Opinion: Predators under Threat

With World Wildlife Day this year being celebrated under the theme Big Cats - Predators Under Threat, Bradnee Chambers, executive secretary of the UN Convention on Migratory Species, examines some of the difficulties involved in reconciling the interests of wild animals and the people who have to live alongside them.

One of the greatest challenges in conservation is reconciling human/ wildlife conflicts and the world’s growing human population.

Our planet, which from the perspective of a lone traveller in the wilderness seems so huge, can also appear incredibly small, with its resources stretched to the limit as it has to meet the needs - and aspirations - of 7billion human inhabitants. And one of the quandaries is how to persuade people struggling to scratch a living in developing parts of the world to accept the downside of living in proximity with wild - and dangerous - animals.

There is intense competition between people and wildlife for one highly precious commodity - space - but behaving as though this is a zero-sum game - one with only clear-cut winners and losers - a choice between us and them - might well result in a Pyrrhic victory - with any benefits accrued outweighed by the price paid.

Realising that we need “win-win” solutions, and recognising that pursuing progress is taking us nowhere, governments agreed on the Sustainable Development Goals - a universally applicable 15-year strategy aimed at ending poverty by promoting economic growth, addressing a range of other issues such as education, health, social protection and employment while tackling climate change and protecting the environment.

The pressures on the environment are possibly greatest in Africa - where 40% of the population is under the age of 15 and numbers doubled between 1959 and 1982 and again between 1982 and 2009 and projected to rise from today’s 1.25billion to reach 4.4billion by the start of the next century.

These people will need food, shelter, employment and access to health services, water and other utilities. Transport and power infrastructure is developing fast, with networks of roads, railways and power grids criss-crossing the continent.

But providing for the needs of people places a heavy burden on wild animals, which see their already fragmented habitat further reduced in both size and quality.

Africa’s big cats are suffering particularly hard, with lions now found in just 17% of their historic range, leopards faring better at 51% and cheetahs worse at 9%.

These species have populations that span national borders and some are long-ranging in their behaviour, so to be effective, conservation measures must be implemented internationally. The threats that they face are being exacerbated by climate change and the pressures from a growing human population hungry for land to grow crops, exploit mineral resources, generate power and build houses.

Alarm bells should be ringing loud, when the survival of the lion, the “King of the Beasts” and a familiar symbol in heraldry, sports and brand logos and national emblems is in doubt. But there is a very real possibility that future generations will not be able to see the big cats in the wild, and this will have serious consequences for people too.

Safaris and other wildlife-watching operations are making significant contributions to the economies of many countries, providing employment and an important source of foreign currency.

Tourists come to Africa to see wildlife, not the empty savannah where the animals once roamed.

Even though the lion has been extirpated from much of its historic range, its prospects are not necessarily totally bleak; other species have faced worse but are now recovering.

A case in point is the wolf, which was once widespread across Europe, but at its nadir was confined to the remote forests in the sparsely populated East, after centuries of persecution. Wolves are now reoccupying their former range and one has been sighted as far west as Belgium.

But this historic comeback of the wolf is only one part of the picture. While conservationists cheer, the reaction of livestock farmers is quite different as they perceive wolves as a threat to their sheep. While wolves are indeed predators, they are not quite as ferocious as their reputation might suggest and pose little threat to people, of whom they are afraid and wolf numbers are still quite low.

In relatively wealthy Western Europe, measures to reduce possible conflict can be put in place and compensation paid where wolves take farm animals. But if the reaction to the presence of a handful of wolves is so negative in Europe, imagine how difficult it is to persuade struggling subsistence pastoralists in Africa, that they should bear the losses to their livestock to hungry lions, leopards and cheetahs, to satisfy the demands of international conservation policies, enacted by people far away from the daily struggle.

The Conventions on Migratory Species and on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora - two international environmental treaties - are working together on a new African Carnivores Initiative.

If the lion, leopard, cheetah and African Wild Dog are to survive, then local communities will have to be involved in conservation efforts, a policy approach that CMS has whole-heartedly embraced by adopting a series of measures at its most recent conference on community participation and livelihood.

* Dr Bradnee Chambers is the Executive Secretary of the UN Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals.

Last updated on 08 March 2018

Op Ed
Acinonyx jubatus
Panthera leo
Panthera pardus
Uncia uncia
Species group: 
Terrestrial mammals