Why are Africa’s Big Cats on the Brink?

Why are Africa’s Big Cats on the Brink?

African Big Cats : lions, cheetahs, and leopards are increasingly endangered due to bushmeat hunting to poaching for body parts. | Unsplash

Michael Sommers

When the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) unveiled its much-awaited Red List in September, the ranking of Africa’s dwindling big cat populations as “vulnerable” instead of “endangered” was met with a roar of protest.  

Downward Slide

Among the disappointed was Dr Paul Funston, Lion Program Director, Panthera, the global wild cat conservation organization. While acknowledging that geographic variations and insufficient monitoring make it difficult to draw accurate general conclusions, “In recent decades, all big cat populations have been sliding downwards in African landscapes.”

Funston compares the precipitous decline taking place in West and Central Africa, where lions are critically endangered, to East Africa, where populations spread over large areas have witnessed steep declines in recent decades. Then there’s South Africa, home to many well-funded, protected reserves where more accurate data suggests that populations are stable or even enjoying a slight upturn.

For Funston, South Africa’s bright spots are dimmed by the fact that only 22,000 wild lions still roam the African continent. “In my heart, I don’t feel that’s where we should be.
A higher IUCN conservation status would potentially increase the attention and conservation efforts that the species deserves.”

Poaching Bushmeat and Body Parts

Contrary to popular belief, trophy hunting and human encroachment isn’t the largest threats to big cats’ survival. According to Funston, the primary danger stems from underfunding of protected areas, the consequences of which have facilitated bushmeat poaching. Funston insists that such poaching is the number one threat to lions throughout Africa. Eating the meat of wild animals – cut from the carcass, then smoked, dried, and transported for sale – is a cultural norm. However, due to human reorganization of the landscape, big cats have lost 95 per cent of their habitat. Even when they’re not the primary target of hunters, injury due to traps and snares coupled with increasing competition over diminishing prey takes its toll.    

Meanwhile, new threats abound. Social media has facilitated an increase in illegal wildlife trafficking while providing a platform for influencers flaunting selfies with cute lion and cheetah cubs. More lethal has been the growing market for animals’ body parts.
Of particular concern is the surging demand for
lion bones, teeth, and claws in Southeast Asia and China. As Asia’s tiger population has plummeted, elixirs made from crushed lion bones have replaced traditional tiger wine as a masculinity booster while claws and teeth are popular symbols of virility. As demand continues to escalate, Funston fears that smaller, more isolated and underfunded populations will be pushed to the brink.

A Firm Stand

Against this backdrop, in May 2021, the South African government took the landmark decision to end the country’s controversial captive lion industry, which permitted the legal killing of lions bred on private reserves and the selling of their parts. While conceding that the ban may lead to increased poaching of wild species, Funston argues it shouldn’t deter the shutting down of an inhumane industry “that’s awful in all aspects.” Instead, he advocates doubling down on conservation efforts while waiting for reduced supply and increased awareness to puncture demand. Until then, says Funston, “it’s one of those situations where you just have to take a firm stand.”

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