Wild managed lions at Tembe Elephant Park, South Africa.

Wild managed lions at Tembe Elephant Park, South Africa.

Today, March 3rd, is World Wildlife Day, a day to celebrate and raise awareness of the incredible 8.7 million other species with whom we share this planet. This year’s World Wildlife Day focuses on Big Cats, who are both the top predators in their wild spaces, awing us with their strength and beauty, and yet the most fragile and persecuted for one reason - conflict with humans. 

UN World Wildlife Day 2018 will feature a star-studded cast — cheetah, clouded leopard, jaguar, leopard, lion, puma, snow leopard, tiger. These most majestic predators on our planet are facing many and varied threats, primarily caused by human activities, be it habitat loss, poaching, human-wildlife conflict or climate change,” said CITES Secretary-General, John E. Scanlon.

As we think about the challenges facing big cats and their survival in the wild globally, there are many reasons to feel a deep sadness.

For the big cats that roam Africa:

  • Lions have declined in number from approximately 300,000 to about 20,000 in the last two decades and are now extinct in 26 African countries. They are listed as "Vulnerable" by the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) and in West Africa are "Critically Endangered". 
  • Leopard are the most persecuted cat in the world. Native to more than 35 African countries, they are listed as "Vulnerable". In South Africa, they have disappeared from 21% of their regional range and over 30% worldwide in the last twenty years.
  • Cheetah are now extinct in 25 countries and have disappeared from 91% of their historic range. In North Africa and Asia they are "Critically Endangered" with only 50 estimated to remain.  
Asiatic cheetah. Only 50 individuals remain.   Photo credit: Ali Mohajeran/WildscreenExchange

Asiatic cheetah. Only 50 individuals remain.  Photo credit: Ali Mohajeran/WildscreenExchange

The beauty and power of big cats is something we can all feel a deep connection to and calling to protect. Big cats stir imaginations and evoke emotional responses in humans around the world. The death of Cecil the lion at the hands of a trophy hunter in Zimbabwe, a single individual lion, created an unprecedented global media uproar and is a moment most of us recall with shock and anger. The most pressing question that should arise from this terrible incident is not the debate on trophy hunting, but how to bring more funding to protect Africa's wild spaces. With or without trophy hunting revenue, there is a need for much more funding of conservation in Africa.

Wild lions in Africa today range in at least 1.51 million km2 of protected areas, not including private and community conservancies. A study in 2016 led by Panthera (a conservation organization devoted exclusively to the world's 40 wild cats and their ecosystems) estimated the cost of effectively managing these wildlife reserves at between $694 million ~ $3.1 billion per year. However, the budgets to protect these areas are currently less than 1/5th to 1/20th of the required amount. The international community is helping, but an annual amount of $200 million is not enough to fill the funding gap. Our collective passion for Cecil and other Big Cats must be channeled creatively to generate sustained funding for conservation.

At the World Wildlife Day event at the United Nations Headquarters in New York yesterday, the CEO of Panthera said, "What these species need to survive is one thing -time." Wild cats are resilient animals but they need time to adapt, time to move from places that are no longer viable as habitat, and time to move freely via wildlife corridors to escape pressure from agriculture, infrastructure and climate change. We can have hope. Big Cats can survive if we give them safe, protected areas to roam, and the time to adapt. Achieving this requires both time and funding in order to conserve land, hire rangers, purchase equipment and supplies and pay staff.

How is Wild Tomorrow Fund helping big cat conservation?

Something wild cats cannot adapt to is bullets and snares - this requires direct intervention. It is rangers, conservation managers and field monitors who provide this critical intervention, conducting patrols, removing snares and monitoring in the field to track individuals. This is the best deterrence to the targeted killing of cats. Wild Tomorrow Fund is helping to protect African lions, cheetah and leopards in southern Africa by supporting over 16 private and government reserves. We help to equip rangers and managers by purchasing and delivering urgently needed supplies and equipment needed to keep wildlife safe within the protected areas they patrol, and provide training where their budgets cannot stretch.

We are also working to save habitat in KwaZulu-Natal South Africa and restoring biodiversity by connecting, protecting and rehabilitating fragmented habitats through strategic land purchases. At our conservancy Ukuwela, there are at least six individual leopards spotted on camera traps using our land. In the future when we join with our neighbors, we dream of the day wild lions and cheetah will also cross over into their expanded habitat. 

Help us to help Big Cats this World Wildlife Day.

Let's enjoy their beauty and translate our awe for their grace and power into practical, in-field direct conservation efforts to protect them.

Wild Tomorrow Fund