Just seven years ago in India’s magnificent Manas National Park, there were no tigers to speak of, just a few remnants of a population wiped out after decades of civil unrest that left the park’s wildlife vulnerable to persecution.
Now there are more than 30 tigers in Manas, a remarkable recovery achieved in record time thanks to a robust collaboration among the Indian Forest Department, local and international nongovernmental organizations, and law enforcement agencies, all working together to secure the park and protect it from poachers.
The success in Manas shows that stopping poaching at the source can bring tigers back from the brink.
But toppling the illegal trade in big cats and their parts requires coordinated action on a global scale: enacting and enforcing strict laws that criminalize wildlife trafficking; providing livelihoods for marginalized communities coerced by criminal poaching gangs to do their dirty work; and, as quickly as possible, reducing demand for big cats and their body parts by aiming at drivers like fashion and traditional medicine.
It also requires that we prioritize saving the big cats for their intrinsic value as apex predators, critical species we would be the poorer for losing, ecologically, economically, culturally and morally.
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In the past 25 years, saving species has become less of a focus of the world’s policymakers than solving climate change. During this time, the resources needed to address the immediate threats to wildlife have not kept pace with the growing scale of these threats, and already pressured species like the big cats have become even more vulnerable to poaching and human encroachment.
The argument is that addressing climate change is the most important thing we can do to preserve all life on our planet. But we also need to consider temporal factors.
We can and must simultaneously address the interlinked imperatives of mitigating climate change and stemming the extinction crisis playing out right now. If not, by the time we achieve the 2050 goals of the Paris climate accord, it will be too late for the planet’s big cats.
Worldwide, wild populations of cheetahs, clouded leopards, jaguars, leopards, lions, pumas, snow leopards and tigers have fallen at alarming rates, with much of the decline in the past 30 years. Meanwhile, subspecies continue to blink out on our watch. A newly published study of the Indochinese leopard in Eastern Cambodia, the last remaining population in all of Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, showed a 72 percent decline in just the past five years. We estimate that there now are fewer than 100 leopards, signaling that local extinction could be just around the corner.
The tiger recovery in Manas is working because intensive efforts have been brought to bear there to stop poaching and to disrupt the illegal wildlife supply chain.
Remote camera traps placed covertly throughout the park capture images of passers-by and relay these photos in real time to law enforcement officials, who use the photos and other intelligence to identify wildlife poachers. This enables limited resources to be deployed efficiently: Specially trained rangers can pinpoint the poachers’ exact locations to set up ambushes and arrest them, while local aid groups focus on training community members in skills like farming, food preparation and weaving to reduce their dependence on forest products, an approach that’s proved effective in discouraging wood-gathering, fishing and other illegal activities in the park.
These strategies are succeeding in some of world’s most heavily poached landscapes. Tiger populations are recovering at key sites in Nepal, Thailand and Indonesia, and there is now hope for critically endangered lions in West Africa, where the poaching of their prey is one of the biggest threats.
Big cats are resilient, but so are the criminals poaching them. In Bolivia, where jaguar hunting has been outlawed since the 1975 treaty on the international trade in endangered species banned the global trade of the animals’ coveted pelts, reports of a resurgence in jaguar killings have recently emerged. The journal Nature has reported that between August 2014 and February 2015, Bolivian authorities confiscated 186 jaguar fangs from packages bound for Asia. Radio ads broadcast in parts of the country offer $100 to $150 for jaguar fangs, most likely for necklaces to be sold as trinkets. Experts worry that as tiger parts become harder to obtain, a new illicit trade in jaguar parts will take hold.
Conservation teams stationed in poaching hot spots are best positioned to anticipate emerging threats like these and respond quickly. Front line officers are striving to stay one step ahead of the criminals with counterintelligence; elite ranger training; and advanced technology borrowed from police and the military like night vision equipment, thermal drones and forensic genetics.
Despite the insatiable and ever-changing demand for big cats and their parts, conservation groups and law enforcement agencies working together across the entire illegal supply chain — from source to transit to destination — have proved that they can disrupt the criminal networks that lie behind these serious crimes. Arrests, prosecutions and convictions of poachers are on the rise, and big cat populations — where diligently protected — are on the rebound.
As the results in Manas show, a focused effort on locking down key tiger sites can increase tiger populations. A 2010 study by some of the world’s leading tiger experts suggested that it is relatively inexpensive to protect tiger sites effectively. Adjusted for current conditions — and excluding the investment already being made by governments, particularly India, as well as by international donors and nongovernmental organizations — it would take about another $50 million a year to secure the 50 or so remaining recoverable tiger sites across Asia.
The same strategy of securing key protected areas can slow the killing of Africa’s rapidly dwindling lions, cheetahs and leopards, and the vast array of wildlife that shares those landscapes. A 2015 analysis estimated that effectively managing the more than 250 most important public protected areas for Africa’s cats would cost $1.25 billion a year.
This is where governments, aid organizations, banks, corporations and other deep-pocketed funders must step forward and invest in conservation at the scale needed to secure the vast wild places big cats need to roam, hunt and breed.
Last fall, researchers at Oxford University unveiled the first evidence-based model to illustrate how increased investment in conservation spending can lead to quantifiable improvements in biodiversity. The model used past data to show that global conservation spending between 1996 and 2008 reduced biodiversity loss by an average of 29 percent, and that countries that spent more had better outcomes.
The researchers hope that the ability to quantify the effectiveness of conservation spending and predict future outcomes will help guide budget decisions and lead to the funding increases needed to prevent extinction of species. We hope so, too.
Or perhaps such decisions will be driven by something less measurable: the value of these revered and critical predators as protectors of our planet’s wild landscapes and the life within them.
Either way, let it not be said that we did too little, too late. With a collective commitment to adequately protecting their landscapes now, big cats could be on the road to recovery and organized wildlife criminals on the path to extinction.
Fred Launay is the president and chief executive of the global wild cat conservation group Panthera. John E. Scanlon is the secretary-general of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.