National Geographic : 2011 Dec
All great cats continue to fade in number. Most countries have simply lacked the political will and public pressure to save their wildlife. Even protection of reserves tends to be feeble. guard force supported by police and even the army, rigorous regional cooperation to stop illegal trade of skins and bones, swi court ac- tion against o enders, and other deterrents. In the nal analysis, conservation is politics---and politics is killing the big cats. Humans and predators have for millennia confronted each other with fear and respect. Such con ict will continue. I have examined horses killed by snow leopards in Mongolia, cattle by jaguars in Brazil, and a family's sole milk bu alo by a tiger in India. All great cats kill livestock, especially if their natural prey has been decimated. Finding at least a partial solution to such killing is a critical conservation issue. Much predation is, however, the result of lax herding practices, as when cattle in India simply graze untended in forests. Should governments or conservation organi- zations compensate households for such losses? e idea is seductive, but attempts in various countries have had little success. Aside from the fact that continued funding is never assured, there are fraudulent claims, di culties in veri - cation, delays in payment, and other problems. A community could establish an insurance pro- gram in which households pay a fee and later are compensated for losses. Tourism can bene t an economy greatly, as seen in Africa, where visitors eagerly crowd around lions and cheetahs. How- ever, most communities near wildlife reserves derive few bene ts because governments and tour operators fail to share pro ts. I wonder if a positive approach might be more e ective: Pay communities to maintain healthy great cat populations. A er all, it is painfully clear that good science and good laws do not necessarily result in effective conser vation. Communities must be directly involved as full partners in conservation by contributing their knowledge, insights, and skills. Aware of this, I have in recent years focused less on detailed science, something I enjoy most, and more on conservation. I have tried to become a combina- tion of educator, diplomat, social anthropologist, and naturalist---an ecological missionary, bal- ancing knowledge and action. But yes, I still collect snow leopard droppings for analysis. Much remains to be learned. We know only how to protect lions and tigers, not how to manage them in a human-dominated landscape. e density of a jaguar or other cat population in a given area is limited by the amount of prey. It is di cult to count prey ani- mals, especially in forests, and little is known of how many a habitat can support. Indeed, we still lack solid data on the status and distribution of most cats, with estimates of numbers sometimes based on little more than intuition. Jaguars in the Amazon Basin and snow leopards in various ranges of Central Asia have never been censused. Our greatest challenge is to instill national commitments to save the great cats. It's every- one's task. Communities need incentives to share their land with such predators. Bene ts need to be based on moral values as well as on economic ones. e jaguar is a representative of the sun, the protector of all that lives among indigenous societies of Latin America; the tiger in China was an emissary of heaven and in Hindu India a force for good; and Buddhism stresses respect, love, and compassion for all living beings. Conserva- tion is based on moral values, not scienti c ones, on beauty, ethics, and religion, without which it cannot sustain itself. e great cats represent the ultimate test of our willingness to share this planet with other species. We must act now to o er them a bright and secure future, if for no other reason than they are among the most wonderful expressions of life on Earth. j n Educational Note National Geographic has free educational resources about big cats for students, teachers, and families at natgeoed.org/bigcats.