The big cat diaries

The big cat diaries

Wild notes

The big cat diaries

The big cats are endangered, due mainly to habitat loss, poaching and dwindling populations of their prey, writes Colin Todhunter, urging us to save these majestic predators before they are pushed on the road to extinction

“Save the planet!” We hear this all the time. This statement has almost become a meaningless sound bite. But the underlying message it attempts to convey is neither meaningless nor banal. ‘Saving the planet’ implies that we must act to save ourselves as a species, and all other living creatures, from our actions, by living in harmony with the natural environment that has till now sustained us for tens of thousands of years. However, we appear to be hell-bent on doing the opposite. In the process, we are driving many species to the point of extinction. None more so than perhaps one of the most beautiful, graceful and awe-inspiring animals on the planet — the big cats. We have pushed so many of these wonderful creatures towards the precipice of oblivion.


Simba, the Swahili word for lion, means king. The most social of the big cats, a lion pride comprises a group of up to 15 members. The lion is synonymous with wild Africa, but illegal killing, habitat loss and habitat fragmentation have left it teetering on the brink of extinction. Nearly a century ago, there were as many as 2,00,000 lions living in the wild in Africa. Today, the estimate is that there are fewer than 30,000.

Lions are currently listed as ‘Vulnerable’ on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. In West and Central Africa, the species is now classified as ‘Endangered’. Lions have vanished from over 80 per cent of their historic range and currently exist in 28 countries in Africa and one country in Asia (India). They are extinct in 26 countries. Only seven countries — Botswana, Ethiopia, Kenya, South Africa, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe — are believed to each contain more than 1,000 lions.

Africa’s lions are threatened by retaliatory persecution from herders and farmers who perceive lions as a threat to their livelihood. Lions are increasingly coming into closer contact with humans as their habitat is converted for hu­man use and livestock replaces their natural prey. This can fuel intense conflict situations where lions are speared, shot, or even poisoned. Kenya alone loses approximately 100 of its 2,000 wild lions every year due to such killings. At this rate, there could be no more wild lions left in Kenya by the year 2030.

As with the tiger, the lion is faced with a fragmentation and isolation of habitat due to ever-expanding agricultural practices, increasing their risk of extinction.


The cheetah is the world’s fastest land animal, capable of running 65 miles per hour. Males belong to permanent groups of two or three individuals. Females live alone, except when raising cubs. Male cheetahs stay together for life and try to gain access to small territories that they defend from other males. Females range across immense areas that encompass many male territories and which overlap those of other females.

The least dangerous of big cats, the cheetah, creates fewer problems with livestock owners than do many other large carnivores. Even so, they are persecuted intensely in some areas for the perceived or relatively minor problems that they create. Cheetahs are listed as ‘Vulnerable’ across their range and as ‘Critically Endangered’ in North Africa and Asia. Besides direct hunting, cheetahs are also threatened by habitat loss and fragmentation, as well as a lack of wild prey.

Almost 4,000 years ago, Egyptians tamed cheetahs as pets and immortalised them through images on tombs and temples. In India, Iran and Arabia, coursing with cheetahs was a popular sport among the aristocracy. In the courts of the Mogul emperors, cheetahs were celebrated in tapestries, folklore and verse. Favourite cheetahs were adorned with jewelled collars and featured prominently in royal processions. Even today, they are highly prized pets and status symbols in some Gulf states.

Such a pity then that they have vanished from over 77 per cent of their historic range in Africa. Cheetahs once inhabited the whole African continent, except for the Congo Basin rainforest. Once occupying Asia from the Arabian Peninsula to Eastern India, they are now extinct in their entire Asian range, apart from a single, isolated population of perhaps 110 in the remote central plateau of Iran. Overall, cheetahs are extinct in 25 countries which they formerly occupied. They are possibly extinct in a further 13 countries, and have not been sighted in Burundi, Republic of Congo, Nigeria and Rwanda in the last decade.

The Asiatic cheetah, the elegant subspecies that once graced the royal courts of India, Persia, and Arabia, is all but extinct. In Africa, cheetah numbers fell by more than 90 per cent during the course of the last century as farmers, ranchers and herdsmen took over their habitat, hunters shot them for sport, and poachers captured cubs for the lucrative trade in exotic pets. Fewer than 10,000 cheetahs survive in the wild today.


Tyger, Tyger, burning bright/ In the forests of the night — wrote the poet William Blake in 1794. Now its flame is barely a flicker. It may be the world’s largest cat, but the tiger is also one of the most threatened. It is listed as ‘Endangered’ on the International Union of the Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species.

Just 100 years ago, there were over 1,00,000 tigers in Asia. Today, between 3,000 and 4,000 remain. At that time, there were reportedly 40,000 tigers in India. Based on the result of the tiger census in 2008, the total wild tiger population in India has been estimated at 1,411 adult individuals.

Although six subspecies of tiger are still in existence, three others have become extinct in the last 80 years. The existing subspecies are Bengali, Indo-Chinese, Sumatran, Amur, Malayan and South-Chinese. The world lost the Javan tiger in the 1970s, the Caspian in the 1950s and the Bali subspecies in the 1930s. It may have lost the South-China subspecies too as none have been recorded in the wild over the last decade. Tigers are extinct in 11 countries and no longer live in 93 per cent of their historic range.

Wild tigers are still found in 13 countries in Asia — India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia (Sumatra), Cambodia, Lao PDR, Vietnam, China and Russia.

Tigers are being hunted to meet the demands of the multi-billion dollar illegal wildlife trade market, and their body parts are consumed for traditional medicinal purposes in China and across Asia. Virtually every part of the tiger is sold and used. For instance, traditional beliefs claim that tiger-bone tonic wine remedies muscle pain, rheumatism, arthritis and paralysis.

But it’s not just hunting that threatens the existence of the tiger. A solitary animal, the tiger must have access to wide swaths of land and large populations of prey, such as buffalo and wild pig. However, the tiger’s prey is also being hunted, and its habitat destroyed. A depleted prey base means that tigers will often attack livestock to feed themselves and their cubs. Moreover, due to a rising human population, humans and tigers are increasingly living in close proximity, often resulting in human-tiger conflict situations. Tigers require an intact habitat in order to survive. However, their habitats are increasingly under threat and are either being destroyed or fragmented by agricultural developments such as large monocultures like palm oil plantations.


The leopard is the most versatile of big cats and occupies all habitats ranging from rainforests to deserts. However, leopards have vanished from almost 40 per cent of their historic range in Africa and from over 50 per cent in Asia. Leopards are now extinct in six countries they formerly occupied, and their presence in six additional countries is very uncertain.

Leopards may soon move from a ‘Near Threatened’ to ‘Vulnerable’ status due to heavy hunting for commercial trade in Asia, persecution due to human-conflict situations, poorly managed legal trophy hunting as well as habitat fragmentation and loss. Leopards are also persecuted in Africa by local tribes who use leopard skins and body parts for ceremonial dresses and other traditional uses.

The Amur leopard is the northern-most sub-species, which live alongside Siberian tigers in eastern Russia’s snowy Boreal forest. It is considered to be the world’s rarest cat. There are now only approximately 30 remaining in the wild, living in a sliver of habitat on the Russo-Chinese border.

While leopards in general have the largest distribution of any big cat, data over the last ten years show that populations are declining and becoming fragmented. Although the leopard is believed to be the last remaining big cat of the Atlas Mountains, there has been no definite record of the species in North Africa since 2002.

Snow leopard

Snow leopards live and travel in solitude over vast distances of isolated, rugged mountainous terrrain. The snow leopard’s range encompasses two million square kilometres spread across 12 central Asian countries. It is of little wonder then that they are seldom seen in the wild. Their long-term outlook is uncertain.

As few as 3,500 to 7,000 snow leopards remain in the wild. They have been eliminated from about 15 per cent of their historic range. Although legally protected in the 12 countries in which they are found, they are listed as ‘Endangered’ on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

These big cats are currently found in Afghanistan, Bhutan, China, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyz Republic, Mongolia, Nepal, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Around 60 per cent of their habitat is in China alone.

Snow leopards are captured and killed for the illegal wildlife trade market. Their body parts can fetch thousands of US dollars, as their distinctive fur is highly coveted. Like the tiger, their bones are sold for traditional Asian medicine. They also face the familiar problems relating to conflict with herders, habitat loss and fragmentation due to the conversion of land for agricultural purposes.


The jaguar is the third largest cat in the world and the largest feline in the Western Hemisphere. In some cultures, it was believed that shamans could transform into jaguars. The ancient Mayans believed the big cat’s spotted coat represented the night sky. The people of the Amazon saw in the jaguar’s shiny, reflective eyes, proof of its connection to the spiritual world.

During the 1960s and 70s, the jaguar was heavily hunted for its fur. As many as 18,000 wild jaguars were killed each year until the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of 1973 brought the pelt trade to a near halt. Today, jaguars continue to be hunted due to conflict with humans who live in fear of them, or who regard them as a threat to their livelihoods.

Jaguars are listed as ‘Near Threatened’ on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. They have been eradicated from over 40 per cent of their historical range, but still manage to exist in 18 countries in Latin America. The Jaguar is extinct in two countries — El Salvador and Uruguay. Although occasionally spotted, there has not been evidence of a breeding jaguar population in the US in the last 50 years.
Wild jaguars are faced with habitat loss. They are also hunted by ranchers who regard them as a threat to their livelihood. Again, the lack of natural prey like deer and peccaries due to over-hunting by humans forces jaguars to prey on domestic animals, further fuelling human-wildlife conflict.


The cougar is also referred to as mountain lion, puma, deer tiger or red tiger. It is faring a bit better than the other big cats and has the largest geographic range of any native terrestrial mammal in the Western Hemisphere — from Canada and the US through to Central and South America, to the southern tip of Chile. Cougars are found in a broad range of habitats from all forest types to lowlands and deserts.

Their range spans 28 countries. The cougar is native to Argentina, Belize, Bolivia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, El Salvador, French Guiana, Guatemala, Guyana, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Suriname, United States, Uruguay and Venezuela.

While the cougar is adaptable and resilient and occupies every major habitat type of the Americas (including the high Andes), it was eliminated from the entire eastern half of North America within the 200 years following European colonisation. A remnant endangered subpopulation persists in Florida, whilst numbers of cougars in northeastern Canada, as well as in the eastern and midwest regions of the US, seems to be on the rise.

A disappearing world?

There are many groups and organisations across the world working to secure the future of big cats in the wild. For instance, over the last ten years, translocation and reintroduction of cheetahs has been occurring in over 38 reserves in South Africa.

However, most of these populations are very small. Isolated from all other cheetah populations, they have bleak prospects of connecting with them. This lack of connectivity reduces genetic variation — a threat faced by many of the big cats.

India’s Project Tiger has instituted a wireless communication system and developed outstation patrol camps within tiger reserves, ensuring a decline in poaching. Villages have been relocated in many reserves, especially from core areas, and livestock grazing has been controlled to a great extent. Various developmental works have improved the water regime as well as ground and field level vegetation, thereby increasing the tiger density.

Several tiger reserves are being linked and a Tiger Atlas of India as well as a Tiger Habitat and Population Evaluation System are being developed using state-of-the-art technology to help develop regional protocols directed at monitoring tigers and their habitat.

While Project Tiger is far from perfect (conservationist Valmik Thapar has drawn attention to its mismanagement by a forest bureaucracy that is largely not scientifically trained), six countries, including Russia and China, have sought India’s help to replicate Project Tiger.

Conservation of the big cats and their prey species cannot be divorced from the challenges posed by the local people’s need for income, and a lack of conservational awareness and land use policy. Securing the future of the big cats in the wild also goes hand in hand with attempts to protect the natural environment, as policies aimed at saving these animals are predicated on preserving and protecting both their habitat and their prey. Given their range and the land they use, saving the big cats is integral to saving the planet’s eco-systems that are most at risk today. Effective ‘cat rescue’ could help to preserve a good portion of the world’s natural environment.

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