By Becky Ferreira
So far, 2014 is shaping up to be a bad-news year for big cat lovers. On January 8, a study published in PLOS One revealed that the West African lions have become critically endangered, primarily due to the bushmeat trade and shoddy conservation efforts. An international team of scientists surveyed roughly 1,500 miles and found that this subspecies has been reduced to 406 individuals, of which 250 are fully mature.
These lions now occupy only 1 percent of their original historical range. The drastic reduction in population hasn't come as much of a shock to researchers familiar with the radical decline in biodiversity in this region. West Africa's population of large mammals has declined by an average percent of 85 percent between 1970-2005 (again, attributable to the bushmeat trade). And though the West African lion is closest to extinction of all the remaining subspecies, the general lion population is receding too: only 35,000 individual lions remain, boxed into a quarter of their original range.
Conditions are even worse for tigers. These cats, the biggest in the world, have already been reduced to a global population of 3,200 – a 95 percent drop from their numbers at the turn of the 20th Century. The steep decline is partly due to Asia's massive urban growth, which has fragmented and destroyed tiger habitats. Poaching has also been a consistent problem, claiming the lives of 48 wild tigers last year alone.
As if the odds weren't stacked against tigers enough, they're now suffering an epidemic of the canine distemper virus. The virus is a side-effect of habitat encroachment, as it is spread by domestic dogs. Indian conservationists have a reason to be concerned: the same disease broke out in Tanzania in 1994, and killed off at least 1,000 lions living in Serengeti National Park. If the tigers suffer a similar death toll, a third of the world population will be wiped out.
So far, four dead tigers have turned up with the disease in India. "These are very disturbing finds,” said A.K. Sharma, head scientist at the Indian Veterinary Research Institute, to the AP. “The cases were quite distant from each other, and the latest was an area where there are no dogs. So it appears the virus is spreading.” There is no cure for the disease, but vaccinating dogs helps to limit its reach.
The dwindling numbers of wild lions and tigers is far more than an ethical issue. As Lex Berko wrote last week, big carnivores play a number of valuable ecological roles, including reducing disease in herbivore populations and allowing carbon-storing plants to flourish (thus staving off climate change). She also pointed out that the big cats aren't the only meat-eaters feeling the heat in recent decades – of the 31 large carnivores classified by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, 61 percent are either vulnerable, endangered, or critically endangered.
It's obvious West African lions and Indian tigers will not survive without renewed conservation efforts and tougher crackdowns on poachers. This is an enormous lump of bad news, I know. So I'll throw you a weird story to take the edge off: Apparently in 2013, numerous reports of mysterious big cats were filed all over Cornwall and Devon in southwest England. Locals have taken to calling the cat(s), “the beast of Bodmin.”
“The reports are of big, black cats, but the unanswered question is what they are,” said Danny Bamping of the British Big Cat Society, to the BBC. “In the UK, we could have a unique big cat which I find quite exciting.”
It's nice to imagine big cats living in regions they don't belong, if only to offset the far more common phenomenon of dying off in regions they do belong. We're definitely rooting for the beast of Bodmin.