Ten Facts about Big Cats on World Wildlife Day

So, what’s up with big cats? First, let’s understand what we’re talking about when we talk about big cats. I’m not talking about fat cats.

Source: Wikipedia Commons

Wikipedia Commons

And I’m not talking about someone wearing a top hat and walking around with a bag of money.

Rich Fat Cat

Wikipedia Commons

I’m talking about awesome apex predators, like tigers, lions, jaguars, and leopards. We find them fascinating because they are powerful, ferocious, scary, the kings and queens of their domain. A threat to all who cross them in the wild (and in captivity (see Siegfried & Roy—too soon?)). We consider them so dominant and imposing that it can be difficult to understand how much peril the species is in.

But the peril is real. Most big cat populations are doing poorly, declining at alarming rates due to human activities such as habitat destruction, conflicts with human uses like ranching, and illegal trade in big cat parts. That’s why these and other big cats (cheetahs, pumas, and snow leopards) are the theme of this year’s World Wildlife Day on March 3, 2018 when we celebrate wild animals around the world and raise awareness about the threats they face.

Okay, now that we’ve set the stage, let’s get to our ten facts.

  1. Big cat species are found around the world, in Africa, Asia, and North, Central, and South America. Sorry Europe, Australia, and Antarctica, but you have cool things too, like kangaroos (Australia), penguins (Antarctica), and an unfortunate history of killing big cats for display in museums and aristocratic sport (Europe).
  2. Two big cat species are found in the United States: pumas (aka cougars, mountain lions, and panthers) and jaguars. Relative to other big cats, pumas are doing well, although scientists believe the species is declining overall. Jaguars were almost entirely wiped out in the American Southwest in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Today, we’re left with only intermittent sightings in Arizona and New Mexico. Conserving the remaining population will require connecting fragmented habitats which would be impossible if the  Trump administration builds a physical barrier on the U.S.-Mexico border.
  3. Wild tiger numbers have plummeted by more than 95 percent in the last hundred years, dropping from around 100,000 tigers a century ago to fewer than 3,900 today. But there is some good news for tigers. Although they have lost 96 percent of their historic range, countries in the tiger’s historic range are taking steps to protect their remaining habitat. For example, China is developing the Northeast Tiger and Leopard National Park in northeastern China near the Russian and North Korean borders to protect Amur tigers and leopards, which you can read more about in my colleague Ning Hua’s blog post. Certainly more than protecting habitat for a limited number of tigers needs to be done, including eliminating the thriving illegal trade in tiger parts for alleged medicinal purposes, but safeguarding tigers’ habitat is critical if tigers are going to survive in the wild.
  4. Lions are also in bad shape, with African lion populations declining by 40 percent over the last 20 years. They have lost 80 percent of their historic range in the last 100 years, and have disappeared entirely from 26 African countries.
  5. Some African countries such as Zimbabwe, and hunting organizations such as Safari Club International, fought against a proposal to ban international commercial trade in lions at the 2016 global wildlife trade conference in Johannesburg, South Africa. Eventually, countries compromised by agreeing to ban only the trade in bones, claws, skulls, and teeth from wild lions.
  6. In October 2017, the Trump administration decided to allow lion trophy imports from Zimbabwe, even though Zimbabwe has a horrible wildlife management record and serious corruption issues. So, NRDC sued.
  7. Trophy hunting of all big cats is legal under international trade law and more big cat trophies will flow into the United States if Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke gets his way. In November 2017, Secretary Zinke established the International Wildlife Conservation Council, creating yet another way for international trophy hunters to get their pro-kill, anti-sustainable-use agenda before the Trump Administration.
  8. Fun fact: After killing their prey, leopards often haul the dead animal up into trees, where they can enjoy their feast without a hyena or lion taking it from them.
  9. Another fun fact: Not all big cats can roar. Only tigers, lions, jaguars, and leopards have distinct larynx characteristics that allow them to roar.
  10.  Personal fun fact: I’ve seen leopards and lions in the wild near South Africa’s Kruger National Park and they are amazing:

South African Leopard

Zak Smith

South African Lion

Zak Smith

Like other amazing animals, big cats are struggling to survive in the wild as humans advance into their habitat, hunt them for “sport,” and consume their parts to “cure” ailments or enhance whatever.

But other humans, along with NRDC, are fighting back; fighting to conserve their habitats, limit unsustainable trophy hunting, and end the deadly illicit trade. Please think about big cats on World Wildlife Day and think about joining the fight.

About the Authors

Zak Smith

Senior Attorney, Marine Mammals, Oceans Division, Nature Program

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