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Big Cats in Big Trouble

Tigers, lions, and leopards are among the world’s most beloved animals. So why don’t we treat them better?

The Nat Geo Wild channel begins its fifth annual Big Cat Week today. And Black Friday is a fitting kickoff, because it’s dark days for wild felines.

Lions have gone extinct in 26 countries. Cheetahs have disappeared from 76 percent of their historic range. Tiger populations have plummeted so low, more of them live in captivity in the United States (5,000) than in the wild (3,200). If nothing is done soon, those orange and black stripes may fade away forever within our lifetimes.

“Things are worse than they ever have been in terms of the situation facing big cats and their survival in the wild,” says biologist Luke Dollar, who is the program manager at the National Geographic Society’s Big Cats Initiative.

So in preparation for Big Cat Week, let’s check in with a quick pounce over our favorite felids.

Snow Leopard: ENDANGERED

Photo: Land Rover Our Planet

There’s a reason the Internet goes nuts every time we get new footage of these cliff-stalking ghosts—fewer than 7,500 snow leopards remain despite a home range of more than 770,000 square miles across the high mountains of Central Asia. 

The last time the International Union for Conservation of Nature ruled on the snow leopard was in 2008. It noted then that in the previous 16 years, numbers had declined 20 percent as a result of habitat degradation, poaching, conflict with humans, and a lack of other wild animals to hunt. 


Photo: RayMorris1

Don’t get your hopes up with that “vulnerable” tag. The IUCN estimates that likely only 7,500 cheetahs remain in the world (and is almost certain fewer than 10,000 do). The Asiatic cheetah, a subspecies, still clings to existence in Iran, with just  between 60 and 100 animals remaining, earning it a separate classification of “critically endangered.”

In a sad twist, the game preserves that protect other wildlife from habitat loss and poaching don’t help cheetah populations much. That’s because these areas are teeming with other predators, such as hyenas and leopards (traitors!) that eat cheetah cubs.

Outside of game preserves, where 90 percent of Africa’s cheetahs live, the animals often come into conflict with farmers who harass or kill the cats to protect their livestock. New research shows that agriculture and housing developments are making cheetahs walk farther between meals, cutting into the cat’s energy supplies (see “Walking: The Fast Track to Extinction”).


Photo: Craig Hyatt

The cougar is actually doing pretty well for itself! (Figure I should throw you a lifeline before Tony the Tiger sends you crying into your Frosted Flakes.)

In recent years, the population in the United States has increased to more than 30,000, and hunting restrictions protect this cat in many Central and South American countries.  

That said, the cougar’s home range was essentially cut in half when Europeans colonized the United States, and cougars (also known as pumas and mountain lions) are still absent from nearly everywhere east of the Mississippi—save for a tiny, embattled slice of Florida, and apparently, Washington, DC? Some states, like Texas, also allow anyone, anywhere to kill cougars regardless of size, age, sex, or season, but you know, it could be worse!

And when I say worse, I mean….


Photo: Ross Elliot

Of the nine subspecies of tiger, three have already gone extinct in the last 80 years. The cats—the world’s largest—have disappeared from a whopping 93 percent of their historic territory. A century ago, there were as many as 100,000 tigers in the wild. Today fewer than 3,200 persist in their natural habitat (which is rapidly shrinking).

Like most of the other big cats, tigers also suffer from lack of prey and conflict with humans. But more than any other cat, the tiger is highly sought after in the illegal wildlife trade, particularly for use in Traditional Chinese Medicine.

But let me assure you that tiger bones are not curing cancer. The science is unproven, the origins contrived. Some people are simply choosing to sacrifice tigers (and many, many other species) to the gods of ignorance and ostentation.  


Photo: RayMorris1

“What’s generally known but not officially communicated is the single-largest cause of lion loss,” says Dollar, “is retaliatory killing for lost livestock.”

That’s why the Big Cats Initiative has invested in the Build a Boma project. A boma is a lion-proof enclosure for livestock made out of thorny acacia trees and chain-link fencing. One boma costs $500 to build and $25 a year to maintain but is proven to reduce tensions between humans and lions. (This holiday season, instead of getting your dad more ties he’ll hate, why not build a boma in his name?)   

Though lions are under serious threat—they’ve lost 80 percent of their historic range, and populations are just 15 percent of what they were a century ago—projects like Build a Boma are making crucial strides toward saving the species.

“It’s much better to make a difference now, in lion conservation, for example, than to play catch-up like we are with tigers,” says wildlife biologist Boone Smith. “That’s a game we very likely might lose.”  (Smith is also host of Big Cat Week’s Man v. Lion, and you can watch him test out his own boma-of-sorts as he spends the night with a pride.)


Photo: Tambako the Jaguar/Flickr

The bad news for this spotted cat is that it requires huge tracts of land for hunting and breeding, and that habitat is being chopped down and parceled off from the American Southwest to Argentina.

The good news, however, is that enough of the Amazon rainforest still stands in Brazil to give these cats a fighting chance. So much so, in fact, that the IUCN believes about 70 percent of the cat’s range—again, mostly deep in the Brazilian Amazon—provides jaguars with a “high probability of survival.”

More good news? Brazil has cut its deforestation rate an amazing 70 percent since 2005.


Photo: cloudzilla

Leopards have the largest distribution of any big cat, but like most of the rest, their populations have been dropping every year. One subspecies, the Amur leopard, is half a breath away from extinction. Try this for perspective: There are more than three times as many players on the Lafayette Leopards college football team (99) than there are Amur leopards left in the wild (30). And…cue the Charlie Brown music.

* * *

Sure these felines are impressive hunters and cute to boot, but does it really matter if big cats disappear? Yes! Predators are important, and they keep food webs running smoothly and ecosystems in check. And most conservationists agree that if it lives, it has a right to keep on living. But there’s another reason, too—we still have so much to learn from these animals.

For instance, did you know leopards have learned to fish? There are only a few documented records of this behavior, one of which will air on Big Cat Week’s Leopard: Ultimate Survivor. Watch the clip below and tell me we shouldn’t do everything in our power to save big cats wherever we can.

Full disclosure: Interviews with Geoff Daniels and Boone Smith were obtained while on a press trip with Nat Geo Wild. The network paid for travel and other expenses.

onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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