Breathing room

How scientists and conservationists are protecting big cats

Wildlife depends on healthy habitats that extend unbroken. That’s especially true for big cats. As the top predators in their ecosystems, species such as Africa’s lions, Asia’s tigers and snow leopards, and the Americas’ jaguars require vast territories in which to hunt prey and find mates. But these large expanses of connected habitat are under threat—or disappearing altogether.

From roads and fences to farms and canals, human activity and infrastructure often stand in the way of big cats’ movements. Marooned on shrinking islands of habitat, they may lack sufficient food or fail to encounter a mate, causing them to become genetically isolated and inbred. And as their habitats become increasingly fragmented, the carnivores are more likely to cross paths with people and livestock, raising the risk of retaliatory killings and poaching.

“In today’s world, much of the landscape has been carved up by human activity,” says Dale Miquelle, the coordinator of the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Tiger Program, a WWF partner. “The trick to big cat conservation is figuring out how to piece together those patches of habitat to come up with a larger area in which big cats can move and breed.”

With projects in key landscapes, WWF acts to maintain connectivity for big cats through a suite of interrelated efforts: managing protected areas while restoring and safeguarding the critical wildlife corridors between them; engaging with governments and other partners to ensure connected habitats remain intact; and supporting communities to implement integrated, holistic approaches to help people and big cats coexist.

It’s a big job, but people are increasingly on board to help, says WWF lead wildlife scientist Robin Naidoo. To guide the work, he and a team of colleagues recently developed an index that measures the degree of connection for large mammals between each of the world’s terrestrial protected areas, allowing conservationists and policymakers to focus resources in places where connectivity is most at risk.

Such linkages are vital not only for the continued survival of big cats, but for balanced ecosystems at large. For example, in order to thrive, jaguars need fully functioning habitats with a healthy prey base; diverse plant life to support that prey; and reliable water sources. When those habitats are protected and well-connected, countless other living things—including the people with whom they share the landscape—benefit too.

“Big cats are a kind of bellwether for our ability to live with nature,” says Kate Vannelli, head of WWF’s Living with Big Cats Initiative. “If people can live alongside big cats in a state of coexistence, then we’re headed in a good direction for all of nature.” — Kirsten Weir

illustration of the word Jaguar© SEEMA SURANA

Jaguar Panthera onca

Jaguar in foliage
  • IUCN Status
  • Estimated Population
  • Current range
    Jaguars roam a wide range of habitats, from tropical forests and wetlands to mangroves, savannas, and deserts. Their territory shrank by 20% between 2002 and 2015—most now live in the Amazon rain forest and the Pantanal.
  • Habitat threats
    Jaguar-friendly landscapes are at risk due to cattle ranching and agricultural expansion, which drive deforestation and have led to declines in the big cats’ prey.

To the Maya, jaguars were the spirit companions of kings and an important mythological figure. Today, these big cats remain a symbol of power in the Americas, where they roam across 18 countries, from Mexico to Argentina. Sadly, jaguars have been driven from nearly half their original range, and their numbers are declining almost everywhere they’re found. Habitat loss and fragmentation are the top threats to the largest cat in the western hemisphere, says Rafael Antelo, who leads Wildlife Connect, a joint initiative (launched by WWF, the Center for Large Landscape Conservation, the IUCN Connectivity Conservation Specialist Group, and other partners) to protect, manage, and restore ecological connectivity in large landscapes around the world.

One of those landscapes is South America’s vast Pantanal-Chaco (PACHA) region, which spans Argentina, Bolivia, Paraguay, and Brazil. Encompassing both the Pantanal, the world’s largest wetland, and the Gran Chaco, a rich habitat of forests and savanna grasslands, the roughly 265 million-acre PACHA is a unique ecosystem that supports an abundance of diverse wildlife. It also has some of the world’s highest deforestation rates, largely caused by land conversion for agriculture and cattle production. As a result, its critical jaguar corridors are under threat.

In PACHA and beyond, jaguar survival hinges on the chain of biological corridors that enables different populations to intermingle and breed, safeguarding their genetic diversity. But ecological connectivity comes in different forms, Antelo explains. Structural connectivity exists when a habitat is physically intact. Functional connectivity describes how well a habitat facilitates animals’ movements. “A forest in which jaguars are regularly hunted or poached may be structurally connected,” he says, “but functionally it’s no use to traveling cats.”

To improve structural connectivity, WWF and partners work with local people to protect and restore wildlife corridors between priority landscapes. This includes collaborating with farmers and ranchers to implement deforestation-free agricultural practices and supporting Indigenous communities to develop non-timber forest products that reduce pressure on degraded habitats while creating economic opportunities. And because jaguars rely on an interconnected maze of waterways to feed and to navigate between core habitats, WWF’s Free-Flowing Rivers initiative identifies hydropower solutions that benefit communities yet maintain the aquatic connectivity jaguars need.

Securing functional connectivity is also key in a region where cattle ranchers sometimes kill jaguars in retaliation for preying on livestock. To reduce human-jaguar conflict, WWF encourages ranchers to adopt various measures that can better protect livestock from predators: installing electric fencing, strategically positioning pastures, or switching from cattle to buffalo, which are better able to defend themselves. In some areas, WWF helps communities develop jaguar-based ecotourism, which gives local people another reason to protect big cat habitat.

But safeguarding jaguar corridors in PACHA is just one piece of a comprehensive continent-wide strategy, says Sandra Petrone Mendoza, the jaguar conservation lead at WWF-Mexico.

“Our ultimate goal is to have a connected jaguar corridor all the way from Mexico to Argentina,” she says. “Latin America can’t afford to continue losing our vital ecosystems. Jaguars can help us build the case for bringing nature back.” — Kirsten Weir

illustration of the word Lion© SEEMA SURANA

Lion Panthera leo

Male lion in sunset approaching camera
  • IUCN Status
  • Estimated Population
  • Current range
    Almost 20% of Africa’s lions live in the KAZA conservation area, which encompasses parts of Angola, Botswana, Namibia, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. KAZA is also an important landscape for big cats such as leopards and cheetahs.
  • Habitat threats
    As people’s need for land and resources increases across Africa, lions are losing their habitat at an alarming pace. Lions now exist in less than 10% of their historic range; some populations could vanish within the next few decades.

When Botilo Tshimologo got the call about the pair of lions, he knew he had to act fast.

Two adolescent males had killed three cows near the village of Gudigwa in Botswana’s Okavango Delta region, a rural area where cattle are not only an important food source but have significant cultural and economic value.

“The farmers were getting agitated,” explains Tshimologo, who until recently led the lion alert program for Pride in Our Prides, a project of WWF partner Communities Living Among Wildlife Sustain-ably, or CLAWS, Conservancy. In retaliation for the lost livestock, he says, “they were ready to kill the lions themselves.”

Tshimologo made a beeline for Gudigwa. When he arrived, one of the farmers was already in pursuit of the lions. Tshimologo enlisted the help of the farmer’s young sons and nephew; together, they headed in the direction the farmer had gone, yelling at the top of their lungs for him to stop, to not shoot.

It worked. The farmer, who with the help of two village elders had by then tracked down the lions, heard their cries and paused. “I think if we had come 10 minutes later, it could have been a very different story,” says Tshimologo.

Between habitat loss—lions have been extirpated from more than 90% of their historic range—and the dwindling availability of natural prey, lions have increasingly taken to attacking grazing livestock, which often leads to retaliatory killings by farmers. Those challenges, as well as factors such as poaching and droughts exacerbated by climate change, have caused Africa’s wild lion population to shrink by 43% in the past two decades. There are now estimated to be fewer than 25,000 lions across the continent, most of which reside in protected reserves. In India, there are fewer than 700 Asiatic lions.

CLAWS—formed in 2014 in response to poisonings by villagers that wiped out many of northern Botswana’s lions in a single year—aims to help lions and people coexist. One tactic is collaring the big cats and monitoring their whereabouts. When a collared lion roams within around three miles of a village, CLAWS sends out an SMS alert; currently, 120 community members receive these notifications. With earlier warnings, farmers can take preventive measures to protect their cattle by bringing the animals into predator-proof livestock enclosures, moving them, or making noise to deter the lions from getting too close.

In addition, the organization formed a community committee that creates rotational grazing plans for cattle and uses certified herders to monitor livestock health and protect against predator attacks. CLAWS also seeks to improve local attitudes toward lions, including by asking farmers to name the collared animals, which encourages people to see the cats as individuals rather than as threats to be exterminated.

After Tshimologo and his colleagues tracked down the two lions near Gudigwa, one of the cats escaped. The other lion was successfully tranquilized by a wildlife veterinarian, collared, then safely relocated by vehicle to around 20 miles away, where it would pose less of a threat to villagers’ cattle. The farmer named it Mandlevu, or “bearded one.”

Eventually, Mandlevu found his way back to Gudigwa. But this time, thanks in part to CLAWS’s guidance, the farmer made no attempt to shoot him, and soon enough the lion moved north into Namibia on his own. — Lauren Evans

illustration of the word Tiger© SEEMA SURANA

Tiger Panthera tigris

Tiger leaping down from tree
  • IUCN Status
  • Estimated Population
  • Current range
    Solitary and highly territorial, tigers are mainly found in small pockets throughout Asia, where they occupy around just 5% of their original range. More than half of the world’s wild tigers live in India.
  • Habitat threats
    Across India, tiger landscapes are jeopardized by massive road and railway infrastructure projects, which threaten to slice habitats into smaller, more isolated fragments and spur a collapse in tiger numbers.

In Madhya Predesh state in central India, a tiger slinks silently through a field, unbeknownst to villagers sleeping nearby. Traveling mostly under cover of darkness, the cat makes its way from the rugged terrain of the Satpura Tiger Reserve to the tropical forests of the Pench Tiger Reserve (home to a slightly larger tiger population), around 93 miles to the southeast.

After more than a century of decline, global tiger numbers are climbing, from an estimated population of 3,200 in 2015 to as many as 5,578 in 2022. India is a standout success: Its estimated tiger population more than doubled between 2006 and 2018 (in part due to improved counting and monitoring methods), and the country is now home to about 70% of the world’s wild tigers. But as India’s tiger numbers rise, the solitary animals must stake out new territories, often pushing them beyond protected areas and into places where they face habitat loss and human-wildlife conflict.

That makes establishing links between the safe spaces an urgent priority, says Prachi Thatte, a scientist at WWF-India. “Tiger numbers have been increasing in India, and maintaining connectivity is one of the essential factors for sustaining this increase.”

The area between the Satpura and Pench tiger reserves is one such link in India’s mosaic of viable tiger habitats. A patchwork of forests and agricultural lands—mostly corn and cotton—this at-risk corridor is interspersed with villages, roads, railways, canals, and coal mines. Despite that bustling human activity, tigers have been spotted moving through this shared landscape, and genetic studies in the two reserves confirm that the populations are interbreeding.

“We know tigers are using these human-modified lands,” Thatte says, “but India is changing rapidly.” In recent decades, the country’s growth has triggered a push for more development and infrastructure, including bigger highways and new canals and railways—all of which can stop big cats in their tracks. “We are at risk of fragmenting the landscape further,” she says, “which could result in tiger subpopulations going extinct.”

To prevent habitat loss and fragmentation, WWF-India has worked with 6,000 small-scale farmers in the Satpura-Pench region to shift their crops toward organic cotton, including promoting more sustainable management of the cotton fields that function as important tiger corridors. In addition to supporting healthier, more productive ecosystems— farmers use organic materials instead of chemical fertilizers or pesticides—growing this high-yield crop gives farmers a financial incentive to protect the landscape rather than convert it for uses that are less hospitable to roaming tigers.

WWF is also engaging with local governments and forest departments to secure the corridor: Projects include restoring habitat around exhausted coal mines and encouraging the construction of underpasses that allow wildlife to cross safely beneath roadways.

“By us taking proactive measures,” Thatte says, “the tiger population and the human population can grow, and thrive, together.” — Kirsten Weir

illustration of the words Snow leopard© SEEMA SURANA

Snow leopard Panthera uncia

Snow leopard looking at camera, snowy mountains in background
  • IUCN Status
  • Estimated Population
  • Current range
    Snow leopards’ habitat range extends across 12 countries and covers nearly 772,204 square miles in Asia’s high mountains, including the steep, formidable terrain of the Himalayas and the Tibetan Plateau.
  • Habitat threats
    The expansion of livestock herding and grazing in snow leopard habitats has intensified conflicts between people and snow leopards—just one reason the species’ population has dropped 10% in the past three generations.

The rugged peaks and crags of the Himalayas are among the most unforgiving landscapes on Earth. Go high enough and life seems to stop; the only plants are hardy grasses and shrubs that can find purchase among the windswept rocks. It’s here in this spartan environment that snow leopards are found.

Known as “ghosts of the mountains” owing to their elusive nature and ability to blend in with their surroundings, snow leopards are notoriously difficult to study—less than 23% of their total range has been researched. “Because they live in very high, very remote places, it’s really difficult to even get up there to set camera traps,” says Nilanga Jayasinghe, a wildlife conservation manager focused on Asian species at WWF.

But more knowledge of where snow leopards live and roam is essential to protecting them, so researchers concentrate on figuring out how many cats there are, and where. In 2017, the government of Nepal, in collaboration with WWF and other organizations, released a sweeping study identifying 14 potential corridors and 11 critical sites frequented by snow leopards across the country’s Eastern Himalayas. In 2021, WWF helped to GPS collar two cats in Nepal to monitor their range and movement across borders—valuable data for developing effective landscape-level conservation plans. Most recently, researchers using camera traps in Mongolia counted more than 950 snow leopards.

Although their precise numbers remain unknown, researchers estimate that there could be fewer than 6,500 of the cats left in the wild, around 400 of which live in Nepal. What is known is that climate change, poaching, habitat loss and fragmentation, encroaching livestock populations, and conflict with humans have decimated their populations. Another issue is the decline of natural prey—especially wild sheep and goats—due to illegal or unsustainable hunting, mining, and other pressures. As wild prey populations decrease or are driven out of snow leopard habitat, explains Jayasinghe, the cats are left instead to hunt livestock, which can in turn lead to retaliatory killing by herders.

Reducing these human-wildlife conflicts is a key focus for WWF, says Sheren Shrestha, a senior program officer with WWF-Nepal. Because 80% of snow leopard range overlaps with areas where the primary religion is Buddhism, he and his team have been working with local faith leaders to reshape local perception of the animals. “Buddhism is a religion of peace,” he says. “In that sense, Buddhism can become a strong basis for conservation as well.”

At the same time, he says, it’s important to understand the suffering caused when a snow leopard kills livestock: “Imagine having your entire livelihood taken away in one night.”

To address the material components of human-leopard conflict, WWF-Nepal’s outreach also involves practical solutions such as helping herders to improve their livestock corrals, acquire insurance, and apply for government financial relief in the event of livestock losses.

Protecting snow leopards involves protecting people, too. That’s why WWF’s approach includes diversifying local incomes through alternative livelihoods, such as ecotourism, and helping to build more climate-resilient communities.

“In conservation, we’re trying to understand these interconnections to find the right solutions. Buddhist philosophy has been talking about interconnectedness for generations,” Shrestha says. “There’s a lot we want to learn from that.” — Lauren Evans

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