President's Letter: Protecting big cats

Carter Roberts headshot

Carter Roberts
President & CEO, WWF-US

Dead of winter 2011 when I got the call inviting me to come quickly to Kathmandu to help collar a young male tiger and drive him across the country. This was part of a broader relocation effort to reestablish tigers in their historical range; nobody says no to such a thing. So I jumped on a plane in a Chicago blizzard, flew to Istanbul and then on to Kathmandu, then drove west to Chitwan National Park. I’ll never forget the sound of the tiger’s roar at close range—nor the bulk of his massive paws, the silky softness of his hair, or the long nighttime journey to Bardia National Park.

No accident we were there. It was all part of the 2010 commitment of 13 tiger-range states to double the population of wild tigers by 2022 in an initiative known as Tx2. And today, at the end of that initiative, Nepal’s tiger population has nearly tripled to an estimated 355 individuals. The rise is a result of protecting key habitats and corridors, delivering economic benefits for local communities, and hefty enforcement in support of the country’s laws against wildlife trade. In India, the wild tiger population has more than doubled from its 2008 baseline, and the country is home to about 70% of the world’s wild tigers. Unfortunately, those gains are offset by tiger losses elsewhere—but we still bent the curve. And nine decades of population loss now turns upward with an impressive increase in global population.

Nothing inspires imitation like success, and our dream is to repeat Tx2 in Latin America with that continent’s apex predator, Panthera onca—the jaguar. The cat is stealthy, powerful, and generally nocturnal, with a habitat that stretches across 18 countries from northern Mexico to Argentina. The majestic jaguar is a symbol of power for many Latin American cultures. It represents the power of nature and is seen as the protector of the rain forest.

“We need success stories to capture the imagination and inspire support.”

Carter Roberts

After many years of trying, I can testify that you can’t just go find a jaguar; instead, if you are lucky, a jaguar will choose to reveal itself to you. Jaguars have crossed my line of sight twice. The first was at dusk in Guatemala’s Tikal National Park. The second appeared on the massive Tapajos River in the southwest Amazon. We were there to finalize creation of the historic Amazon Region Protected Area system. As we paddled canoes on the last morning, we spied a dark shape swimming toward shore across the river’s immense flow. Bright yellow eyes bobbed up and down and telltale rosettes were barely visible in the sun on its black fur. Our eyes followed as the jaguar hauled itself out of the river, shook off water like a dog, and disappeared into the forest without a sound.

That rare sighting was made possible because of the connectivity of the broader Amazon basin, where people with courage to match this cat’s have painstakingly developed a massive network of parks equal to one and a half times the size of California. The strengthening of an even larger network of Indigenous reserves, combined with the Forest Code and a soy moratorium, have driven down deforestation and, along with sustainable financing, kept the jaguar’s habitat safe.

But our work is far from done. Global and national forces now rear their ugly heads, and we need to prepare ourselves for a far bigger push. And we need success stories to capture the imagination and inspire support. Rebounding global tiger populations is one such story. With determination, creativity, and partnerships, we have it within our power to bend these curves. You can read more about our work with tigers, jaguars, and other big cats.

Carter Roberts

President & CEO

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