Wednesday 4 May 2016
New research shows the big cats’ global range has shrunk by a shocking amount over the last 250 years
The area of the world roamed by leopards has declined by three quarters over the last two and a half centuries, according to the most comprehensive effort yet to map the big cat.
Researchers said they were shocked by the shrinking of the spotted hunter’s range, and that the decline had been far worse for several of the nine subspecies of leopards and in some parts of the world.
“We found the leopard had lost 75% of its historical habitat, we were blown away by that, it was much more than we feared,” said Andrew Jacobson, a conservationist at the Zoological Society of London and lead author of a new study on their range published in the journal PeerJ.
“Our goal has to be to raise consciousness about the plight of the leopard, it’s been flying under the conservation radar for a while. We hoped to raise its profile and say ‘this cat needs your attention’.”
The new work is the first known attempt to draw up a global, historical map of the leopard. Jacobson and researchers found that in 1750 it occupied a vast 35m sq km (13.5m sq mile) area throughout Africa, the Middle East and Asia. But after centuries of habitat loss and hunting caused by humans, that area shrank to just 8.5m sq km.
Leopards in Asia have been particularly badly hit, with six regions losing over 95% of habitat where the species has been, in Jacobson’s view, “almost completely wiped out”.
There appeared to be a clear link between Asia’s economic development and the leopard’s decline there, he said. “South-east Asia and China have been developed for a long period of time and that’s seriously constricted habitat in that area for decades. We worry this will be the trend we will see in Africa in coming decades, as economies grow.”
John Banovich spent February of 2002 traveling in India. His experiences in Bandhavgarh, Konar and Ranthambhore National Park is where he first encountered wild tigers. This life enhancing experience was the inspiration for the painting, Jewel of India. In an effort to support the dramatic decline of the wild tiger, Banovich has joined forces with the Wildlife Protection Society of India (WPSI). Founded in 1994 by its Executive Director, renowned tiger conservationist Belinda Wright, the Wildlife Protection Society works to help avert India's wildlife crisis by providing urgently needed support and information to combat the escalating illegal wildlife trade, particularly the illicit trade of tiger parts. It has now broadened its focus to deal with human-animal conflicts and provides support for research projects. An important element of the Society’s work is WPSI’s countrywide network of investigators. Developing information collected through this network, the WPSI team assists and liaises with Government enforcement authorities to bring about the arrest of offenders and seizure of wildlife products. A WPSI cell of expert lawyers supports the prosecution of important wildlife cases and reviews wildlife laws and campaigns for constructive amendments.
With a team of committed environmentalists, WPSI is one of the most respected and effective wildlife conservation organisations in India. It is a registered non-profit organisation, funded by a wide range of Indian and international donors. The Society’s Board Members include leading conservationists and business executives.
The tiger population in India is officially estimated to be between 1,571 to 1,875. Many of the tiger populations across the nation, particularly those outside protected reserves, face a variety of threats, including habitat fragmentation, encroachment, and poaching and developmental projects. These problems are directly or indirectly linked to anthropogenic factors. Decades of scientific research on tigers and their prey have provided us with a set of guidelines to develop and design protected areas to help the species survive. However, these reserves protect only a fraction of tiger habitat, and most are under severe human pressure. In the last few years, tiger poaching has increased dramatically, fueled by illegal trade in tiger body parts.
Despite all these problems, India still holds the best chance for saving the tiger in the wild. Tigers occur in 18 States within the Republic of India, with 10 States reportedly having populations in excess of 100 tigers. There are still areas with relatively large tiger populations and extensive tracts of protected habitat. We need to make a concerted effort to combat poaching and habitat loss, if this magnificent animal is to survive into the future.