World Wildlife Day digital summit: youth conservationists fight for big cats
By Katelyn Roett, originally published on Landscapes News
Big cats, including cheetahs, jaguars, leopards, lions, pumas, snow leopards and tigers, are under threat from habitat loss, climate change, poaching, illicit trafficking and human-wildlife conflict, said U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres in a U.N. World Wildlife Day (WWD) statement on Saturday.
“We are the cause of their decline, so we can also be their salvation,” Guterres said.
"Ultimately, the solution to saving big cats and other threatened and endangered species is conservation policy based on sound science and the rule of law,” he added. “It must also give full consideration to the needs of local people. When local communities and economies benefit from wildlife conservation, strategies are much more likely to succeed.”
Big cats were the focus of a Youth for Wildlife Conservation (Y4WC) and Global Landscapes Forum (GLF) digital summit on the role of youth in big cat conservation on Saturday.
GLF youth leader Salina Abraham moderated the panel with Josephine Crouch, wildlife conservationist and Y4WC co-director. Panellists included Kate Vanelli with the Cheetah Conservation Fund, Mingyu Lui from Y4WC, master’s student Soham Pattekar from Britain’s University of Kent, Stephanie Bradley with the Wild Learning Project and independent wildlife consultant Kelly Donathan.
“Big cats could disappear under our watch, with our generation, so it’s on us to make sure they don’t,” Vanelli said.
For example, endangered snow leopards, which inhabit the Himalayas, face threats from poaching and persecution from herders, panellists said.
“Snow leopards, like all other big cats, are a keystone species,” said Liu, a student at Peking University and Y4WC researcher, during the summit. “They are at the top of the food chain and so important for ecosystems globally.”
Liu studies snow leopards, which have been increasingly hard pressed to find food in the wild due to competition with and competition from feral Tibetan mastiff dogs.
“Having the support of local communities is so important, they are the real experts and helped us get great data,” Liu said. “At first people didn’t believe that we wanted to save the snow leopards – they thought we were poachers – but once it became clear we were trying to protect the leopards a lot of young people started to join in and help us because they thought it was cool.”
Snow leopards, like all other big cats discussed in the session, are losing their natural food source due to human activity, which forces them to start killing livestock, and ends with herders killing them.
“In one community, we used art and cartoons to explain to elementary school children what to do if they see a leopard,” said Pattekar, who researched human-leopard conflict in India. “They then go home and share this knowledge with their families, which helps mitigate the degree of attacks on humans and killing of leopards.”
Coexistence with humans, even in urban and suburban areas is possible to an extent, when given protected spaces like in the middle of Mumbai’s national park, where about 40 leopards live.
Education at a young age is critical, said session participant Bradley, who has been educating youth about wildlife for the last decade through the use of media and “bio-facts” that allow students to directly interact with skulls, skins and other metaphor materials.
Big cats can have big costs for humans too; when big cats have been displaced or reduced in areas taken over by humans, overpopulation of their prey can become overwhelming and costly to communities.
For example, researchers at the University of Washington found that within 30 years of cougars being reintroduced into the eastern United States, they could thin deer populations and reduce vehicle collisions by 22 percent, preventing 680 injuries and $50 million in costs annually.
“Ecotourism is another big incentive to communities,” Vanelli said. “Villages that interact with ecotourists and earn a livelihood from protecting big cats place a much higher value on conservation.”
However, Donithan emphasized the need for travellers – a large portion of whom are young adults – to educate themselves on responsible ecotourism.
“When you go to Thailand, think about the cost of going to a “tiger temple” and what that means for an animal,” she said. “Instead, go to a conservation area and see them in their natural habitat – not a place where they are chained and trapped.”
Wild cats have been around for about 30 million years, outliving many of the evolutionary competitors and are intertwined with the earliest moments of human history. Young conservationists today are determined to ensure they are not the last generation to live with them.