It is the UN World Wildlife Day so hooray. The aim of the day is to celebrate and raise awareness of the world’s wild fauna and flora, which is pretty much what Sam and I try to do everyday alongside keeping a small human alive. This year the World Wildlife Day theme is ‘Big cats – predators under threat’. I frankly couldn’t have thought of a better theme. Hooray indeed.
For us, the last 10 years have largely focused on big cats and helping to reduce the threats they are facing. We have collected, washed, and analyzed hundreds of leopard scats (also known as big smelly and sometimes still warm piles of leopard poo) to understand diet. From the scats, we extracted all sorts of weird shit (pun most definitely intended) including intact baboon fingers, teeth, horns, and hooves. We caught, GPS collared, and tracked a lot leopards. We tried to catch and collar cheetahs for Sam’s PhD but they were too fast. No, just kidding, we just weren’t successful at catching them despite working our bums off as their population was quite low in the area we were working in. We worked with captive cheetahs to test if their spoor (footprints) is uniquely identifiable. We did a heck of a lot of camera trapping to understand leopard population dynamics. We have been involved with a lot of community outreach and education work. It has been fun, interesting, depressing, and uplifting. I hope we have made a bit of difference for predators and will continue to do so during in our postdoc positions.
We also spend most of our holidays driving through the bush intently staring out the window looking for large cats.
Even just finding fresh spoor is exciting.
Why have we given so much of our professional and personal time to big cats? Well, large cats are just incredible. They are at the top of the food chain and are incredibly efficient killers. They keep the ecosystem in check, manage populations, and reduce disease. They remind us that the world is still wild and full of adventure. When you stand in the bush where wild lions live, you are reminded of your own fragility and weaknesses (which is something humanity could certainly use a little reminding of). They humble us. Big cats also inspire us and fuel our imaginations. They are symbols of power and strength. Finally, they are an integral part of the African identity and draw vital tourism to the continent.
Unfortunately, big cat populations are declining as the human population keeps growing. They are loosing natural habitats and prey as more of the Earth’s surface is taken up by human housing, infrastructure, and agriculture. They have large home ranges and as land becomes scarce, this often pushes them into farming or community land where they are killed because they pose real or imagined threats to livestock, game species, and humans. Non-lethal methods such as using thorn kraals and livestock guarding dogs can effectively protect livestock but often farmers are uninformed or uncertain about these methods and fail to appreciate the benefits of coexisting with predators. Greater information and support is required for farmers and communities.
We found that one of the biggest threats to leopards at our study site in the Soutpansberg Mountains is wire snares. Snares are set up to catch food such as bush pigs, warthogs, and antelopes but non-target species like leopards, baboons, and brown hyaenas will often get caught in them and die.
Large cats like lions and tigers are killed for their body parts which are used in traditional medicine, predominantly in Asia and Africa. Lion bone is now being used as a viable substitute for tiger bone. Tiger bone wine and cake is believed to have aphrodisiac qualities and cure malaria, arthritis, other bone ailments and rheumatic conditions, although no scientific merit has been associated with these claims. In southern Africa, lion bone trade is frequently linked to farms where lions are bred for canned hunting (animals are bred and raised in captivity to be released into the ‘wild’ a short time before a hunt is planned). Paying hunters often keep the skins and sometimes the skulls as trophies. The bones, previously discarded, have now become a source of commercial income and are legal to trade internationally up to a certain quantity with the correct permits. These farms sometimes offer lion cub petting under the guise of conservation. Unsustainable trophy hunting can also affect large felids. The documentary ‘Blood Lions‘ offers interesting insights into the world of canned hunting and lion farming. Watch it.
Large cats such as leopards are also being killed for their skins which are used in traditional ceremonies. Panthera, a felid conservation organization, successfully launched a campaign to manufacture and distribute realistic faux leopard skins for ceremonial uses in South Africa. This has been incredibly successful and the story is featured in the documentary ‘To Skin a Cat’. I haven’t seen the film yet but I really want to.
That’s all incredibly depressing but the publicity around these issues is certainly on the rise, as is research to find and instigate viable solutions. I hope that greater awareness and information will fuel positive conservation changes. So in honour of big cats and their role in inspiring our imaginations, here’s a poem I wrote about a lion and a boy. It still needs a bit of polishing but it’s a start.
If you want to support big cat conservation this World Wildlife Day or any day, here are some ways you can get involved:
– Learn more about big cats and share information with family and friends. Remember to use the hashtags #WorldWildlifeDay, #BigCats, #PredatorsUnderThreat, #WWD2018, #DoOneThingToday, #iProtectBigCats
– Avoid participating in lion cub petting experiences (despite the above poem – that’s fiction, folks).
– For more ideas click here.