Humanity’s rapid globalisation and excessive existence over the past 50 years has triggered an uncontrolled warming of the planet, locking the “interlinked emergencies” of climate change and biodiversity loss on fast-forward. As UN Chief, Antonio Guterres, said in his opening speech at the UN Biodiversity Conference (COP 15) held earlier this month in Canada, “We are waging a war on nature.”
As a result, in less than a lifetime, the world has lost almost 70% of its global wildlife populations, over one million plants and animals are threatened with extinction, and the forest, ocean, and river ecosystems that were once full of life, are fast being degraded.
It’s now abundantly clear that if we want to prevent further damage, and ensure a prosperous future for humans within and alongside the natural world, there really is no time to lose.
As our window of opportunity to make reparations with nature closes, the meeting of hundreds of nations at COP15 provided world leaders with a last chance to carve out new global goals to reverse biodiversity loss, and ensure a joint prosperous future for people and planet going forward. As the conference closed on December 19, the “historic” deal that was signed by the 195 participating countries included a shared global pledge to protect 30% of Earth’s natural environment by 2030.
Though long-overdue and much-needed, reaching this kind of agreement – let alone implementing it – is not easy. There are a whole host of cultural, scientific, social, political and economic layers of complexity that often cloud government and societal perspectives, strain biodiversity monitoring, and stifle overall progress.
How can we overcome this, and move towards global nature positivity together?
Inhabiting 74% of the planet’s landmass, wild cat populations exist across more of Earth’s terrestrial land surface than humans do, and for this reason, can act as insightful indicators of biodiversity, planetary environmental health, and even climate change.
What’s more, the survival of wild cat species is dependent on an entire food chain and it’s respective ecosystem, both of which are significantly threatened by the impacts of a changing climate. For this reason, wild cat populations are an ideal “litmus test for nature and climate,” and preserving them – as well as the vast environments which they rely upon to thrive and survive – ultimately results in the preservation of ourselves.
Dr. Goodrich and his team at Panthera are committed to conserving wild cat species across the world, not just to protect cats themselves or increase biodiversity, but because their conservation is beneficial for both people and the planet as well. Goodrich says our survival is “inextricably linked.”
As a “flagship” species, Dr. Goodrich and Panthera believe that wild cats could provide the “missing link” between biodiversity loss, climate change and human health, and that everything from preventing pandemics, increasing carbon storage, and improving human livelihoods, is linked to wild cat conservation.
Impakter had the pleasure of speaking to Dr. John Goodrich about how protecting, conserving and monitoring wild cat species can help catalyse the global journey towards humans living in harmony with nature once again.
Exciting news for the planet and wild cats: the world's governments concluded #COP15, the UN Biodiversity Conference in Montreal, by adopting an ambitious plan to solve the biodiversity crisis. To learn more, read Panthera's statement here: https://t.co/6WJhsA5Emb pic.twitter.com/0n9U5FMun0
— Panthera (@PantheraCats) December 21, 2022
You say that wild cats are an “umbrella species” and a good indicator of biodiversity. Could you expand on this, as well as explain how wild cat conservation can help protect biodiversity in the broader sense, e.g. at the level of plants, other animals, and even whole ecosystems?
Healthy cat populations require healthy prey populations, which in turn require healthy habitats. Therefore, to protect and recover wild cats, we must also protect and recover prey, and prey habitats. These same habitats are also home to many other species within the ecosystem, who are by default, protected as well.
What’s more, wild cat prey are often considered “ecosystem engineers,” meaning that they themselves have a profound impact on their respective habitats. For example, in some ecosystems, ungulates prevent forests from taking over grasslands.
As well as adequate food sources, vast amounts of land are also required to maintain viable wild cat populations. For example, in most South East Asian habitats, tiger density can only be expected to reach about one tiger per 100 km2, so a protected area would have to be around 7000 km2 in size in order to encompass a viable population of about 70 cats.
Therefore, on a spatial scale, protecting tigers is protecting entire ecosystems, preserving the plants and animals that live there (along with the carbon they sequester and store), conserving the water sources that we depend on (e.g. protected areas in the Western Ghats in India provide water for about 100 million people), and guarding countless other services these ecosystems provide.
The world currently faces many interlocking crises related to biodiversity loss, climate change and human health. How can wild cats provide the missing link between these global issues?
At present, the linkages between programs to address climate change, biodiversity loss and human health are weak, despite the fact that protecting wildlife habitats is one of the key solutions to all of these crises. Using wild cat conservation as a driving force for such programs to address these related issues, can in turn help link them together. This is because to protect wild cats, we must also protect large blocks of their habitat.
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Protecting these areas will not only help the wild cats, but people and planet as well. For example, protected areas can help to remove excess carbon from the atmosphere by increasing carbon storage, preserve the ecosystems needed to sustain terrestrial biodiversity and human livelihoods, and reduce wildlife trade, which in turn will help to prevent future pandemics by reducing the threat of zoonotic diseases to global human health.
What kinds of threats do wild cats face, and what kinds of conservation strategies are required to protect them? If wild cat species inhabit 74% of the Earth’s landmass, how do these conservation efforts both benefit and conflict with human life? How is this balanced, and will indigenous populations be affected?
There are three key threats to wild cats: habitat loss and fragmentation, poaching and other human-caused mortality, and human-cat conflict.
Relevant conservation strategies are difficult to describe in brief, but in general require: identifying the root causes of the problem, developing interventions to address those causes, and monitoring those interventions to determine if they are succeeding, modifying them where they are not.
For example, poaching for the illegal wildlife trade is a key threat to tigers, and common interventions include: poaching patrols, investigations to bring down criminal groups involved in the illicit trade, creating stricter laws and policies governing poaching and trade, and developing education campaigns targeting end users.
While protecting tigers may be the primary goal of these interventions, any species subject to illegal harvest benefits from the activity as well, hence, biodiversity at large is protected.
What’s more, humans also benefit in all the same ways that biodiversity does – and in some ways even further – e.g. from the reduced risk of the next pandemic originating from human exposure to the products of poaching.
However, wherever wild cats and humans overlap, there is always conflict. Cats, even small ones, kill livestock such as poultry and cows, and sometimes even attack people. Programs to prevent such conflict, as well as mitigate its impacts on both humans and cats when it does occur, are a key part of any cat conservation strategy.
Regarding the effect these conservation efforts may have on indigenous populations, well-conceived and implemented conservation programs should in fact benefit indigenous peoples, by protecting the natural ecosystems on which they depend, whilst still allowing for traditional sustainable use.
This is a key part of the Convention on Biological Diversity (a global agreement to promote sustainable development, underpinning the COP biodiversity conferences, most recently, COP15) and one of the few aspects that participating countries readily agreed upon.
🧵/1 Climate change is a very real & immediate threat to #tigers. There's an isolated population of tigers in the Sundarbans of #Bangladesh, where they swim among the #mangroves & hunt chital deer for prey. Alarmingly, the sea level is rising and shrinking these tigers' habitat. pic.twitter.com/uTdUdX0tQ4
— Panthera (@PantheraCats) December 30, 2022
We’re well aware of how the climate crisis damages human livelihoods, forces mass migration, and threatens the prosperity of our species’ future, but how do you think wild cat populations will be affected in parallel?
Our understanding of how wild cat species will be impacted by climate change is incomplete, but in some cases we have a good idea of what to expect.
For example, the tiger population in the Sundarbans mangroves in Bangladesh and India will almost certainly be lost within a few decades due to sea-level rise. Similarly, snow leopards, which are dependent on high-elevation habitats in Asia, will continue to lose habitat as temperatures warm, causing glaciers to recede and tree-line to increase in elevation. On the other hand, tiger habitats will likely increase in size in the north, as areas that are currently too cold become warmer. Indeed, we have already seen northern range expansions of some of the tiger’s key prey.
How human climate refugees may impact cats is even more poorly understood. However, some climate migration scenarios predict humans will move primarily to urban areas, which would likely benefit cats by reducing their interactions with people, and allow for some habitat recovery as rural areas are abandoned.
The bottom line, is that as global warming intensifies, our conservation efforts for wild cats must also intensify, protecting both the areas where climate change may result in increased threats to wild cats, as well as the areas that are predicted to become climate refugia for their species.
What are your thoughts on the outcomes of the recent UN Biodiversity Conference (COP 15), and can you explain how wild cat conservation can help the world to achieve nature positivity by 2030? Also, given that the habitats of some wild cat species span across political borders, what kind of global cooperation will be required to enact the scale of conservation required?
I hope that the goals and related targets agreed upon within the COP15 pact, such as stopping human-caused extinctions by 2030 and legally protecting 30% of our ecosystems, will be readily adopted.
If successfully implemented, these objectives would help to secure wild cats’ futures, and in turn, wild cats can actually help us to achieve them. First, by acting as conservation flagships, wild cats could help to secure public and government interest and support, and second, as umbrella and indicator species, they can help us to consistently monitor biodiversity and climate, thereby simplifying the task at hand, and helping to measure progress in an understandable and comprehensive way.
Global strategies such as the United Nations Convention on Climate Change (e.g. COP27) and Convention on Biodiversity, are critical to bring nations together to develop global strategies, as well as funding organizations to help all countries pay for the implementation of those strategies.
The impacts of climate change and biodiversity loss are global, so the solutions must also be global, though largely implemented at the national scale. Where ecosystems and protected areas span international boundaries, cooperation between countries will be critical to ensure the protection of those environments.
We have seen such international cooperation strategies successfully recover wild cat populations in both India and China. For example, in Manas National Park (MNP), India, cooperation with Royal Manas National Park in Bhutan helped recover tigers in MNP. Furthermore, cooperation of this kind has also been witnessed between Russia and China, helping to spark the recovery of tigers in Northeastern China.
How are pumas managed in Argentina & Chile? In both countries, pumas are hunted for profit. Panthera's Nicolás Lagos discusses the status of their populations & the differing approaches the countries use to maintain their numbers. Read more from @mongabay: https://t.co/8JsKlwtdPz
— Panthera (@PantheraCats) December 10, 2022
Finally, a more personal question, as the Senior Director of Panthera’s Tiger Program, how did you first become interested in wild cat biology, and how did you come to realise their broader significance in monitoring biodiversity?
I was born a biologist. I spent my childhood wandering the forests, swamps, mountains and streams around my home in upstate New York, searching for and observing every creature I could find.
I was, and still am, most fascinated by those species that were difficult to find and observe, especially carnivores, and even as a child, I wanted to unravel the mystery of these enigmatic species.
So, when I began my career, I naturally focused on carnivores, studying bears and badgers for my MSc and PhD research. When I finished my PhD, I was extremely lucky to be offered a job running a research project on Amur tigers in the wilds of the Russian Far East.
The idea that charismatic species with large area requirements can be “umbrellas” and ambassadors for conservation is not my own, but rather is as old as the field of conservation itself. We’ve just shifted away from it in recent decades as proponents of ecosystem and biodiversity conservation argued against species conservation as being too narrow an approach.
However, species conservation has an important role to play, and when the right species are chosen, can lead the charge for efforts to rescue our biosphere; it’s only by combining these two approaches that we will be successful.
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed here by the authors are their own, not those of Impakter.com — In the Featured Photo: Leopard on tree branch. Featured Photo Credit: CHUTTERSNAP/Unsplash