Schaller's Soldiers

Photograph courtesy of the Wildlife Conservation Society

Researchers studying mountain gorillas, lions, tigers, and bears (of the panda variety), face unprecedented threats, but there is hope that they will endure, said a number of scientists at a lecture last Thursday in honor of conservation icon George Schaller.

Now a senior conservationist at the Wildlife Conservation Society, Schaller initiated studies of endangered species around the globe. He and the biologists he inspired to continue his work shared the status of these endangered species and others as they made a case for preservation.

"When we treasure something in nature, we can never turn our backs," said Schaller, also vice president of the wild cat conservation organization Panthera. "I’m filled with hope for the survival of all these species.”

Habitat destruction and fragmentation, ranchers killing cats or lions in retaliation when the predators prey on domestic herds, and climate change all threaten wildlife. These perils make knowledge of what charismatic megafauna, like snow leopards and caribou, need to survive necessary for preservation.

Advances in technology have allowed scientists to discover more than has ever been known before about critical habitats and the species that living within them.

“Like many wildlife researchers, you start with poops,” said panda researcher Lu Zhi. Scat studies helped her and fellow biologists understand how pandas existed in the wild, indicating how much the animals ate and how often. They discovered more about how pandas breed, care for their young, and what habitats they depend upon.

Now the conservationists are in a competition with infrastructure in China, which destroys 20 percent of suitable panda habitat every 10 years. “Right now we’re losing, but there’s a chance we could win,” said Zhi.

Snow leopard researchers have a different problem in Pakistan: a dearth of data. New genetic analysis of scat and collars equipped with GPS give biologists like Tom McCarthy hope that they will understand more about the elusive cat in a few years and be able to make a better case for conservation.

Despite the vast increase in knowledge of emblematic species that characterize a landscape, there is more work to be done, many of the presenters stressed. Even if people feel passionately about a species, said tiger researcher Ullas Karanth, “that doesn’t matter one bit if we don’t understand it and find out what we can do to protect it.”

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