill. Some facilities go as far as even tethering the animal to a tree to ensure that they will not run away. Regardless, the end result is the same; the “hunter” bags his prize with a high-powered weapon and retires to the comfort of the lodge. The cat on the other hand retires to the taxidermist freezer.
The Future of Our Big Cats
The future is upon us. Human activities have led to an inevitable perfect-storm of destruction for our wildlife and wild places whether it intentional or not. Global campaigns continue to bring awareness to the importance of our big cats. In addition, international legislature is used to prosecute those criminals intent on destroying these icons of the bush. But it is not enough? If population trends continue, by 2045, our lions, tigers, cheetah, leopards, and jaguars will be gone. Ghostly images will be all that is left to remind us that once again human apathy prevailed in a most sinister way. Is this the legacy we want to leave to future generations? We all have to believe that there will always be hope.
For centuries, the Massai people living in Kenya’s Masai Mara would measure bravery and mark the transition into lionguardians.orgmanhood by one’s ability to kill a lion with a spear. The lion’s mane would later be worn as a badge of honor. Due to over-hunting, poaching, and persecution over human-lion conflicts, lion numbers plummeted. In 2007, a group of conservationists saw the need to protect the remaining lions in East Africa. The key initiative was to get people involved, specifically the Massai. Lion Guardians was formed out of a necessity to protect and conserve lions but in the eight years since its inception has become much more. Now bravery in a Massai warrior is no longer measured by what he can kill but what he can save. The Guardians act as mediators between lions and humans. As citizen scientists they record data regarding movement among and interactions with humans in Tanzania and Kenya. As a collective voice for the lions, the Guardians work to mitigate the stress that can come from living so closely with large predators and promote their conservation. These amazing people are proof that perceptions can change.
In West Africa the Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF) in Namibia work tirelessly to support cheetah survival. Injured cheetah can be transported to an onsite veterinary hospital for emergency medical care and subsequent rehabilitation. Since 1994, CCF has been breeding and training Anatolian shepherds and Kangal dogs. Once mature, these dogs are placed with farmers to protect livestock against predators.   And if that’s not enough, CCF is also restoring habitat, educating locals on best farming practices, inspiring cheetah enthusiasts internationally on the plight of this incredible animal in the pet trade, as well as participates in biological research studies.
South Africa’s Leopard Conservation Project (LCP) was founded to protect leopards from “poaching, poisoning, trapping, and over-hunting.” Since it’s induction in 2000, LCP has taken a more active role in education and research. Working with farmers, they help formulate better strategies to alleviate human-leopard conflicts and predation of livestock.   Through research, utilizing GSM cell-phone collars, leopards are giving LCP insight into how they cope with an ever-changing environment.
We All Have a Part to Play in Conservation
Big cats need our support. Even if you have never been to Botswana to see a lion in the Okavango Delta or Namibia to watch a cheetah lounge in the shade of a Baobab, you can make a difference by getting involved. Start a conversation with your government about legislature to combat wildlife trafficking. Talk to neighbors and friends about the obstacles big cats have in both captive and wild environments. Support those projects previously mentions and those similar located in range countries working to mitigate human-wildlife conflict. Whatever you do, just do something. A single voice, fueled by passion alone, can be heard over the crowd. Please lend your voice to big cat conservation.


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Jan 15

What New Legislature in the U.S. Means for the African elephant

African elephantsFrom 2010-2012, the world lost more than 100,000 African elephants. At present, it is estimated that we lose 98 elephants a day. The biggest threat to both African and Asian elephants continue to be poaching to fill the demand of a thriving illegal ivory trade in China, the U.S., and Southeast Asia.
In July 2013, President Obama revealed his Executive Order on combating wildlife trafficking, a proposed ban on all commercial trade in elephant ivory in the U.S. Working with preexisting legislature to close legal loopholes, the order will amend the Endangered Species Act of 1973 to include African elephants. In addition, a new bill sponsored by Congressman Steve Daines (R-MT), H.R. 5052 Lawful Ivory Protection Act of 2014, will ban all commercial trade of elephant ivory, as well as imports and exports regardless of when the ivory was originally obtained. Exemptions for noncommercial Ivorytrade meeting strict specifications including antiques 100+ years old, bona fide scientific specimens for use in museums and law enforcement, household moves, inheritance, and musical instruments will be allowed for all items deemed legal. Evidence to support legality would include scientific testing, qualified appraisal, and/or detailed history via photographic or written documentation. Furthermore, importation of sport-hunting “trophies” will be limited to two per individual per year.
090225-elephants-poison-spears_bigThe need to introduce new legislature is in response to the increasing threat poaching presents for the future of elephants. Currently, the U.S. is second only behind China for illegal ivory importation; a truly embarrassing fact. It is imperative that all countries understand there has to be a collective responsibility to monitor and uphold accountability both within and outside of their own borders. Banning all ivory will not only set a standard for others to follow, but also shows the U.S. dedication to help save these iconic creatures. Hopefully, in the near future. all existing stockpiles of confiscated ivory will be destroyed. Unless worn by a living elephant, all ivory is illegal ivory.


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Jan 05

Make 2015 the Year of Conservation Achievements

Okapi DSCF4336 TdowAs 2014 came to a close, I felt inundated with reports of record numbers of animals killed to fuel the illegal wildlife trade.  In 2014, almost 1,200 rhino were killed for their horns.  Numbers of elephants slaughtered for ivory were in the tens of thousands.  It appears that life in the sea is just as dangerous on land as over 100 million sharks were killed for their fins.  Gorillas, tigers, okapis, hippos, lions, and cheetah are not only losing their lives, but also their homes.  Sadly, they are not the only ones.  This cannot continue.


As we begin 2015, I am asking all of you to incorporate wildlife conservation into you resolutions.  Whether you are supporting species native to your backyard or that exist on the other side of the world, it does not matter.  Please, get involved.  By changing our attitudes we can change our environment and influence others.  Be a voice for wildlife that are losing ground.  We must all be good global citizens and share this responsibility.


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Dec 17

Lionfish: Invasive Predators of the Deep


800px-Red_lionfish_near_Gilli_Banta_IslandNative to reefs in the Indo-Pacific region, the lionfish is a member of the scorpion fish family. Growing upwards of 45 cm in length and 1.3 kg in weight, it is an aggressive, territorial species with very few predators likely due to the fact that they are venomous. Large spins located within the dorsal, anal, and pectoral fins are capable of delivering a mix of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine and a neuromuscular toxin causing pain, swelling, respiratory distress, and, in some cases, paralysis. With a life span of 5-15 years, chemical arsenal, and a ferocious appetite, this is one species that knows how to survive.


In the mid-1990s, two of the recognized ten species of lionfish, Pterosis volitans and Pterosis miles, became popularlionfish_dnr_sc display specimens for aquarium enthusiasts. In part because of their unique red and brown pattern and radially displayed fins, lionfish are quite spectacular to see. While on display they proved to be active and some may even say aesthetically pleasing to watch. However, lionfish tend to not play well with others. In fact, they will usually eat all other cohabitants, a costly problem. It is assumed that because of the danger to owner and aquatic neighbor, a large number of lionfish were simply returned whence they came . . . or so owners thought. After all, the ocean is the ocean, right? It is known that in 1992 the wrath of Hurricane Andrew released 6 lionfish in costal waters around Florida. However, the first documented lionfish was found as early as 1985 in nonnative waters of the Atlantic Coast of the US. These data suggest irresponsible owners discarding unwanted fish in nonnative waters have been the catalyst to a recent ecological problem.


Lionfish-Distribution-USGS-11In 1999, divers near Miami commonly saw P. voitans and P. miles. In less than 10 years large numbers were observed throughout Jamaica and the Bahamas, as far south as Cuba and as far north as Delaware and New Jersey. By 2012, lionfish were dominating reefs and wrecks off the coasts of Guatemala, Panama, Costa Rica, Venezuela, and the Gulf of Mexico. At present time, in this divers personal experience, it is hard pressed not to see at least one lionfish on every dive. As documented in a recent trip report, of four dive sites within the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary in the Gulf of Mexico, lionfish were observed at all but one.

With the vastness of the ocean, why should we care that such a small fish seems to be thriving in nonnative waters? Lionfish are long lived and are very reproductively successful; every spawning event has the potential to add 30,000 individuals to the population. Armed with venom, these species have very few predators. Species of large grouper are known to inhabit both native and nonnative water; however, the grouper has been so overfished their current existence is in question. Being veracious predators themselves, lionfish simply displace other species or eat them. A recent study of stomach contents of lionfish in the Gulf of Mexico found no less than four species of smaller fish, several invertebrates, and mollusks in a single individual. In short, they eat everything. Lionfish appear to be both temperature and salinity tolerant, suggesting they can live quite comfortably in the ocean as well as estuaries and freshwater. Together with pelagic larval distribution, population densities have reached orders of magnitude greater than those in native ranges. The presence of the lionfish has the potential to disturb the trophic cascade of delicate marine ecosystems. Within native habitat predators would keep numbers manageable by targeting larvae and juveniles. At present, it appears that the lionfish is starting to take over.

Eradication of lionfish in order to protect our fragile marine ecosystems within coastal water is key. But, with few lionfish10Derby_estapenatural predators, how do we target a single species without harming others? Recently, lionfish round-ups and fishing derbies are helping jump start the removal of this pest. Some competitions have witnessed a one-day take of over 500 lionfish! Opening a year-round season on spearfishing has been introduced in Florida with great success.   Restaurateurs within the Caribbean have also been doing their part by putting lionfish on the menu. In a recent Huffington Post article, lionfish has a distinct flavor that could catch on as a delicacy.


The story of the lionfish is sadly one of many examples of how irresponsible pet ownership has lead to a compromise of native species and their habitat. More than ninety-five percent of our oceans are yet to be explored. We have the chance to understand our planet on a new level as we learn the secrets of this underwater world. It would be devastating if the act of stupidity by a few lead to the devastation of such a miraculous place before we even catch so much as a glimpse.

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