Friday, November 4, 2011

The Coming Extinction of the World's Big Cats

When I was a kid, the walls of my bedroom were plastered with posters of big cats. I had lions, tigers, snow leopards, cheetahs, and even a bobcat or two. By the time I'd finished setting up my wild feline exhibition, there wasn't a square inch of painted wall left visible.

That was quite a while ago, and in the intervening years I haven't thought much about big cats. I've admired them at the zoo, or safari parks, and watched a couple of National Geographic specials, but the big felines have pretty much taken a backseat to life, work, kids of my own, etc.

But the things we love as kids stay with us, and somewhere deep in my memory banks there was still my long-slumbering devotion to these majestic animals, these lords of the animal kingdom.

So it was with more than a little shock, followed by a lot of anger, that I read in a newspaper recently that lions and tigers are actually facing extinction in our lifetime.

I was blown away. Of course, I am aware that every year certain species go extinct. But I was under the obviously false impression that with a few notable exceptions (like polar bears and pandas) most of the endangered wildlife was primarily lesser known, even unusual species, like the Dlinza Forest Pinwheel, which is a real, endangered snail that lives only in a forest of the same name somewhere in South Africa. Boy, was I wrong.

It's wake-up time for anyone who cares about the world's most treasured felines, the big wild cats.

According to experts, if action is not taken immediately, the world could lose its big cats in the wild as soon as ten to fifteen years from now.

The push to educate the world about this looming tragedy comes from the National Geographic organization, which deserves a lot of credit and gratitude for raising a hue and cry about this issue. Nat Geo has created a website called Cause an Uproar, to focus attention on the plight of the big cats. Nat Geo is doing more than just trying to raise awareness. They are trying to raise funds, to create projects, to get actions underway to effect real conservation and real change, so that big cat populations, especially tigers, are returned to sustainable levels.

How bad is the situation? Around 1960, there were maybe 450,000 lions in the wilds of Africa. Today, scientists estimate there may be about 25,000. That amounts to a stunning loss of 95% of the lion population in 50 years. Over the same period, tigers have experienced a similar decline. And because the tiger population was smaller to begin with, there are now only about 3,000 tigers left in the wild. It is estimated that the number of breeding female tigers may be just over a thousand.

Cheetahs have fallen from about 45,000 to 12,000 during this time period, and leopards have dropped from about 750,000 to a shocking 50,000 left roaming free.

The causes of this ecological disaster are not complicated. Growing populations in the animals' home territories lead to loss of habitat. Without territory, the cats are unable to sustain their necessary numbers. Added to this is the effect of increased contact between humans and big cats, including poaching for exotic food, extermination to protect farm animals, illegal trading, and so forth. As the numbers show, without intervention, the wild animals will lose out completely in their showdown with humans in the next couple of decades.

What can be done to prevent this shameful trajectory leading to the complete extinction of wild cats by about 2025? The good news, experts say, is that big cats are resilient, and if humans can just give them a little help, they can survive. Sustainable population levels can be rebuilt. The most urgent need is to create "corridors" of safe land between the larger natural preserves in Africa and Central America. Many other initiatives are possible, if the funding and political will can be found. Cause an Uproar is a great place for people to get informed and to help out. The big cats of the world, sadly, are now dependent completely on humans for their very survival.
Jennifer Wenger is a freelance writer wiho has written on various topics including fashion and design. Her last article was about kid's umbrellas as a fashion accessory.