Save the Wild Cats

Wild cats protect humans from disease

This past February 13, seven scientists made their case for how to best conserve the world’s 30-plus species of wild cats. Gathered in the Manhattan headquarters of Panthera, an organization dedicated to this cause, each researcher, like a proud parent, touted achievements related to his favorite feline:

The successful tracking of cougars in California; the generation of hundreds of snow-leopard photos six months into the first full-scale study of the species; the stabilization of the tiger population in Russia.

But they also stressed that there’s still significant work necessary to help humans and wild cats live in harmony. In the U.S. alone, the Fish & Wildlife Service lists seven species of wild cats as either endangered or threatened. Worldwide, that number more than doubles.

Designating a protected area is no longer enough, according to Dr. Alan Rabinowitz, Panthera’s president and CEO, who has traveled the globe studying these animals. Scientists need to educate villagers who live among wild cats about how to protect their herds without killing the cats. The scientists also must gather more information about areas called “genetic corridors”—the full expanse of land where a species roams—within and outside protected areas.

Adjusting to a new way of thinking won’t be easy, Rabinowitz said. “You make a protected area and then you walk away,” he said, referring to the modus operandi of many wild cat researchers. What those scientists didn’t realize—but what seems obvious in hindsight—is that cats don’t stay put. They wander. They mate with cats from other areas. Rabinowitz has seen instances of jaguars roaming and transferring genes all the way from Mexico to Argentina.

This movement is crucial because it prevents inbreeding and disease, and promotes genetic diversity. Without gene variation, cats become much more susceptible to environmental threats, according to Dr. George Amato of the Sackler Institute for Comparative Genomics at the Museum of Natural History. “When we lose genetic variation,” Amato said, “that species becomes more vulnerable. And it carries more parasites.”

That’s bad news for us humans, too. When wild cat populations decrease or die off, the populations of their typical prey increase. More prey could mean more parasites—potentially leading to greater prevalence of zoonotic diseases (those that transfer from animals to humans).

Take Lyme disease in Massachusetts, for example. From 2006 to 2007, the number of reported cases more than doubled. Amato attributed this increase to an overabundance of white-tailed deer, which are thriving because they live in an ecosystem free of large predators.

“Big cats and other top predators control the balance of the environment,” Rabinowitz said. In other words, they act as a much-needed buffer. As it is, we currently trace 25 percent of deaths worldwide to zoonotic diseases. What’s more, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately 75 percent of recently emerging infectious diseases affecting humans are of animal origin, and 60 percent of all human pathogens are zoonotic.

So it’s more important than ever to save these animals, for human benefit and ecological reasons. “As top predators, wild cats are not only apex predators, they are also ecosystem guardians,” states Panthera’s mission. “In successfully protecting these species, we also protect their habitat and prey, and the large tracts of land they require.”

Of course, protecting wild cats means we have to learn to live with them. That’s easy from afar. But what about the farmer who loses his cows to the hungry snow leopard, or the villagers who fear an attack by the ever-present lions? In those areas, researchers have already started educating villagers about the cats’ importance. “Our challenge,” said Dr. Laurence Frank, director of the Living with Lions program, “is to turn these animals from a financial liability into a financial asset.”

Dr. Howard Quigley, director of Western Hemisphere Field Programs at Panthera and a carnivore-conflict specialist knows that convincing humans to live peacefully with these cats will be tough. But he has reason to feel optimistic: His research on cougars in California has revealed harmonious human-wild cat cohabitation because the two groups basically leave each other alone. Conflicts are the exception, not the rule.

“It doesn’t matter whether you’re talking about snow leopards or jaguars or lions,” he said. “We’re asking people to find room on this planet for cats.” 

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